small class size boarding schools
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.
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:
- Defaulting into negative self-talk and “beating ourselves up”
- Going on the defensive and simply covering up and just enduring the flurry
- 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.
For most of our applicants at Oak Hill Academy, the idea of enrolling at boarding school comes with both excitement and apprehension. Going away to boarding school is a big lifestyle change and it is natural to have both of those emotions. However, our parents (and at sometime during a successful application process, our students) come to realize that in order to make significant changes, one must get out of a “comfort zone” and into a significantly different environment.
Growing: when you are transforming to a new season of life,
the people and situations that no longer fit you will fall away.
Don’t fight the process.
I ran across this quote recently that succinctly addresses the number one worry that I encounter from students as they consider the opportunity for positive changes that enrollment at Oak Hill Academy offers. Simply put, they worry about leaving their friends at home behind. I want to address this issue here briefly:
- Growth occurs outside of your comfort zone. By definition, in order to get different outcomes, you must do things differently. This is uncomfortable.
- Throughout our lives, as we grow, the associations we make change. A person simply cannot grow without making new relationships that expand our definition of ourselves. Our Oak Hill Academy student body becomes very close-knit, rather quickly. Everyone matters and has a place in our community. You’ll make close friends. Our students come to understand why as they redefine themselves in positive ways.
- Breaks, open weekends and our school schedule mean that students have fairly frequent opportunities to reconnect with friends and family at home. The friends that matter and support the growth you experience at Oak Hill will not disappear. You’ll reconnect often. The friends that do not support your growth will probably fade, and they probably should. In the meantime, while at school, you’ll be focusing on the right things for you.
You’ve read in past blogs that the Arts Department at Oak Hill Academy provides great opportunities for discovery and mastery of the various arts for our students. With the addition of the new outdoor theatre on campus, there is an excitement building among the faculty involved in music performance and drama. We are pleased to announce two new courses in our music department that represent an acknowledgement of both our place in the local community of southwestern Virginia and the growing trend of students wanting to continue their love of music beyond Oak Hill Academy.
The new Appalachian String Band class is an extension of the highly successful Advanced Guitar Class that has been offered to our students. This course will now include instruction and incorporation of upright bass, banjo, dulcimer and autoharp to compliment our guitarists. I had the pleasure of tagging along with this class last year as they sat in with the weekly local musician’s jam at the Grayson County Courthouse. What a unique opportunity for our students! Our music teacher, Ms. Jean Callison, is very well-plugged into the rich, local music scene. There is no better place in America to study Old Time Music than where Oak Hill Academy is located here in the Grayson Highlands of the Blue Ridge Mountains!
I’m equally excited by the addition of the Music Lab course. This will expose our music students to mixing, arranging, and other production techniques. We often have students who pursue music study in college and have the need to produce demos for other reasons as well. This class is designed to meet that need by allowing students to work on performance and recording of modern music. Instruments will include electric guitar, electric bass, keyboards and drums among others.
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.
Young’s Chapel Baptist Church, is pictured on the left, alongside The Rev. J.F. Fletcher Chapel, on the right.
I often receive questions regarding Oak Hill Academy’s religious life and the spiritual opportunities provided here. Many parents want to know what that looks like. Today, I’d like to take some time to more fully address this important facet of Oak Hill Academy‘s mission and the educational experience we provide our students.
First, some background: Many of this blog’s readers may know that I attended Oak Hill Academy – I’m a proud member of the class of ’87! I did not grow up in a traditional Sunday service attending household, so in many ways, Young’s Chapel Baptist will always hold a place in my heart as my first “home” Church. From it’s founding, Oak Hill Academy students have been welcomed to worship service each Sunday morning by the Young’s Chapel congregation and it is our gateway to the broader community around us. Little did I know the seeds that were being planted as I attended mandatory Church Service with my classmates way back then.
The fact is, our student body comes from many different faith traditions and backgrounds, including no background at all. So for our students, this is a great opportunity to explore spiritual growth in a “real world” setting. Our mandatory Church attendance on Sunday morning brings our students together in respectful attendance. Doctrine is not forced upon our students, as this would likely build walls. Our approach is not “heavy handed.” Instead, through a demonstration and acknowledgement of God’s love, we grow as a community. Along the way, many students naturally begin or continue a personal journey of faith, fully supported by those around them. Our campus minister, also the pastor of Young’s Chapel Baptist, and a faculty member (gosh we wear a lot of hats!) is a great resource for those who reach out seeking spiritual guidance or clarification. Our Youth Group, open to all interested students, is another source of spiritual growth and community involvement – it also provides a venue for leadership development. It’s not mandatory, and that probably explains some of its popularity!
The Fletcher Chapel is the site of our daily homeroom and offers another opportunity to remind students of God’s love for them and is a reminder of a life of faith. We open the day in short prayer, followed by a short devotion. This positive thought or word brings us together on a topic of character development and the feeling of community is reinforced. Typically delivered by our campus minister, faculty member or administrator, the devotion allows the students to see the personal side of us. On Fridays, members of the senior class take turns delivering the devotion and, let me tell you, some of the most profound and relatable messages come directly from the students!
I’m now 46 years old, having raised a family (really, are you ever “done”?) and my faith has played an incredible role in my adult life. Of course, I was not anticipating this when, as a 17-year old student of Oak Hill Academy, I first experienced Church in Young’s Chapel Baptist.
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.
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.