Girls 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.

 

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!

 

 

Oak Hill Academy Stories #3 Alex Rodgers, Class of 2010

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Alex Rodgers attended Oak Hill Academy for three years and was a highly visible member of the Lady Warriors basketball team, served as an honor court member and was active in many other groups on campus.  She was fortunate to have quite a few college options with her combination of great grades, active campus involvement and basketball ability.  She eventually chose the opportunity of attending Princeton University, a decision she calls “the best decision I’ll probably make in my life.”  As she fast approaches graduation in a couple of weeks, we take the opportunity to catch up with her.

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What have been your biggest memories during your college experience as you look back?It would be obvious to talk about the tremendous success I’ve been able to be a part of with the women’s basketball team at Princeton (The Tigers finished the season 31-1 and made history with the highest national ranking and NCAA seeding ever for an Ivy League program and Alex’s senior class has amassed a record 98 wins), but I’m really going to remember most how I’ve grown.  Coming out of Oak Hill Academy where I had friends and interacted with people from so many backgrounds, I was prepared and had the confidence to take advantage of those kinds of opportunities here.  Oak Hill is where I first learned to step outside of my comfort zone and take leadership roles.  I’m glad I did!  Through the PU Religion Department, I’ve been able to participate in a human rights conference in Cuba, and through the PU Athletics department, I was able to spend significant time in Senegal and Paris. But lately what I feel like I’ll remember most is writing my senior thesis!

What was your favorite class at Oak Hill AcademyI’m graduating with a degree in Religious studies and I’m sure that was influenced by how much I enjoyed Reverend Turnmire’s Survey of World Religion course my Junior year at OHA.  That class did a lot in inspiring me to develop a world view and get a lot of college level writing experience.  I feel the same way about the World Cultures class I took with Mr. Hill.

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Alex and her teammate participated with her coach and a professor in a short film analyzing the physics of the three point shot.

What was the most valuable thing you learned from your Oak Hill Academy experience?  The power of relationships is easily the best lesson I learned at OHA and something that has continued through my college experience.  There is a special bond that you share with your classmates and teachers at Oak Hill Academy – it’s a special community.

Do you feel that boarding school prepared you for a better transition to college ?I think it did, yes. A lot of boarding school relied on routine, responsibility, and accountability.  Oak Hill gave me the tools to be able to establish all 3 principles on my own in college which is an even more intense and demanding environment.

What advice would you give a new student to prepare them for success at Oak Hill Academy?   Know that you can redefine yourself once getting to Oak Hill. If you commit to the process you will hone in on study skills, personal skills, and life skills. Growth in all of these areas will add to any and all of your future endeavors, whether you want to be a professional athlete, politician, business person, or whatever.

These sentiments were echoed by Courtney Banghart, Head Coach of the Princeton Women’s Basketball team: Alex came to Princeton as a confident learner. She had valuable time management skills and was accustomed to the independence of living away from home. She was used to learning alongside a range of students from diverse backgrounds. Also, Alex knew how to ask for help. She understood the power of relationships, something she surely learned in her time at boarding school, and began building connections in her first days at Princeton.

Discovering new talents at Oak Hill Academy – Guitar Class

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Watching kids discover a new talent or renew a passion for an old talent is one of the coolest things about working at Oak Hill Academy.  The Arts programs here provide the important opportunities to make that happen.  Our music department offers guitar classes for beginners through advanced. Our percussion classes inspire some kids to express themselves through drum (as the music room is located next to my office, I’m happy to say they are getting pretty good!), traditional band instruments and a strong chorus round out this program.  As with the visual arts and theatre program,  students discover talents and have opportunities to display those talents.  Over the years, we’ve also helped some students to realize their dreams of pursuing music in college programs.

In homeroom yesterday, we were treated to a performance of the classic, “Stand By Me” by members of Ms. Callison’s beginner guitar class.  Starting with Mason Higgs’ strong bass line and punctuated with the soulful stylings of Joe Hampton, the group did a tremendous job and started the day on a great note.   I’m always amazed to see different sides of our students.  The last time I had seen Joe (the night before), he was dunking on someone during Oak Hill Academy‘s record-setting final home basketball game of the season!

I look forward to discussing with prospective applicants the different opportunities offered at Oak Hill Academy outside of the academic classroom.  There is a lot going at Oak Hill!

l to r:  Mason Higgs, Jake Levinson, Reed Mingione, Ms. Callison, Joe Hampton and Brendan Cruz take the stage in homeroom.

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Oak Hill Academy – Boarding School Life on “The Hill”

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I spend a lot of time on the phone with prospective families “painting a picture” of campus life here at Oak Hill Academy.  I recently created a slideshow to use on my upcoming trip to the Latin School Fair organized by The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS), of which we are a long-standing member.  I’m so excited to be meeting families from Mexico City, Moterrey, Panama City and Bogota in upcoming weeks.  I’ll be sure to take some interesting footage to share on a future blog!  I’m really looking forward to meeting the newestOak Hill Academy Warriors in their homelands.

I’ve decided to go ahead and share that slideshow with you here, from the admission desk, so you can see the excitement, diversity and beauty of campus and, most of all, “who” we are!  Please contact me at mrodgers@oak-hill.net or visit our website at Oak Hill Academy to learn more.  Enjoy and stay tuned.

Click Here for the slideshow:  Presentation1


 

Also please take some time to view our YouTube Channel.

And our latest Video of our Homecoming Dance 2015!