Oak Hill Academy Boarding School
There is a broad spectrum of factors to consider when looking at boarding school options for your student. Just as people have unique personalities, so too do boarding schools and finding the right match requires some research that often goes beyond the website. Oak Hill Academy has a busy campus tour season that coincides with students being present on campus for our summer session running from June 20-July 22 and when families visit us, here are the top 3 things I want them to see that go beyond what is found on our website:
- The people. While our website does a decent job of relaying the tidiness and beauty of campus, only a visit can truly showcase of most outstanding feature – the people here. Our location in Grayson County, Virginia makes us one of the most rural boarding high schools on the east coast, but it has the side-benefit of helping to create an outstandingly tight-knit faculty and student body. I’ve raised my 4 children alongside my colleague’s children as they’ve grown up in faculty housing on campus. Our students rely on each other to create, in the classic sense, community – as there is no surrounding town, so each year, we create our own community. This is something that is easily felt during a tour as our students stop to speak with families throughout. Spend 5 minutes in the Alumni Campus Store and the easy relationships are evident.
- Diversity. Many boarding schools tout an international population and that is one of the classic benefits of a boarding school experience. I urge you to look a little deeper at those numbers. At Oak Hill Academy, we are not relying on a single source of international students. The result is an international population representing 16 countries. Economic diversity is another thing that is hard to convey through numbers, but Oak Hill Academy’s position on the affordable end of the boarding school spectrum is an important contributing factor to diversity on campus. Our student body does not feel entitled, instead we are a “roll your sleeves up and work together” environment.
- Mission. Our mission statement is very clearly communicated on our website. However, what this “feels” like is much more effectively communicated through a visit. Faculty sharing a snack with a student on the Alumni School Store deck after school, a college guidance counselor helping a student connect with a college admission representative on the phone, and a teacher loading a van of students to visit a local elementary school are three vignettes a recent tour noticed. As the overwhelming majority of our faculty and staff live on campus, their investment in our students knows no time clock.
The Admission Department will be conducting campus visits and interviews throughout the summer. Please contact us to discuss a good time to visit and you are urged to “go beyond the website.” It is the best way to truly know what is special about Oak Hill Academy.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or call (276) 579-2619.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
Some of the many sides of Keith Hornsby at Oak Hill Academy shown above
When Keith graduated in 2011, I knew he was going to have an interesting path ahead of him. As the president of the senior class, a student in my class and key component of some of the best teams in recent Oak Hill basketball history, I knew his presence would be missed. I had come to know Keith as a sixth grader attending Coach Smith’s summer basketball camps and had seen how, when he puts his mind to something, he finds a way to achieve it. My pleasure was getting to know Keith well off the court as a student and part of the Oak Hill Academy campus community. I knew the combination of personality (he has a ready smile that often hides how driven he really is) and work ethic was going to bring big things his way.
Keith has been relatively easy to keep up with post-graduation as much of his journey has been played out with media coverage. After a very successful two years at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Keith took the rather controversial step of fulfilling his potential of playing at the highest levels by transferring to LSU and a much higher athletic profile. As per NCAA rules, he sat out a season but, true to form, did not “take a year off,” instead transforming his body and skills in preparation for making an impact on his new team. His 35 minutes of playing time per game, ranking among the top in the SEC, indicates his value to the team. Along the way, Keith has been taking care of business in the classroom as well. As a mass communications major, Keith is gaining a tremendous amount of on the job training in front of the camera. Becoming a fan-favorite on a successful team in one of the biggest conferences in college basketball (and hitting some game winning shots!) means a lot of media attention. I’ve really enjoyed seeing Keith’s poise and humility in front of the cameras as I frequently see him on ESPN and I take pleasure in knowing that his success on the court and in the classroom has not been handed to him.
I recently caught up with Keith to discuss his experiences at Oak Hill Academy and the perspective of that time that 4 years have given him.
In what ways did your Oak Hill experience help you grow?
The thing that stands out to me, looking back, is that it forced me to build social skills. Because the student body is so diverse, I really enjoyed learning to relate to so many different kinds of people. Of course, learning to live without your parents looking over you is a necessary development too. I really look at it now as a true “pre-college” experience. For me, college was not as big a jump as it would’ve been otherwise.
Is there anything specific that Oak Hill did to help prepare you for college success?
I had teachers like Mrs. Bonham who were demanding. She was tough but it made sure you got the job done. However, I really learned that having a relationship with a teacher is key. That really prepared me to take the initiative with my college professors even though, college is, obviously, a much bigger setting.
What are some of your favorite memories of your Oak Hill days?
It’s funny, I was just looking at a yearbook and remembering the fun we had. The weekend activities were great – I appreciate now how hard the staff works to provide those off-campus trip opportunities to haunted houses, movies, local attractions, etc. On campus, I really remember Karaoke Night as a great time. Remembering Spirit week brought a smile to my face. Also the devotions in homeroom. I remember some really thought-provoking messages. I also remember the experiences I gained in public speaking at Oak Hill, which obviously helps me in my major (Mass Communication). It was a great training ground for being a leader in that it was small enough to know I could really make a difference. In fact, I’ve continued in that having been selected by my peers last year to serve on the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee at LSU. I also remember the plays at Oak Hill which, little known fact, I was in the Theatre Department at UNC-Asheville before I transferred. All of that stuff started at Oak Hill for me.
What do you feel makes Oak Hill Academy unique as a boarding school?
At first the restrictions on cell phones and technology seemed like a punishment, I’m not going to lie. However, having limits on that really produced a beautiful thing: we became such a tight-knit student body – like family – and I don’t think many people get to go to a school with that kind of bond between classmates. I still keep in touch with many of my classmates – not just my former teammates – but people I share the Oak Hill bond with. There’s a pride that comes with being an Oak Hill graduate because it is a pretty exclusive club. You really don’t understand how beautiful it is to be part of something like unless you come to Oak Hill. I truly miss how simple and pure life was at Oak Hill without a lot of the distractions that typically face kids.
We wish Keith much continued success on the court and in the classroom. His many fans in Mouth of Wilson, Va will be rooting for him and the Tigers this upcoming season, his senior year!
It’s time for a philosophical post. In On Walden Pond, Thoreau explains his motivations for wanting and needing to live the simple life: “I went into the woods to live deliberately…” The quiet of Walden Pond enabled Thoreau’s self-reflection and development of a self-discipline he saw as essential for a fulfilled life. It occurred to me recently that this is very similar to what I experienced as a student at Oak Hill Academy and one of the themes I explain to prospective students as central to what will be their “Oak Hill experience.”
Oak Hill Academy’s setting in the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains of Soutwestern Virginia is one of the things that contribute to our student’s success. No matter how busy they get, or if they are feeling academic pressure, they can breathe here. That setting, coupled with the structure and size of our school means that life is pretty simple here and the important things in life emerge for our students. Let me explain:
At Oak Hill Academy, relationships matter:
I often point out that, with no “mall across the street,” our students realize pretty quickly that we are a community and we better take care of each other. They do an excellent job of this – I see it in how they study together, become invested in each other’s success and happiness and, in general, become very close-knit. No doubt our cell phone policy (and social media policy),which place healthy boundaries, contributes to this investment. Our students get really good at talking to each other and not about each other. The notion of conversation, that is fast becoming a lost art among many teenagers, is alive and well at Oak Hill Academy.
At Oak Hill Academy, students discover new interests
Being surrounded by such beauty means that our students can participate in a variety of outdoor activities from hiking, mountain biking, trail running, zip lining, and canoeing to on campus activities like horseback riding and paintball. Our students try new things and are quite busy when not in class. Our weekly small group outings with the ski-club (it really ought to be called the “snowboarding club”) offers students a way to enjoy the area in the colder months. For many students, Oak Hill is where they discover new interests that don’t involve a screen.
At Oak Hill Academy, structure leads to self-discipline and maturity
Being in a small class (average size of 10 students) means that students can’t hide. No matter how busy our students get outside of class, our mandatory evening study hall from 8:30-10:30 means that they get good at turning off the “busyness” of the day and taking care of business. 8th period tutorials offer an opportunity for both extra help or time for academic “coaching.” There is a rhythm to the day that allows students pockets of time to make choices, but with an intentionality of schedule that promotes good habits. At Oak Hill, there is a great balance between the “want to’s” and the “have to’s.” This is the deliberate life of which Thoreau speaks.