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Boarding School Traditions – Being A Part of Something Bigger

Oak Hill Academy is a small boarding school located in the rural, Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.  These two facts lead to a campus that is extremely tight-knit.  Since 1878, Oak Hill Academy has done “community” exceptionally well.  Today’s homeroom devotion, delivered by our Head of School, Dr. Michael Groves, reminded us all of our school’s long-standing mission and our place in this tradition.  I asked him to share his thoughts from this morning in our blog.

“Wow, look at that cool blazer!”  Such were the words coming my direction this morning as I walked to homeroom assembly.  In honor of our final chapter of this year’s Spirit Days here at Oak Hill Academy I decided to wear an old (1960s?) mustard yellow OHA blazer.  Instead of the students laughing at the slightly too small, old-fashioned, polyester jacket … they loved it.  “Can we wear those jackets to church?”  “Where can I get a blazer like that?”

In our morning devotion today (while wearing the blazer) I shared with the students that at Oak Hill Academy we always need to be aware that we are part of something much larger than ourselves.  I keep this old jacket hanging visibly in The President’s Office for just such a reminder.  For 138 years this boarding school in the mountains of southwestern Virginia has served as a “Turning Point” for students from across the United States and from all over the world.  As members of the faculty and administration we are blessed to play a small role in this tremendous legacy of supporting students.  Today, it was an antique and ill-fitting blazer that reminded me of the charge before us in this timeless and important community … Oak Hill Academy.


Michael D. Groves, Ph.D.


Starting the day at OHA

I’ve received a couple of requests to show the schedule of a typical day at boarding school for our students.  I’ll tell the story through a series of videos that show the major parts of a day at Oak Hill Academy.  Let’s start at the beginning – Homeroom in the Fletcher Chapel, a tradition.


Boarding School is an Opportunity for Discovery. Arts, Anyone?

One of the most provocative questions I can ask a prospective student on a campus tour is, “Are you artistic?”  Nearly always, the reaction is either an enthusiastic “yes!” or an emphatic “no,” with very little middle ground.  Knowing that we are heading to tour the art studio either way, I’ve learned to never wholly predict a student’s experience here based on their interests coming in.  Boarding school students are something of a captive audience, with friend groups that introduce new activities to each other and an environment that allows easy access to new experiences–so being at Oak Hill Academy can be an awesome time of discovery, and I know that these applicants can’t imagine how much their definitions of themselves will grow during their tenure here.  We are going to the art studio regardless of their answers, and I’m smiling inside.

CiCi works on the hallway mural that will greet students as they enter the art studio

Oak Hill Academy’s art program is an integral part of the culture of growth that is at the heart of our school’s mission.  If a student comes in with a passion for art, our program is broad enough to introduce new media and techniques.  Some of our advanced classes include water color and oil painting, graphic design, and an array of three-dimensional work like ceramics, diorama building and sculpting.  For those getting introduced to their artistic side, beginning classes include basics like drawing and sketching, and allow students to look at art and the world around them with new eyes.  The philosophy that our art teacher, Dennis Wymer, embraces is that we all possess an artist’s eye, and the journey of discovery is the real curriculum.


There are a ton of performing opportunities at Oak Hill Academy from formal audiences to open mic nights

In addition to the visual arts, I’ve written and posted extensively about our unique music curriculum that both introduces students to playing music and develops existing talents through a very hands-on, collaborative approach.  You won’t find students holed up working on scales here.  Instead, our beginning through advanced classes work out pieces of music together–often contemporary hits that you would hear on the radio.  Through this process many of our musicians become multi-instrumentalists as they are exposed to genres from Appalachian Old Time and Classic Rock to EDM (electronic dance music), broadening their appreciation for music. (Just today, I heard a Miley Cyrus song coming from first period and a Bob Marley classic coming from third period.)

Bello prepares to play a zombie in last year’s play “Ten Ways to Survive the Zombie Apocalypse”

Our theatre program provides a great opportunity for discovery as well.  Known for being extremely accessible and democratic in their development (students work out details of original plays through improv moments in rehearsal), our productions are full of students who didn’t anticipate that theatre would be a part of their Oak Hill experience.  The transforming power of the theatre department is displayed each year, as shy students step out of their shells on stage, as crew members find their places back stage, and unlikely friendships are forged through long hours of rehearsal.  I’m always amazed to see a student known for basketball or equestrian or soccer or mathematical abilities expand their identity by stealing a scene in one of the school plays.

To discover more about the opportunities at Oak Hill Academy, please contact the Admission Department at or speak to our Director of Admission, Mike Rodgers, at 276 579-2619.  We are now in full swing with considerations for summer session and the upcoming school year.  It’s a great time to visit campus!

Considering Boarding School? Consider these tips when planning a campus visit.

Because there is a whole spectrum of boarding school options, choosing the right boarding school fit for your student can, and should, involve plenty of research.  Perhaps you’ve become interested in boarding school for your student and a Google search of “boarding schools” has turned up a dizzying array of choices.  Today’s post from the Admission Desk at Oak Hill Academy is designed to help you develop a game plan, which may or may not lead you to consider Oak Hill Academy as the right fit.

Number 1.  Spend time defining your goals for your student and take the time to get their input.  Some of the best initial inquiries I receive are from families who are working with their student to articulate real goals that go beyond improving grades or opening up college choices.  For example, If you have determined (and your student may even begrudgingly agree) that you are seeking structure as a main feature in a boarding school, then structure can be a great filter in searching schools.  In my experience, if the concept of structure doesn’t appear in a school’s mission statement, there is likely to be an environment that can be thought of as “sink or swim.”  Take the time to identify one or two main goals and two or three secondary goals for your student and include those key words in your search.

Number 2.  I know it may sound painfully obvious, but read the school’s published mission statement (for some schools, you may have to dig around the menu a bit).   All boarding schools have them to one degree or another, and it is often the standard by which many schools are accredited.  This is where a school goes beyond the marketing of the school–like showcasing the beauty of the campus–and instead rolls up its sleeves and exposes the core values that guide its approach.  If your goals for your student are not given a voice by the school’s mission statement, move on.  Look for a mission statement that is prominently displayed and well articulated.  See for example.

Number 3.  Consider school profile elements such as student body size, classroom size, and boarding vs. day student ratios, as these all can have a profound effect on a school’s culture.  The first two may be somewhat obvious, but just because a school is small does not mean it necessarily has a small number of students in every individual classroom.  Go beyond the question of school size and ask for specifics on the school’s goals and the reality of class size.  Most boarding schools also have a population of day students–local residents that attend during the school day but do not live on campus.  Be sure to consider this ratio as it can influence campus cohesiveness (both positively and negatively), and ask questions regarding after-school campus life and dorm life on the weekends.

Number 4.  Ask questions regarding the academic support that is available to students outside of class time.  This inquiry will yield a lot of information regarding the school’s philosophy and attitudes toward academic rigor.  Again, lining up your goals for your student with a school’s mission is key here.  If you are looking at boarding school for grade improvement and growth in college-ready habits, a sink-or-swim environment may not be for you, as there is likely a need for as much coaching as instruction for your student.  Ask how learning differences are addressed and if learning styles are taken into account in the classroom.

Number 5.  A campus visit should be about “feeling” the mission of a school as much as hearing about it.  Ask to tour the school building and pop into classes (applicants may be self-conscious doing this, but trust me, having tours come into your classrooms is as much a part of boarding school as eating in the dining hall).  Some schools allow applicants to audit classes, and that is great if there is a passion for a particular subject, but I believe here is where quantity counts.  Try to visit as many classrooms as feasible on your tour because each classroom, even at Oak Hill Academy, has its own personality and vibe.  Getting as broad a view of the whole as you can is more important than having your socks knocked off by one all-star teacher.  Additional tips to keep in mind on your campus visit:

  • Ask to see a lived-in dorm room.  This will communicate much about a dorm’s culture and acceptable standards.  Look for a good balance between relaxation and comfort and a dedicated area for schoolwork.
  • If possible, have lunch in the dining hall.  The cafeteria is a great place to take the pulse of a school and see kids in a social environment with their guard down.  Notice the make up of lunch tables and the evidence (or absence) of cliques.  You’ll also get to form your own opinions on the food.  I often say, “a meal is worth a thousands words” when it comes to questions regarding the food on our campus.
  • Insist on meeting current students during your tour.  In boarding schools with a positive culture, this is no problem at all as current students will likely approach tours themselves, as they do at Oak Hill Academy.  We have many students here who have been trained and coached to give effective tours, but just as often, the organic interaction with an encountered student is the difference-maker on a tour of our campus.  I am very intentional in having current students join tours for lunch or handle the dorm portion of a campus visit.  It’s a good sign when a school trusts current students to handle parts of the tour without the Admission Officer.
  • Take a look at a school’s social media prior to a visit.  It provides current material for visitors to ask questions about and, to a degree, gives an unfiltered view of the campus culture and day-to-day campus life.  See Oak Hill Academy’s Instagram account here: or Facebook page here:

I hope these tips will help make your boarding school search more intentional.  Each boarding school has high aspirations for meeting their particular mission, and with research and a clear sense of your goals for a boarding school fit, a match can be found.  Please contact the Admission Office at Oak Hill Academy to learn more about our very unique position on the college-prep boarding school spectrum and how Oak Hill Academy has, for generations of students, been a Turning Point.



Boarding School Summer Session at Oak Hill Academy is a Great Investment

Space Available for Summer 2017.   

Oak Hill Academy has served as the turning point for generations of students looking to improve grades, get focused and change their trajectory.  Our annual summer session is often the starting point in that journey.


Summer Session on The Hill (June 19-July 21, 2017) is a smaller version of what we do well during the regular school year. Small classes, a relational and supportive approach, and a structured environment help students who are looking for a place to rebound after a lackluster year, or to keep momentum going forward.

Almost half of our enrollment during summer session are students considering Oak Hill Academy as a potential long-term option to address academic or growth issues.  The other half of the enrollment is typically current students looking to improve their grades by retaking classes from earlier in their careers.  As grades improve at Oak Hill Academy, it is not uncommon for our students to no longer be satisfied with how they’ve done in certain classes at their past schools.

  • Small Class Sizes  (average 3-4)  This presents a great opportunity for incoming students to get settled and to begin establishing the relationships they will lean on in the upcoming school year.  Classes are taught by
    our school-year faculty and the peer relationships that begin in the summer give incoming students confidence going into the fall term. The very small classroom setting in summer session also allows kids to hone in on areas of weakness and gain confidence through doing well.  It also allows our teachers to discover your student’s learning style and to develop effective strategies in working with your child–a huge advantage heading into the new school year.
  • Grade Improvement   Students can retake courses to either obtain needed credits toward graduation and get back on track, or for grade improvement to enhance college admission options.
  • Efficient and Productive Investment of Time   Students typically have a 150-hour course load, spread out over the five weeks.  This means they are in class part of the day and have opportunity each afternoon for fun, energetic activities such as hiking trips, swimming, and biking, and other recreation.
  • Structured Environment   Students are introduced to the structure and pace of life at Oak Hill Academy, where cell phone use and screen time is replaced with face-to-face relationships, and where quiet hours in the dorm each evening build good study and homework habits.  Our approach to technology puts things in perspective. Boundaries are set on phone use (limited to weekends) and internet access (no online gaming or social media access). The result is that life becomes less complicated and students become more engaged with the people around them and the tasks at hand.



To discuss more and to find out if our summer session is the turning point you and your student are looking for, please contact our Admission Department at or call (276) 579-2619.

Our application process is streamlined.

Prospective students must submit an application for admission along with two recommendation forms and official school transcripts. An interview and campus tour are also recommended.

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You are researching boarding school as a possible Turning Point for your child’s growth.

As you have probably seen, there is a full spectrum of boarding schools – each with a different focus.  It is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.  Oak Hill Academy occupies a very unique position on this spectrum.

For generations, since 1878, Oak Hill Academy’s mission is to serve as a TURNING POINT for students who are capable and maybe even well-intentioned, but have not been experiencing the kind of success they want for themselves.  They may have become unmotivated, unhappy, or frustrated in their current school or home setting.  These kinds of students need a very intentional approach, and that is Oak Hill Academy’s mission.

You’ve determined that a change of environment is necessary for the kind of growth your student needs.  Now you are considering what that new environment should look and feel like.  You’ve found Oak Hill Academy.

Let’s talk about the structured, encouraging, and relational environment found at Oak Hill Academy.  Many times, I find that interested parents come into boarding school research with many misconceptions of what boarding school is, or can be.  I’d like the opportunity to discuss with you how Oak Hill Academy’s unique approach promotes growth that goes beyond improved grades.

Call our Admission Department, Mike Rodgers at 276 579-2619 or


Why Do Parents (And Students) Choose Oak Hill Academy?

From my desk in the Admission Office, I take a lot of calls from parents who are expressing, in one way or another, a sense of urgency.  For many of our parents, the option of boarding school is more about seeking a solution to a problem than a plan.

Their student is bright, capable and good.  But, due to a variety of factors, they are just not achieving the kind of success of which they are capable.  But, more to the point, for the student, there is a sense of unhappiness with their current school experience.

This sense of unhappiness, whether it be vague or acute, can stem from factors such as a learning style or a lack of engagement that is not being addressed in their current, large classroom setting leading to a sense of academic frustration or lack of motivation. Or, it can be a social issue that comes from labels, or a negative peer group.  I am also often told of a family dynamic that poses a challenge to a student’s happiness.  Psychology tells us that a sense of security and competency is needed before a student can focus on achievement.

In the end, there is a common thread in most of my admission calls – parents want their kids to be happy, and it is just not happening where they are.

This is the moment when finding Oak Hill Academy often becomes a turning point for our families.  We’re different – the preconceived notions that many have about college prep boarding school are challenged by a trip around our website, or better yet – a campus visit.  Many of our prospective students, fearful about the idea of boarding school with its highly competitive and elitist reputation, instead find an engaging community of kids seeking growth and who want to be here and who feel competent.  This competency is fostered through small classes where relationships with their teachers means extra help at the minimum, and mentoring in the best cases.


Is it easy? No.  For example, we go to school for half a day on many Saturdays. We are a structured environment with study hours and lights out. But our focus on growth–academic, social and emotional–means that our kids become proud of the changes they see in themselves through attending Oak Hill Academy. Our students are proud of becoming comfortable doing more than the minimum. They also find a lot of happiness in belonging to a school and peer community that is sharing and encouraging this personal growth.  For generations of Oak Hill Academy students and families, this change of trajectory has been known as “the turning point.”




If you are researching boarding school as an option for your student to provide a turning point, I’m glad you have found Oak Hill Academy.  I’d like to speak to you about your student and what we do well. We welcome your inquiry.

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At Oak Hill Academy, We Place a Priority on Relationships

This blog entry, perhaps more ambitious than many of my past undertakings, is entirely inspired by a recent post entitled “Dog Days,” from David Altshuler, M.S., an educational consultant and college consultant based in Miami.  If you are reading this and doing a deep dive on our website, I’m sure you are the kind of reader who would appreciate David’s topics and insights.  I encourage you to follow him here: 

Relationships matter at Oak Hill Academy.  While every boarding school would make a reasonable claim to this notion, it is one of the most differentiating aspects of Oak Hill Academy, in my opinion.  As a former student, parent of students, classroom teacher and, now, Director of Admission I’ve studied this claim from a variety of vantage points and it is one of the things I am most proud for prospective parents and students to feel on their campus tours.

There are several tangible things here that contribute to this real commitment to the importance of relationships:

  • Our rural, somewhat isolated location means that students arrive, look around and conclude: “We’re all we’ve got, so we better take care of each other.”  That’s real here.  We create our community each year and do an exceptional job of it.


  • Our approach to cell phones and social media means that our students talk TO each other, not ABOUT each other, in a way that is both a relief and necessary for focus.


  • Our classroom size (average of 10 students) means that everyone matters, is a known person and is led to engage in each other’s education and growth.  Our teachers pay attention to “how” each student best learns as they build important relationships.

Let’s look at that last one in more detail as David Altshuler’s recent blog is the inspiration for my main point.  Essentially, David tells the story of a recent encounter with a potential new friend where he succumbed to the common compulsion of correcting an error instead of just enjoying building a connection with a person.  It made me think of my experiences teaching at Oak Hill Academy where we generally live with our students.

I’m proud to say that our approach across the faculty is to focus on the relationships in front of us (and what a tremendous opportunity that is in our small boarding school community!) and to build our students up through tasting success where it is “cool” to take care of your business.  This leads to an incredibly supportive environment.

Now, there is plenty of opportunity for correction, for “teachable moments,” for academic content,  but our students really thrive because of the relationships they have – with their teachers and with their peers.  Our approach of relationship first has been the catalyst to a lot of turning points for generations of Oak Hill students.  I wholeheartedly agree with David Altshuler’s conclusion:

By focusing on the relationship rather than the academics, your children are more likely to be open to listening to you about that which is important: your knowledge, your values, your beliefs–and, when the time is right, the seven times tables.

If you are researching boarding school options for the upcoming second semester of this year, or for the start of the next school year, I invite you to see, for yourself, what this looks and feels like in action at Oak Hill Academy.  Please contact me to discuss your student and your goals for a good boarding school fit.  If we agree, I’d like to schedule a campus visit.


Enrollment Openings For Second Semester Starts at Oak Hill Academy

Because of Oak Hill Academy’s particular mission of providing a Turning Point for students who are not experiencing the kinds of success of which they are capable, this is actually a busy time of year for us in the Admission Department.  We are currently considering applications for the January 3, 2017, start of the second semester.

General (3)

I take a lot of personal satisfaction in providing an option for families seeking a solution to a set of problems for their student and we want to be found right at the time when a family is looking for this solution.  This is the situation for many of our student success stories:  Needing a change to either salvage the school year, or finally becoming committed to making a change, this is the time of year that many of our families find us.  The beginning of the second semester (January 3, 2017) is a natural starting point at Oak Hill Academy.

I’m often asked, “What kinds of student families do you hear from at this time of the year?” Or, “Who comes to Oak Hill Academy midway through the year?”  Today, I’d like to address these questions, as they may be yours, too.

  • Our very intentional rolling admission policy fits our mission.  We are the school for students seeking a turning point.  At this time of the year, many students have grown tired of the feeling of “untapped potential.”  They want to throw off the “underachiever” label.  They want more for themselves.  They don’t always come to that conclusion neatly in a traditional spring/summer admission cycle.
  • The first half of a school year is often a time of new peer groups and I have a lot of conversations with parents who express a concern and desire for a more positive group of friends for their child.  While we are not a school for “troubled kids,” many of our families come to us looking at boarding school as a fresh start socially.
  • Many of my calls this time of the year also involve a frustration with academic performance (grades).  Commitments made during the summer to doing homework, using good study habits, and overall academic engagement may be going unfulfilled during the first semester, and the need for change becomes apparent.  I also receive calls looking for a school where learning differences and a structure that provides the tools for dealing with learning challenges is the goal.  Many of our students come to us with an IEP and accommodations that are already available in our classroom setting.

If you are reading this now, chances are you are looking for this type of turning point for your child and you may not be willing to wait through another school year.  Please know that I welcome a conversation about what we do well here and learning about your goals for a good college prep boarding school fit for your student. 

Please complete the inquiry form below, or simply call to start this important conversation.

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What Is A Homeroom Devotion At Oak Hill Academy?

One of the most important traditions at Oak Hill Academy is the daily, morning homeroom in the Rev. J.F. Fletcher Chapel.  Gathering together as a school community is an important daily reminder of the power of relationships and being a part of a community.  It is also an opportunity to start the day with a positive thought.

Many of our character development themes are driven by the short devotion that always follows the opening prayer.  The 2016-17 school year theme is “Purpose,” and this shows up, too.  Sometimes this message is spiritual in nature (but not always). It is often delivered by our campus minister or a school administrator.  Teachers frequently share something personal with the student body from their vast experience.  But, by far, the most impactful messages tend to be delivered on Thursdays and Fridays when our seniors take their turn delivering the devotion.  It is a rite of passage at Oak Hill Academy.

As nervous as many of our students are when their day arrives, it is invaluable experience in public speaking.  Psychologists consistently rank public speaking as the #1 stressful task a person can face.  Here, in front of a group of supportive peers, and with coaching and preparation from a trusted faculty member, our students step into this opportunity nervous, but excited to contribute something to their school.  Our graduating seniors often point to that day as a turning point.  It is not taken lightly.

I’m often asked on tours and on admission calls about the devotion.  People want to know what that looks like, sounds like or even feels like.  Yesterday, senior Aidan Stenner delivered what I feel is a very representative devotion.  To hear what a great student devotion at Oak Hill Academy sounds like, please see the video below.