Motivational Boarding School

Creating a Close-Knit Student Body in the Age of Social Media

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One of the defining features of our students’ experience at Oak Hill Academy is the sense of community and engagement with each other that we enjoy.  All boarding schools tout this as one of the big advantages of boarding school over other educational environments.  But at OHA, we feel that what is created each year is special – even in this context.

From campus tours that I conduct as part of the admission process, a recognition that our students are close with each other – and with the faculty and staff – is one of the top takeaways.  Our students use the term “family” in a way that I could not for fear of sounding like a “salesman.”  (That’s one of the reasons I love involving our current students on prospective family tours – they can say things I can’t!)

Over the 14 years I’ve worked at OHA (plus the important senior year I spent as a student here), I’ve thought about why we are so tight-knit.  I have several theories:

  • Our location in the picturesque, but rural, Blue Ridge Mountains leads to a mentality that we better take care of each other, since we’re all we’ve got.
  • We are small – 150 students – so EVERYBODY matters and has a place in the community.  A good deed or friendly gesture has an immediate impact on those around you.  This leads to being habitually aware of how we treat each other.
  • Our structured, conservative approach to cell phones, social media and other ubiquitous technology that is a part of teenage life leads to an engagement with the people around you that just isn’t possible for most teenagers today.

Let’s look at that last one a little closer.  This is the point in admissions where the parents typically smile and nod in agreement while the student frowns and wonders if they can survive with that condition.  Again, having our current students involved in tours is key.  Simply put, our students who have experienced life untethered from a cable or cell signal, overwhelmingly recognize the benefits:  more time for more productive activities, a sincere investment in the lives of their friends, less drama and judgement, and improved interpersonal (soft) skills.  The art of conversation is alive and well on our campus.

Our students do not have access to their cell phones during the week and social media is blocked from internet access on campus.  The recent policy adoption allowing cell phone access during the weekend (after the last academic class) is the result of a lot of careful consideration.  Taking into account feedback from recent graduates and recent studies, we concluded that college preparation should include more practice with responsible use of technology.  We did not want to jeopardize the environment of closeness we’ve enjoyed so we feel the importance of maintaining a focused, cell phone (and attendant social media)-free school week is important.

We anticipate there will be teachable moments aplenty as this policy is enacted.  However, as Dr. Groves, our Head of School, explains,  “Oak Hill Academy’s desire to continue to meet the needs of the contemporary student of a college prep boarding school … and to do so in tandem with the structure inherent to our historic mission—a mission that has proven so very successful.” 

Our school was founded in 1878 and we are engaged in preparing students for success in the 21st century so some policies require occasional, careful rebalancing.

 

Learning Differences are in Oak Hill Academy’s “Wheelhouse”

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As I often say, Oak Hill Academy occupies a very unique place on the boarding school spectrum.  We are college prep without being “sink or swim.”  We are skilled and experienced at working with students who have the intentions but, for a variety of reasons, have not learned to execute effectively.  Our kids are smart, they often just learn differently.  What we find, over and over, is that once a student tastes success, they want more of it.

While I do not portray Oak Hill Academy as a specific “learning disability school,” the fact is that we have a lot of experience in this area.  Oak Hill Academy’s small size and relational approach historically attracts a lot of inquiries from families with a student who may be struggling academically and are seeking a change in environment that addresses learning challenges.  It is not uncommon for applicants to come to us with a specialized learning plan, or an IEP as it is commonly known, and we often find that the majority of suggested accommodations are part of our normal course of business here.

In a classroom of 8-12 students, we can do that.  Individual strengths and comparative weaknesses are known, and more importantly addressed, by our teachers.  Relationships based on trust and a sense of investment abound in this environment, especially since most of our faculty live on campus with their own families.  The kids know us too!

This unique dynamic – students and teachers living together in a small community – also shows up in the amount of time we can dedicate to “shoulder to shoulder” coaching in addition to the classroom instruction time.  Our schedule includes a dedicated “8th period” for subject-specific tutorials, organizational check-ins, and homework remediation.  Our principal is also hands on through her management of the Resource Center, an administrative study hall to address executive and learning challenges across the curriculum.

Perhaps the most dynamic situation comes in the form of structure and a positive peer surrounding.  While we are definitely a college preparatory school (95% college acceptance for our students over the last 10 years), we are not the hyper competitive situation many associate with boarding school.  Our students like to study together and support each other’s success.  It is “cool” to do well and handle academic responsibility here.  Our students high-five each other as tests and quizzes are returned in class, often because they studied together!

The structure of afterschool support is complemented by the mandatory “quiet time” in the dorms where students are required to be in their rooms, independently working or in arranged peer tutoring.  The library is also available for use during the mandatory evening study time.

In small classes, learning styles are also recognized.  Material is presented in a variety of ways – visual, auditory, hands-on for example – before teachers move on.  The predominate teaching style at Oak Hill Academy is to facilitate dynamic class discussions.  The diversity of our student body makes this method particularly engaging and our students develop their “voice.” An emphasis on coaching the processes of writing across our curriculum means that they better express themselves and develop necessary skills to write well in college.

In this setting, maintaining this mission since 1878, Oak Hill Academy has developed an intentionality of working with students whose learning differences and personal habits flourish in our structured, supportive environment.  If you are seeking such a “turning point” for your student, please contact the Admission Office at mrodgers@oak-hill.net or call (276) 579-2619.

 

 

The February Challenge – Learning Perseverance

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I would like to share a devotion delivered this morning in our Monday morning faculty meeting today.  February is known in the boarding school world as “the toughest month” historically – the long Christmas Break (which, at Oak Hill Academy, is nearly 3 weeks long) is far in the rearview mirror and Spring Break (2 1/2 weeks long here) is still off on the horizon.  The days are shorter, the weather keeps a lot of outdoor activities at bay, we are in the “meat” of the curriculum, and in short, it is a tough month.  It is also the time that our students get great practice in learning how to develop what is one of our biggest goals for our students – perseverance and grit.  As the majority of our faculty and staff live on campus alongside our students, we are keenly aware of the challenges of February.

February 22 – Whew!

I was talking with an adult friend of mine the other evening who is taking the Real Estate Licensing test.  He was explaining how difficult it was to find the time, energy and work/family balance to study.  He remarked, “I wish I would’ve learned this stuff in school.”  I agreed with him, but the more I thought about it – we do, or we should learn this “stuff” in school.  A high school class on Real Estate Law is debatable, but one of the main things that we get out of a good education is the ability to meet the “stuff” of these kinds of challenges – balancing and persevering – in adulthood.  The more I thought about this conversation, I kind of seized upon this idea that at Oak Hill Academy, at our core, this is what we are really teaching our kids.  February is the month where this most obviously comes to light.

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In February, we find ourselves at the corner of “Shut Down Street” and “Push Through Avenue.”

Recently, I read an article in The NewYorker by Maria Konnikova about a study that attempted to identify the source of resiliency. How People Learn to Become Resilient   One of the points she makes is that it is difficult to study resiliency as it is a kind of “chicken or the egg” proposition.  Is resiliency already programmed inside of us waiting to be tested, or does it develop through being tested?

In the movie, Fight Club, the main character asks, “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?”

Jennifer E. Jones wrote a great commentary/devotional on the subject here:  Battle Wounds from the Good Fight  There are similarities between what happens in February with keeping our Christian Faith.  Fights involve a back and forth, ups and downs.  February at Oak Hill Academy is like that – we have our fun, but it also the time where we continue to push our students academically when many are trying to default to “shut down mode” and to top it off, we have several Saturday class days scheduled this month!

In the bigger picture of life, it often seems that as we attempt to grow in our spiritual walk, this world will fight us for it in this back and forth way too.

In any fight, responses seem to fall into one of three categories:

  1. Defaulting into negative self-talk and “beating ourselves up”
  2. Going on the defensive and simply covering up and just enduring the flurry
  3. We can get on the offensive and push through – to “fight” remembering God’s promise that no weapon formed against you will succeed at taking you down (Isaish 54:17)

Back to our students:  One thing I try to keep in mind is that I (we), have way more experience with the type of “February Fight” our students are facing right now. Overwhelmingly, our students come to Oak Hill Academy with their background and main experience in life to this point being a default to “options 1 or 2.”  I try to keep this in mind, especially in February.

Mark my words – the school year gets easier, the “bounce” in our step returns. I used to think it was as simple as the improved weather of Spring (I’m still sure that is a big factor). But today, I’d like to focus on the possibility that it is in large part due to the realization by our kids that they have fought through.  They’ve come to know themselves a little better because they’ve been in a “fight.” They’ve pushed through.  That’s powerful.

We, with some age and experience on our sides, have fought through many “Februaries of our Christian Walk” and my hope is that we can use it to grow and know ourselves better as we choose option 3, to fight through with God’s help and mercy.  The opportunities to be examples and encouragers to our students who are learning more about this option are plentiful in February and throughout the school year.

I Timothy 6:12:  Fight the good fight of faith.  Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

 

Thanksgiving Break comes to Oak Hill Academy

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The boarding school lifestyle is built around milestones of the school year – The first open weekend, the first major holiday break or exam week, for example.  The 2015-16 school year, now 2 1/2 months in, has been filled with such milestones, big and small.  Almost unanimously, our students have been surprised at how quickly we have arrived at our first major break of the school year:  a 10-day break for Thanksgiving.  That is a really good sign of a productive year.

Our student body comes from many far-flung places and our breaks need to be significant to accommodate travel schedules.  With over 15 countries and over 20 states represented, many of our students fly home or are invited by close friends they’ve made at Oak Hill Academy to enjoy the holidays with their families.  We’ve become logistics experts in assisting with travel plans for our students over the years.  It is an exciting time on “The Hill” today and I wanted to share some images from today’s departure for Thanksgiving Break 2015!

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time for a quick goodbye before departing for break

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Bus Charters are used to transport those students flying from Charlotte, NC

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Boarding School – “At Oak Hill Academy, nothing is invisible”

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I heard the above said by a student at Oak Hill Academy yesterday and it struck me as significant.  It stuck with me most of the day and the more I thought about it, like peeling the layers of an onion, its truth became more and more apparent.  I don’t think he was trying to be profound, and the context in which he said it was pretty mundane, but he said it with sincerity and a sense of surety – he was stating a fact.

From an academic standpoint, at Oak Hill Academy nothing IS invisible.  Our small class sizes (8-10 on average) mean students can’t hide from a teacher or “take a day off.”  Good luck getting away with incomplete homework (I think that was the context of the original statement).  Learning styles are not ignored – as our teachers learn each student’s strengths and weaknesses, we can become very personal with our approach.  With our webgrader program, daily performance is communicated back to the student AND THEIR PARENTS, cementing the idea that every day matters.  Back to the small class size, if a lesson doesn’t land on a student, our teachers know it – that is what the 8th period tutorials that happen every day are for (think of it as “office hours” for our teachers).  Students can be brought in, notebooks are checked, and a student receives personal attention.  They know they are not invisible – and our students like that!

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From a social standpoint, students are not invisible to their peers.  Nobody sits alone in our cafeteria – grade level doesn’t matter socially here.  Our students are engaged in each other’s lives and actually enjoy helping each other through the inevitable bumps of a school year.  They often study together.  Our location contributes to this.  We are located in a beautiful area of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwestern Virginia and there is no “mall across the street.”  Our kids look around and know that we are all they’ve got, so we had better take care of each other.  And they do.

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From a community standpoint, there is a lot of structure and a lot of “eyes on campus.”  The majority of our faculty and staff live on campus with their own families and faculty housing dots campus.  We are everywhere!  We enjoy knowing our students outside of class as much as in class and they get to know our own children and even our family pets!  This gives incredible opportunity to be there for our students with unlimited, informal, teachable moments.  There are resident managers who live with the students in the dorm.  Yes, we are everywhere.

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We are a small boarding school and this is significant.  Everyone is plugged into one or more of the many clubs and activities taking place each afternoon.  Weekends are filled with on-campus social activities and off-campus trip offerings. Students discover their talents and interests and each student has a real place in our community.  As one student put it to me recently, in my old school I was my “school self” and then I had my “home self” but here, I can BE MYSELF.

“At Oak Hill Academy, nothing is invisible.”  What a true statement!

 

 

Struggling Students, Academic Support and Oak Hill Academy

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A common theme among admission calls I receive at Oak Hill Academy is the general thought that “college is right around the corner and my son/daughter is not ready.”  As a truly college prep boarding school (95% college acceptance), Oak Hill Academy really excels at working with students with college-bound intentions who may not have the transcript, habits or mindset in place to maximize that ambition.

Our college-prep curriculum and rigor is supported by several academic support components:

  • Our small class sizes (8-10 on average) promotes strong relationships between teachers and students. This is often the key to unlocking a student’s potential – a teacher who takes the time to address their particular learning style and engages the student personally.  Pretty quickly our students have the epiphany that “something is different” with their classroom experience.
  • Relationships are further cemented through our 8th period tutorial program.  Our teachers, most of whom live on campus themselves, are available outside of class time.  Each day, office hours are built into the academic schedule allowing teachers to call students in for specific reasons that we pick up on class – a homework deficiency or a confused look for example – and to give some shoulder to shoulder coaching.  Students also regularly use this time to get tutoring for an upcoming test or quiz.  Questions from students do not go unanswered…or unasked.
  • Regularly scheduled tutorial sessions are provided for students who are struggling or working under potential in a class.
  • Our Resource Center supports learning needs across the curriculum.  Issues such as time management, critical reading, note-taking, and organization are improved through this guided after school program.  Students can use this to get a jump on homework or develop a study plan for the evening study time with guidance and coaching from a faculty member.
  • All of this is supported by the independent study time that is mandatory in our dorms each evening.  Students also use this opportunity to form study groups or use peer-mentors.  Our students love to study together!

Oak Hill Academy offers a unique approach in the college-prep, boarding school world.  If you are looking for a turning point in your student’s high school experience, I invite you call or email Director of Admission, Mike Rodgers for a personal discussionWith rolling admission, quality applicants are still being considered throughout the first semester.

 

Sunrise at Oak Hill Academy

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Our Head of School, Dr. Groves shared this photo with me of the sunrise taken from the back of campus this morning.  First of all, what a view we have up here on “The Hill!”  Secondly, it was very apropos of the great start to the school year we’ve enjoyed this week.  The sun is rising on the 137th school year at Oak Hill Academy and we couldn’t feel more blessed.