Oak Hill Academy Admission Desk

Analyzing the “Every Student Succeeds Act” and What a Good Boarding School Offers

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In 2002, the “No Child Left Behind Act” was signed into law.  At the time, I was a teacher in a small public school in rural Oklahoma and, when the dust settled, I remember having very mixed emotions.  On the one hand, the information-gathering focus of the law was encouraging – we seemed to be on the path of being able to quantify our students’ needs and shortcomings.  On the other hand, a focus on standardized test performance seemed ill-fated.  I remember my colleagues and I picturing a classroom where content and relevancy would be dictated by the question “will that be on the end of the year test?”  To put it mildly, the teachers I taught with were fearful of losing the “teachable” moments where the discovery of learning and self-actualization that comes with an engaging classroom would be replaced with “teaching to a test.”  The fact that school funding would be tied to this dynamic was scary.  We lamented that the focus did not seem to on the child, but rather the school district – we began to refer to it as the “The No School Left Behind Act.”

Flash forward to 2015 and many of the initial fears of NCLB have been realized.  Good-intentioned as it was, in the rush for school performance numbers, many teachers became disillusioned and children were still being left behind.  On December 10, 2015 the “Every Child Succeeds Act” (ESSA) was signed into law, representing the culmination of 4+ years of massive effort from Educators and Law-Makers (from both sides of the aisle) to improve upon the ideas of NCLB.  I, for one, applaud the shift in focus away from standardized test scores and toward classroom quality that this law represents.  It’s encouraging in many ways (For a summary see: http://www.ed.gov/essa). Still, many families (with the financial means and inclination) will continue to compare the public school experience and the opportunities available in a private, boarding school environment.

In my current position as Director of Admission at Oak Hill Academy, I spend a lot of time with people at this juncture.  In my own education background, I attended both a large public high school and two small boarding high schools and, in my career, I’ve taught in both settings.  Oak Hill Academy occupies a very unique position in the boarding school world – college-prep, but not “sink or swim” and our niche is in working with students who have not had the kind of success of which they are capable and who may have become unmotivated. Surely, my perspective here is shaped by this mission and the opinions expressed are my own.

Here, I’d like to offer some insight, using some of the key features of ESSA, for those considering Boarding School as an opportunity, that for some students and families, can represent a better educational fit.  I must stress up front that there is a spectrum of boarding schools, each with a different culture, focus and mission and for those considering boarding school, choosing one should come down to knowing your child’s needs and personality and knowing the prospective school well.  It is a big decision and far from a “cookie cutter” proposition.  The following may help you form the questions that guide your research and consideration.

ESSA requires high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers.

For the motivated student in public school, this is great news – it will lead to more challenging and, probably, more engaging classrooms.  But for unmotivated students, or those with learning styles that are difficult to address in large classroom settings, this could widen the performance gap.

As for motivation toward college success?  For students, boarding school often feels like a huge “step toward college” and can be essential in building confidence that leads to motivation and college aspiration.  Being away from home can be empowering in this regard.  At Oak Hill Academy, I see students who come to own their success and want more of it – largely because they are building the self-confidence that comes from being away from home.  There’s a safety net of structure (lights out, school-wide study time built into the schedule, afterschool tutorials), but the students are more likely to “own” their educational experience.

ESSA ensures that vital information is provided to educators, families, students, and communities through annual statewide assessments that measure students’ progress toward those high standards.

Here again, the big advantage of small boarding schools is classroom size.  This feedback on student progress is crucial, and in a classroom size of 20-30 students (or more), testing is required to obtain this information.  At Oak Hill Academy and other small boarding schools with class sizes of 10-12 students, the relational aspect of knowing your student well (and vice versa) means that progress is more organically measurable.  Classroom assessment is done on a daily a basis through discussion, direct interaction and a wider variety of learning style engagement.

In a small boarding school environment, interpersonal intelligence and social development can be the most observable areas of growth – apart from academic standards of progress.  An engaging campus life is a big benefit of a good boarding school.  Through exposure to a wide variety of afterschool and weekend activities, students can develop new passions and the “soft skills” of social intelligence.  In a large-school setting, the door to these opportunities are often guarded by the “bouncers” of confidence, social pressure, or even transportation logistics.  In a small boarding school, like Oak Hill Academy, there is a much greater sense of belonging to a community that can make these activities more accessible.

ESSA maintains an expectation that there will be accountability and action to effect positive change in our lowest-performing schools, where groups of students are not making progress…

Clearly this is emphasizing teacher accountability and, for good teachers, this is not something to fear.  I often point out to prospective students that a small boarding school (where we live together 24/7 for long stretches of time) will expose your areas of weakness AND force you to deal with them.  This is also true for our faculty.  In large school districts, with tenure possible, it is often exceedingly difficult to identify and improve underperforming teachers even with testing standards in place.  Often the best aspects of teaching are not quantifiable such as how we build self confidence, self esteem, mentor and, in general, lift up our students.  These things require an environment where relationships are a focus.  This is difficult (not impossible) to achieve in large public school settings, but it is next to impossible to assess in a large faculty.  Small boarding schools like Oak Hill Academy, with 150 students and a teaching faculty of 22, have a student to teacher ratio that ensures these relational aspects are real and on display.  It has allowed building (and culling when necessary) a staff that is mission-appropriate.

The newly enacted ESSA represents a great step forward in addressing the challenges facing our public school system.  But, there will always be a place for the boarding school option as an alternative.  If you or your student is considering boarding school, hopefully these thoughts can add to the discussion about what makes a boarding school “good.”  More importantly, it can help guide your search for a boarding school that is a “good” fit.  I invite you to contact me to discuss this topic or Oak Hill Academy specifically and to learn more about your student.

Mike Rodgers, Oak Hill Academy (276) 579-2619 or mrodgers@oak-hill.net

 

Boarding School Morning Devotions: “Why We Teach”

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One of the hallmarks of campus life at Oak Hill Academy is that we start each school day, together as a school community, in homeroom in the Chapel.  We open the day in short prayer and a devotion is delivered by different members of the school community – including students on Friday.  Our campus minister gave this morning’s devotion, and it was perhaps more obviously linked to a Bible verse than usual.  I found it a  powerful message on a lot of levels.  As our students prepare for mid-term exams later this week, it was a good challenge to finish strong and to let them know that our faculty is in their corner to help them do just that.  I also feel it gives a good insight to the campus culture and the approach our teachers take in establishing a very relational classroom experience for our students.

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Our Head of School, Dr. Groves, greeting students before homeroom.

Please see the transcript of the following devotion, delivered this morning by Rev. Doug Turnmire, our campus minister and faculty member.

Ephesians 4:11-12, “It was he (Jesus the Christ) who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we reach all unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

Working with adolescents it is common to hear them talk about what they want to do in life. I guess we’ve all had those discussions.  As a kid I wanted to be an archaeologist.  I’m still fascinated by what past civilizations reveal to us about our common humanity.

Saturday night some of us went Christmas caroling. We had a lovely time.  I enjoyed it more and more as we went from house to house.  I drove a van with students, and when I drive with students I usually tune out their conversations.  Think about others stuff, or at least pay attention to driving so as to not hit any deer.  But Saturday night a conversation caught my ear.  It was another “what do you want to do in life” discussions, and one person said, “I don’t want to be a teacher.  That takes too much patience.  I don’t know how teachers put up with us.  I couldn’t do it.”

I don’t know about other teachers, but there are days I don’t know if I can do it. I became a teacher by accident.  Teaching came with the job of being the school chaplain and pastor of Young’s Chapel.  Before coming here I spent a year in a chaplain residency program at a major trauma hospital.  When I interviewed for the position I thought, “ I’ve always liked school.  I’ll give teaching a shot.”  Probably not the best reason to be a teacher.

Why teach? True or False: For the money….

We teach because we believe teaching saves humanity. We teach because we believe you deserve the ability to think, to discover your talents, to uncover your creativity.  We teach because each generation deserves the chance to make the world a better place than the previous generation.  We teach to you not only the ability to survive, but to thrive, and create hope for the generation after you.  We teach so we will not live in ignorance because ignorance leads to fear; fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; and hate leads to suffering (to quote Yoda.)

We teach because we believe each of you has potential you have not appreciated, or you have not discovered. We teach because we believe God gives each of us talents to use for ourselves and for others.  We teach because we believe each of you is a child of God, created in God’s image, loved by God.  And God has given us the opportunity and responsibility to use our gifts wisely.  We teach so you are prepared to work and serve in our world.

Mr. Welch and Oliver 2

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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The Dorms of Oak Hill Academy

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Please check out a short slide show highlighting the dormitories of Oak Hill Academy:

Oak Hill Academy Stories: Chase Jones, class of 2012

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I first met Chase when he entered my first period class as a mid-semester enrollment.  “The new kid.”  He was not thrilled (an understatement) about the big change a new school meant and, although respectful, he was not quick to engage.

But, as is so often the case at Oak Hill Academy, the “new” kid quickly began to be accepted by his peers and settle in socially.  The academic settling in was not so instantaneous.  Chase had been told in his old school to lower his goals for himself, he had struggled to find engagement in the classroom and his image of himself had eroded.  In short, he was feeling quite “beat up,” despite tremendous support from his family.  His Mom was at her wits end to provide an opportunity for Chase to realize his potential.

Flash forward a few months and Chase had begun to take pride in staying on top of his work, he found ways to engage himself socially and in extracurricular activities and was showing more confidence in the classroom.  I will always remember the day, in class, that he offered to be the manager for the Lady Warriors basketball team which I was then coaching.  I knew two things at that point: 1. He had committed to coming back the next year, and was even looking forward to it – a huge step from when he had arrived  and 2. I would be spending a lot of time on the bus and on the road with this kid!

From this relationship, I learned a lot about Chase’s evolving goals for himself.  I watched as he went from a kid who had been told to lower his expectations for college and who had correspondingly shied away from responsibility and structure to a young man who began exploring future plans that included applying to The Citadel, that very prestigious and selective college institution.  To make it at the Citadel, tremendous discipline and perseverance is required.  It is not for everybody. This represented the change from a kid who ran from responsibility to a young man who was now running toward it!  He was not choosing the easy path.

I’ve kept in touch with Chase as he goes through his journey at The Citadel – knowing where he came from and taking immense pleasure as he passed each milestone there.  He’s told me many times that the relationships (I’m happy to be included here!) that he made with teachers and peers at Oak Hill Academy was his turning point.  He came to believe in himself because others around him did so first.

Recently, Chase’s mom shared this with us:

We just spent the most glorious weekend at The Citadel watching Chase get his ring. Looking at the attached pic, I bet if Coach Smith knew he had that kind of verticality, he may have signed him up! 

As usual when we have these milestones in life, we reflect on times when things were not as good/ easy. then, we always come back to OHA and the positive effect that had on his trajectory and life. He graduates in May, so will be interesting to see where life takes him next. For now, we are relishing this moment, and realize it wouldn’t have been possible without you folks.

 Please know the difference you are making in these young people’s’ lives every day.

Chase at Citadel

(That’s Chase getting some serious air)

 

The Pace of the School Year at Oak Hill Academy Mirrors College

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Oak Hill Academy Boarding School

As our students just returned from the first “open weekend” of the year, I’m reminded of a couple of things.  The first is how necessary these breaks are for everyone on “The Hill.”  Our students have acclimated to the school year and the consistent routine was on the verge of becoming “the grind.”  An open weekend changes that.  A disclaimer:  As our student body represents 28 States and 19 Countries, not all students left campus.  For those students who remained, social activities, off-campus trips and good old-fashioned down time was a great respite too.  I could sense the re-energized mood in homeroom today.

The second thing I’m reminded of is how the Oak Hill Academy school year is similar to the typical college schedule.  Our school calendar offers three major breaks when campus closes and students must leave campus – to join family trips, return home to reconnect with family and friends, or in the case of many of our international students, to join a host family for a cultural experience.  In many cases, these scenarios are combined – students become close and often families will invite an international student to join them for significant breaks.  (Thanksgiving, Christmas and Spring Break).

Open weekends are those in which we do not have the typical half-day of classes on Saturday and students also get a Monday or Friday off (In the case of mid-winter break in February, they get both).  Part of what we are teaching with this schedule, intentionally and organically, is that life requires, at times, that gratification be delayed.  While they are on campus between breaks, they are busy.  Breaks are frequent enough that there is always one within sight, but there is no “shut down” as we approach those breaks.  Educational psychologists will call this grit.  Educators will call this perseverance.  Parents will understand this as a necessary part of our students’ maturation toward college rigor and life.

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!