Pisgah on The Buncombe Side- At the Foot of the Mountain - TribPapers

Pisgah on The Buncombe Side- At the Foot of the Mountain


Candler – By ME Hughes-

Refurbished Pisgah Elementary School in Candler, N.C., is the centerpiece of a 13-acre campus near Mount Pisgah, which also lends its name to Pisgah High in neighboring Haywood County.

How a small (188 students) Buncombe County school functions and thrives in an outlying area is no mystery to the people who live and work there.

One well-connected local is Pisgah principal Katie Harris, a former K-5 student at the elementary school through 1997 when she was Katie Blankenship. The home she shares with her husband and two children is a two-minute drive from the school, one of four first-level grade schools that feed Enka High.

Harris repeated the assertion from her school’s website that Pisgah teachers are “the best in the state,” and there are reasons for her assessment beyond local pride. In a community that’s more distant from industry and large-scale commerce, Pisgah was named a National Blue Ribbon School in 2016, when a majority of its students were, and still are, classified as economically disadvantaged. Three Pisgah teachers have been named Enka District Teachers of the Year in Buncombe County since 2019.

“They are knowledgeable beyond the classroom,” said Harris of her teaching staff and other personnel. “They are all invested in the students and whatever the students need. They’re not just here to teach.

“We have one who drives almost an hour to work here, and [she] has worked here 22 years,” Harris said of third-grade teacher Stacey Pavlina, Pisgah’s current Teacher of the Year.

Harris applied for positions in the Enka district because, she said, “I wanted to give back to where I grew up. When I applied to be a principal … this is where I was placed. At the time they didn’t know I went to school here.

“I love the kids here, love the community. It’s where my heart is.”

Pisgah’s main office is occupied by two more alumni, Data Manager Angie Ford and Bookkeeper / Secretary Tina Smith. Smith returned to the school after spending 14 years there as a teacher assistant, and three years at Johnston Elementary in west Asheville. “All my kids came to school here, my three kids,” she said. “When my youngest child left here, I left Pisgah, went to work at my local church, and did that for eight years. But when this position came back, a few of the staff called me and said, ‘This position is available, and [we want to see] if you’re interested.’

“This school had such an influence on my family, my children and me, and it’s great to be back here and have that same influence on [other] kids from a different position.”

Pisgah’s pristine campus includes a fitness trail that’s well worn by the community at large. The one-level buildings surround the countryside’s grasslands, steep inclines and rolling hills, with rustic scenery that adds foliage in springtime and color in autumn. Within that setting are outdoor classrooms that generate interest among children ages 5 to 10.

Mount Pisgah, the tall summit in the school’s scenic background, shares space with Buncombe and Haywood counties and is another five minutes west. “We’re right at the foot of Pisgah,” says Harris, now in her third year as the school’s principal.

The prominent broadcast tower on top of Mt. Pisgah distinguishes the peak from the surrounding mountains and gives travelers a virtual guidepost to the school and community.

“It’s a very special place,” Harris says of Pisgah Elementary. “Everyone is family here. We take care of each other.”

Many homes in the district provide rich farmland to homeowners who want to raise crops and livestock. The school’s counselor,Tara Ross-Downey, grows and sells peppers through Firehouse Bottling Company, which she co-owns with her husband, with their partnered brand Smoking J’s Fiery Foods.

“There’s a lot of land here. It’s very rural,” Harris says. “There are a lot of farms around this area.”

Common interests and strong relationships keep the community close and connected. “This is a generational school,” Harris continued. “You do see a lot of families that – their parents went here and their kids go here, and then their grandkids go here.

“But we also have those [whose parents] have never gone here. They’ve moved here. This is where they find their home. They love the landscape … the scenery.”

Former students who are graduating seniors at Enka do a Graduation Walk before getting their diplomas in the spring. Those who came up through a local feeder school do the Walks at their first schools.

“They walk the halls of their elementary school, and we have paintings that hang up on the wall,” said Harris. “You get to see the impact of what they’ve done. It’s a tradition in this district.”