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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Oak Hill Academy Summer Session: Let the journey begin!

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Today marks the first day of summer session.  This is a great opportunity for students to tackle a difficult subject and give it their undivided focus, for students to pursue grade improvement by re-taking a class, and, for some, a chance to begin their Oak Hill careers in an even smaller, personal environment.  The summer session has proven to be a great starting point for many Oak Hill students.  They are excited about a fresh academic start, making new friends, and, for many, being away from home for an extended time for the first time.

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The welcoming committee!

From my perspective in Admissions, the reason I am most excited for them has to do with their self-image.  This is a very difficult thing for many students to articulate, but they are excited by the opportunity before them to redefine themselves.  A fresh academic start, a new peer group, new relationships with teachers, and a chance to become who they want to be outside of the family dynamic is exciting!  Of course, these things still happen with a Fall enrollment, but the change is compacted and highly visible during the 5-week summer session and this is why I am so excited today.  I see how nervous many of them are today and I know how, in just a few short days, they will be hitting their stride.  They come to see themselves very differently through this experience and being a part of this journey as the Director of Admission is the most rewarding part of the job.

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Oak Hill Academy between the sessions

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Oak Hill Academy is in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, in the Appalachian Highlands.  I live in a beautiful place.  This is a fact that I often took for granted until I started giving tours in the Admission Department and seeing the campus and surrounding beauty through the “new eyes” of prospective parents and applicants changed that.

As I write this, the rushed excitement of our final school days of 2014-15 and the “pomp and circumstance” of graduation is now 3 weeks past.  Campus has gotten extremely quiet and this has put me in a reflective mood.  Most of the faculty and staff live on campus, but the first several weeks of summer are a time for family vacations.  Have I mentioned that campus is quiet?

I am accepting applications and conducting tours throughout the summer – I’m available and keeping regular office hours.  If you are considering Oak Hill Academy for your student, I encourage you to contact me to set up a campus visit as I meet with families individually and do not do “open houses.”  However, I encourage you to target June 22-July 24, during our summer school session, for your visit.  Our summer session brings students back on campus, allows new students a great place to start, and offers an excellent opportunity for visitors to see school in session.  I’m very excited to welcome students back on campus June 22 because, as I show campus between sessions, it makes me miss the impressiveness of “who” we are.  Students, I miss you, and I look forward to seeing the campus look like this again soon:

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Oak Hill Academy Stories (#5): Ben Powell ’05 – TV Reporter

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Some students have so much personality that you know their story is going to be interesting.  Ben Powell was that kind of student at Oak Hill Academy, making his mark as the student body president and official “hype” man of the Warriors basketball program before graduating in 2005.  As he has been an on-air news reporter the past 5 years in North Carolina, he has been fairly easy to follow.  I was very excited to learn recently that his talents have brought him to WFMY News 2, in nearby Greensboro, NC.  Imagine how proud we are to see our guy, Ben, on an almost nightly basis now!

Ben Powell reporting

Ben received his Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Studies from UNC-Wilmington and hit the ground running.  Starting off as a production assistant at WECT-TV 6 in Wilmington, NC, Ben quickly worked his way up to Weekend Anchor.  He earned several awards for broadcast excellence from the Radio Television Digital News Association during his time there.  He is now the Multi-Media Journalist for News 2.

I recently caught up with Ben to discuss his time at Oak Hill Academy and the impact he feels that has had on his life.

What have been the lasting benefits of Oak Hill Academy?

Looking back, I know I developed several character traits there.  Character, integrity, discipline and respect – just to name a few.  I was pretty direction-less when I arrived in 8th grade.  Being part of a close-knit community allowed me to grow.

Now that you have some perspective, what makes OHA special?

It’s special because the teachers there really care about you.  Everyone from Administrators to dorm parents really want you to succeed.  All a student needs is the effort because you have the resources and support – and you leave with a huge reward…your dignity (and a meaningful diploma!)

635576065809585426-ben-powell-wfmyBen Powell behind the scenes

Would you recommend Oak Hill Academy to prospective families with a student like you were?

I would definitely recommend this experience.  Although it is a huge lifestyle change and it does take some getting used to things like Saturday school and cell phone restrictions, in the end it is so worth it.  You’ll never forget the things you learn about yourself and the relationships you form there.

From your bio, I see that you’ve done some pretty cool things in reporting, from interviews with convicted killers to A-list celebrities.  What’s the coolest thing you’ve done in the job?

My job once took me to the red carpet premiere of “Safe Haven” a major film based on the romance novel by Nicholas Sparks.  It was filmed in our backyard in Wilmington.  It was really cool to be in Tinsel Town interviewing all the stars.  But the most rewarding thing about my job is telling the stories that create change in the community.  I love getting feedback from someone who thanks me for telling their story and raising awareness about the issues that face our society.  I feel like I’m helping the community one story at a time.

Now the tough question:  Do you miss performing at the halftime of Gold Team games?  You had some serious dance moves.

(Laughs) Well, despite attending school with Carmelo Anthony, Josh Smith, Rajon, Ty Lawson, Kevin Durant and all the other big name players, I think there is no doubt who the real star of the show was.  It’s been 10 years, but I think I still have some gas in the tank.  I think I’ll visit “The Hill” soon and shake off the cobwebs!

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Ben, we believe you.  We’ve got the footage to prove it.

Oh, and some things never change:

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