The Admission Blog addresses topics that frequently come up in conversation with inquiring families. It is frequently updated. Please browse to learn more about Oak Hill Academy’s mission and approach to a boarding school environment encouraging growth.Mike Rodgers '87
Oak Hill Academy: Virginia Small Boarding School For Character Growth (“Evergreen Values” Series post #1)
Today’s blog post is the first in a series that was inspired by a conversation regarding “evergreen values,” those values that are held to be true, even in a changing society.
Oak Hill Academy was founded in 1878 in rural Mouth of Wilson, Virginia. Growing into a boarding school over its first decades, Oak Hill Academy has remained true to its founding mission to provide a structured, character growth opportunity—a Turning Point. A lot has changed since 1878. Oak Hill Academy’s mission has not. This makes us something of an outlier in the college prep boarding school world. Our approach to technology and social media access is different from that of most boarding schools. Let me explain:
Each and every boarding school you will encounter in your search for the right fit for your student will have a mission statement that communicates the school’s values. Often these values have evolved over time and reflect the challenges to each generation of young people—from the ravages of “rock and roll music,” through the cultural changes of the ’60s, the material excess of the ’80s, up to today’s great challenge of technology’s impact on adolescence. It is here and now that we find ourselves, as a school, having to be firm in maintaining our mission in a changing world. One of our unchanging values as a school, call it an “evergreen value,” is the belief that limiting technology allows for the emotional and social growth our families, and our students, are seeking. Time away from technology is necessary for the development of “soft skills,” those interpersonal intelligence skills such as reading emotions, empathy, reading body language, the ability to “read the room” and adapt – all skills that many experts cite as eroding as communication is taking place more and more exclusively on a handheld device. So we place limits on cell phone use and boundaries on what is accessible through our campus internet.
This means that Oak Hill Academy students can find themselves being uncomfortably outside of their electronic habit. The value we, as a school, place on healthy interpersonal relationships tells us this is a good place to be – outside of an electronic habit. Studies show, and experts continually propose, that anxiety and feelings of loneliness can be closely linked to social media overuse. (See article at PsychologyToday.com) So, we hold the line on technology boundaries – because we see it work. Our students cite higher grades, improved relationships, and an overall better focus as benefits. Alas, they still miss their cell phones during the school week, but they are also learning delayed gratification and perseverance.
We also balance these limits with opportunities for learning how to use social media positively. Our partners at The Social Institute would call this learning to “Win the Social Game.” Beginning with our initial Social Institute Pump Up Presentation, we are implementing a curriculum on campus, and building a network of student leaders, emphasizing positive ways to use social media. Our approach no longer relies only on placing boundaries and limits, but now includes a heavy dose of education and training in positive uses. Social media is not going away—it will continue to be a powerful force for this generation—but our goal is to develop the healthy interpersonal skills described above right next to healthy online skills. We are excited about this plan moving forward.
To further explore this, and other, core values of the Oak Hill Academy approach, please call or inquire with our Admission Department. We look forward to discussing your goals and the values you seek in a boarding school experience for your student.
As I’ve written in the past, Oak Hill Academy is a uniquely tight-knit, routine-oriented, community. Our size allows us to be that. Daily “homeroom,” a campus-wide morning assembly in our Chapel, is a very personal way to start the day and reinforces what we do well as a small boarding school. Here are some highlights:
- Homeroom in Chapel allows for the students AND faculty to share something of themselves in a very positive setting. Daily devotions take the shape of short stories, homilies, prayers, skits, and performances. It is really powerful to see a student who is taking Beginning Guitar advance to the point where they can and want to express themselves by performing in homeroom. It’s equally powerful to see a student, often fighting stage fright, share a heartfelt message with their peers. When a teacher shares something personal, like a talent (See the video below) or a personal story from their lives, it resonates with our students. It reinforces the relationships that exist here as we live in a small community.
- We start the day in prayer. It is a quiet beginning to the day and encourages us to intentionally shape the day with a positive goal. These moments are also a time of reflection, giving space for students to get their minds ready for the day. This is our morning routine.
- There are also announcements of the events of the day, reminders of responsibilities or fun things going on in the afternoon to look forward to.
- Giving recognition is also a big part of the homeroom agenda. Whether it is announcing the Student of the Week, giving a report on how the debate team did on a trip, a wrestling team recap, or college acceptances that have come through for our seniors–it is a time when everybody matters and everyone counts.
- Homeroom reinforces the accountability we have to each other. We start on time. Occasionally, students are late and they receive peer pressure–“If I can get here on time, so can you” seems to be the vibe.
To know more about Oak Hill Academy and our approach to the small boarding school model, I encourage you to contact me in the Admission Department at 276 579-2619.
Oak Hill Academy boarding high school partners with The Social Institute to explore positive social media use
From the Director of Student Affairs, Aaron Butt
Last week, Oak Hill Academy welcomed to campus The Social Institute, a nationally recognized organization with a mission to help students and schools navigate social media positively. We continue to value face-to-face conversations, unplugging, and finding the appropriate times and places to connect and use technology, but we are also committed to learning how to effectively and appropriately empower and educate students on how to handle social media, one of the biggest drivers of their social development. We are excited to partner with The Social Institute, who has been a contributor to the national conversation about social media for outlets like The Washington Post, ESPN W, NBC News, The Today Show, USA Today, and many others.
The Social Institute’s goal is to help teens use social media to strengthen their reputations, encourage and inspire others, seize opportunities, and change the world for the better. On Tuesday, the Institute’s founder, Mrs. Laura Tierney, spoke with the whole student body about the powerful voice they have through their phones and computers. Her approach was to recognize and acknowledge the dangers of social media, but to empower students to use their devices as a way to stand up for one another, build a positive reputation, and promote their interests and passions: how to have conversations with peers about positing private pictures, texting while driving, online intimidation and bullying. Through several exercises, called “sprints,” students were presented with various scenarios and asked to contribute positive responses, prompting a discussion about real-life actions to take in order to “win” the situation. The presentation was very practical, thought-provoking, and well-received by our students.
Mrs. Tierney’s visit included smaller breakout sessions with student leaders to hear their points of view about social media and how it is used at Oak Hill Academy, a small boarding school campus. It is clear that social media is here to stay, and adults and students have an obligation to learn how to set standards for appropriate use, both for themselves and as a school community. Standards include when to shut down, protecting privacy, and building an online support network of positive role models.
As a school, we recognize that we have a unique mission–one that includes placing limits on electronics and social media–and we believe Oak Hill is a special place where students can “grow where they are planted.” This structured environment offers an alternative to former distractions. We still believe in the value of monitoring and restricting student technology usage, but through this partnership with The Social Institute, we have a renewed awareness of our need to teach and prepare students on how to positively and effectively use social media. Restrictions are not enough. Teaching and modeling positive usage, with help from our new partners, are part of the equation.
When I give tours of our 240-acre campus in the Appalachian Mountains of Southwest Virginia, I frequently get two general comments: Many people feel we remind them of a small town where everyone knows each other. That’s true. Most of our faculty and staff (and their families) live on campus, and everyone does know, and looks out for, each other. I also get feedback on how Oak Hill feels like a miniature college campus. I agree with that, too. We have only 150 students, and they are so busy and engaged that it often feels like a college campus–buzzing with activity. Check out this video to get an idea of what that looks like:
Between the end of the school day and Quiet Hours in the dorms at 8:30 pm, our students go in several directions. Here are some examples:
- On a typical day, 1/4 to 1/3 of our student body has some type of after-school obligation or meeting with teachers. That’s 8th period, tutorials, or after-school study hall.
- As school is dismissed at 3:30, our students run back to the dorm to change out of school uniform, organize their rooms, pick up things they’ll need for practice, etc., video game a little, watch a little TV and, generally, just unwind. This doesn’t last very long, however, because there is lots to do outside the dorm.
- Our equestrian center is quite busy after school with barn work and trail rides.
- Practices and clubs, such as art, debate, and music meet. The weight room is open for the guys, and the girls’ dorm fitness center is available.
- The Alumni Campus Store is the place to see your friends and be seen, as well as to pick up groceries for the room or enjoy a snack of pizza or a sandwich with friends on the store’s deck (or around the fireplace in the winter). This space serves as the social hub–like a Student Union would be on a college campus.
- Our library remains open until late in the afternoon and is becoming more of a destination as facility improvements continue and book offerings expand (hint: it also has the strongest Wi-Fi connection on campus).
- In a typical week, there are several van loads of students leaving for off-campus destinations for games, community service opportunities, or faculty advisee fun trips to dinner or a movie. In the winter, these outings include weekly Ski Club trips.
The list continues, but by now you understand there is a lot to do as part of Campus Life at Oak Hill Academy. Many students discover a new passion or pick up an old interest. Extracurriculars are an important part of the balance we seek for our students between academic and social growth. To experience campus life at Oak Hill Academy for yourself, please complete the inquiry form below. We’ll discuss our school and your student and, if we are both encouraged, we can schedule a personal campus tour at your convenience.
Each morning in homeroom at Oak Hill Academy, a prayer is offered as our school community gathers in Chapel. I found today’s prayer, delivered by our Campus Minister, inspiring and particularly revealing of our hearts here. We are a Baptist boarding school community, AND there is tremendous diversity found on our campus. This message was delivered and received in the spirit this day deserves.
After much wrestling with the demons of hate and prejudice, after turmoil, riots, and death, I believe you inspired the better nature of enough people of the United States to set aside this day to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Help us to be thankful for the bravery of Dr. King, and all those like him who, inspired by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, took up their crosses and dared to challenge the unrighteousness of the status quo. I am thankful for the prophetic voice of Dr. King. Thankful for his enduring words. Thanks for all people whose faith in you inspires them to have the moral courage to confront acts of intolerance, bullying, oppression, hatred, racism, sexual harassment, or any act of injustice.
Forgive our apathy. Call to judgment our acts of willful ignorance. Convict our hearts and minds that we may repent of the harm we perpetuate on others. Cleanse us of our iniquity. Lead us into the light of your love that we may hold sacred our common humanity.
I pray these words in your name. And Amen.
Since Oak Hill Academy’s founding in 1878, the opportunity to provide spiritual growth has been an important part of its mission. The school was founded by the congregations of several small churches in the area, and from the beginning, the Oak Hill student body has been welcomed as they attend Sunday service each week, right alongside members of the greater Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, community. Even though our student body has changed a lot in the intervening years since our founding, our mission hasn’t. And this consistency and steadfastness is a beautiful thing to see in practice in an ever-changing world. Our alumni, myself included (class of 1987), take a lot of comfort knowing that today’s generation is being exposed to the same life-changing opportunities for spiritual growth they had. Frankly, most of our students come to Oak Hill Academy without having “spiritual growth” as one of their top 3 goals. However, for many students, it is a very real and tangible side benefit of attendance here.
Our student body is incredibly diverse, with 18+ nations and 24+ states represented. There is economic, racial, political and yes, religious, diversity found in our student body. Our approach, therefore, is inclusive in nature – not exclusive, or with a doctrine-specific lead-in. We all attend church together – Muslim students, Jewish students, side by side with those raised in Catholic and Protestant Christian churches, and those students who have never regularly attended services of any kind. The message that is delivered is clear: We are all children of God, created by God and loved by God. With that consistent message of hope and responsibility, we are planting seeds.
There are other spiritual opportunities at Oak Hill Academy. Homeroom is a daily gathering of the whole school community in the Rev. A.J. Fletcher Chapel in the center of campus. We start the day in prayer with a short devotion which is often spiritual in nature, but always encouraging and uplifting. This is followed by the business of our small, college prep boarding school – announcements and recognitions. Additionally, weekly Youth Group meetings represents a significant opportunity for students to explore or hone leadership skills as the group often plans service projects and other events.
The title of this blog is not merely an exercise in alliteration. Oak Hill Academy is very intentional in providing both a College-Prep environment, where a sense of independence and self is nurtured, AND providing the necessary structure and healthy boundaries we feel are required in a co-educational setting. As the father of two girls who attended and graduated from Oak Hill Academy, I have a keen perspective on how our objectives come together at the intersection of “college prep” and “structured environment,” particularly in managing the supervision of a small campus of high school boys and girls.
Developing a variety of healthy relationships is a focus at Oak Hill Academy. Our small size (approximately 150 students and 60+ faculty/staff adults) leads to a great opportunity for meaningful relationships and growth in this area both inside and outside of class. Our “smallness” also allows for a level of supervision that is on the “strict” end of the college prep boarding school spectrum. Our boys and girls attend class, events, church and meals together, and feel a real sense of community, but our policy is that they do not meet unsupervised. That necessitates a lot of on-campus supervised events, so that it feels very coeducational and natural. There are still dress codes for after school and weekends–times when our students are not required to wear the school uniform of khakis and polos. For dorm life, there is a girls’ side of campus and a boys’ side campus, so after dinner and any sponsored club activities, the students are separated for the evening and night.
Some of the opportunities to interact outside of class for our students, both boys and girls, include the very popular Alumni Campus Store which serves a function similar to that of a student union on a college campus. Socializing, snacks, personal items, and apparel are all available here. Whenever the store is open, there is also adult supervision. Our meals in the Vaughan Dining Hall are coed. We attend Sunday morning worship service all together as a student body at Young’s Chapel Baptist Church. There are supervised social events both on and off campus on the weekends, as well as during the week – such as Ski Club trips in the winter and Warrior Nights on select Saturdays throughout the year. Many of the traditional high school memories are made at Oak Hill Academy, including the Winter Dance and a Spring Formal, both long-standing traditions on “The Hill.”
If you are considering boarding school for your student and are closely comparing co-ed and single-sex options, please contact us in the Admission Department at Oak Hill Academy to discuss our approach.
I’m often asked, “what kind of student fits Oak Hill Academy’s mission as a school?” So, today’s blog post is going to be right to the point in answering that question.
Oak Hill Academy’s mission is to provide a structured and nurturing environment for students who have not had the kind of success of which they are capable. Our school is full of highly capable, intelligent students who were unmotivated and struggling in their previous environments. Our school is full of students who, deep down, wanted more for themselves but had become frustrated and had shut down–academically, socially, and quite often within their own family dynamics. In order to break that cycle, their families decided to look for a new approach and found Oak Hill Academy while searching boarding school options.
Here are some common themes in our enrollment discussions–you may, perhaps, see your student and current situation in some of these:
- A learning difference is going unaddressed in a large school setting. Having a learning difference such as ADD or slower processing can wreak havoc on self-esteem if not addressed in a supportive, non-judgmental way. We get that here at Oak Hill Academy and many of our students are here, in large part, to change that dynamic. Our classes are small; there is lots of one-on-one extra help available through tutorials; and perhaps most importantly, there is encouragement here to help students build a “growth mindset.” We are college-prep (well over 90% college acceptance rates over the last 12 years), so a sense of competency develops while students are getting the support they need to establish new habits and strategies.
- Frustration has led to a family dynamic that is full of tension. Students who are not enjoying academic success are constantly having their self-esteem challenged. This can lead to a peer group where academic success is not a priority, instead replaced with many of the other things that can become important to teenagers: social media, gaming, and peer acceptance. Oak Hill Academy provides a structured environment that places a priority on taking care of academic business, and places social life in perspective. Boarding school by nature is full of rules. Oak Hill Academy doesn’t invent difficult rules–but we know our students and their challenges. Things like our limits on cell phone and social media access, mandatory study time, and a dress code may not be “popular” with our students, but they know the benefits. What does this mean for families? From my first year here, over 13 years ago, I noticed family relationships improve. And I used to chalk it up to “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” That may be part of it, but the lasting effects come from the fact that as students change the way they see themselves, their approach to family relationships changes too–for the better.
- Maturity is a by-product of attending boarding school. Some boarding schools expect new students to already possess a high level of maturity. Oak Hill Academy sees developing this maturity and character as a huge part of its mission. We are not a “sink or swim” environment. Instead, our approach includes as much coaching as teaching, as much nurturing as there are rules, and as much academic support as there is rigor. Students who need this approach are our mission. Students who can see the opportunity, can grow tremendously.
Please visit www.oak-hill.net and take a deeper dive into our approach as a non-military, non-therapeutic, but structured small, coed, college-prep boarding school.
I’ll leave you today with some thoughts from a recent graduate’s parent:
I remember my first desperate phone call with you, followed immediately with the Skype interview in which you point-blank asked D if she could seriously commit to the 5-week summer program. That made up our minds that Oak Hill was the place that our daughter needed to get back on track. So the next day we packed up and drove 8 hours to Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, where she stayed that summer, then attended 2 more school years.
During her time there she was supported by every single teacher, staff member, office professional, team member… everybody! You are a family there on ‘the Hill,’ and you welcomed D into your family and took care of her well-being the entire time she was there with communication, understanding, firm rules, expectations, and love. The school provided subjects that challenged and interested her while the teachers provided connection, passion and enjoyment for their jobs and what they are called to do. Mrs. Groves and Mrs. Crede were instrumental in guiding her through her own anxiety challenges and any roommate/ dormmate issues with love and understanding. They got to know D not as just another teenage girl, but as a girl who is special, and they do this with every single student at Oak Hill.
Thank you, thank you for the passion, dedication, understanding, and love that you provided D. The Oak Hill family was the saving grace for our family. I will recommend Oak Hill to anyone.
I often encounter families who’ve looked at military schools, led by the desire for structure for their student, only to find that the military school approach may not be the right fit. – Mike Rodgers ’87
Let me be clear: Military Boarding School is a great fit for some students, and there are some very fine, historic institutions that do a great job of fulfilling their missions. I’m sure you are finding many types of boarding schools in your research, each with a specific approach and mission. Chances are, there is a school that is the correct match for your goals, and a military school may be exactly the right fit for some. However, I often encounter families who’ve looked at military schools, led by the desire for structure for their student, only to find that the military school approach may not be the right fit. Whether that is because there is resentment on the part of the student, or some other factor–it’s not the right fit. Many families find Oak Hill Academy as an alternative to military school for some valid reasons.
Structure: In comparison to a military school environment, there are many overlapping elements of structure at Oak Hill Academy that support the goal of defining boundaries and fostering personal growth through responsibility and routine. We wear a school uniform (albeit a uniform packet that gives a lot of options, so we are not dressing identically–think polos and khakis with several different pullovers available). We have a scheduled day that culminates in mandatory study time in the dorms, and set times for “lights out.” We have consequences for failing room inspection or missing homework. This means that our students don’t find it easy at Oak Hill Academy. Our cell phone policy that restricts use to weekends, and strict limits on internet access are two of toughest adjustments for our students. I’d classify our half-day Saturday school schedule as another part of our structure that takes some getting used to. It all serves to have our students becoming comfortable doing more than the minimum. These rules are not designed to make Oak Hill “tough,” but rather they help provide the structured environment that leads to focus and a greater capacity for grit.
Accountability: Without disparaging the military school approach, I can tell you that our approach focuses on coaching and teachable moments that are dependent on being relational, and on positive peer pressure. An accurate impression of our approach is that we do not lead with the punitive, but with coaching instead. There are several intervention steps before a student is corrected with things like work detail, social restriction, or a loss of certain privileges. There’s accountability, but it is couched in a supportive relationship. Students here don’t have authority over other students, but are coached to be positive influences through our leadership program and in countless informal teachable moments with our faculty, staff, and resident managers who live with the students in the dorms.
Student Buy-In: Our small, coed, student body is full of students who were involved in making the choice to attend Oak Hill Academy. One important criterion for admission is that the student must be able to articulate that they see an opportunity for growth, on some level, in attending Oak Hill Academy. That doesn’t mean that everyone enrolls with a huge smile on their face. We completely understand the difference between apprehension and opposition. Making a change to boarding school is inherently intimidating or even scary for most students. But a campus tour will reveal that our students are not resentful about being at Oak Hill Academy. Not every day is a walk in the park–our students bump up against their areas of weakness and are pushed to grow. And it’s all outside their comfort zones. The game changer for most is that they recognize the opportunity to grow and make the kinds of changes they, deep down, want for themselves. And they are doing it in an environment where they feel supported.
Today’s blog contributor is Director of Student Affairs, Aaron Butt, who illustrates Oak Hill Academy’s daily approach to our mission. Here is the December Update:
From the Director of Student Affairs:
The Oak Hill campus is quiet as I take walks with my children in the afternoons – everyone is at home for Christmas Break, and I hope you are enjoying a restful, peaceful time with friends and family. We have finished our first semester, weathered exam week, and grades are posted.
The three weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas were filled with a flurry of events – we had our first significant snowfall of almost 7 inches, and students enjoyed a “snow-cial” on the hill sledding and drinking hot chocolate. Last weekend was the Christmas dinner and annual winter dance; for me the highlight was watching students in their formal dress linger in the dining hall after our meal, enjoying each other’s company. The past three weeks have also been full of basketball – students came out many nights to the Turner Gym to support our JV, Red, and Gold teams.
One of the biggest high points of this time of year is hearing about college acceptances. Regularly in our morning assemblies we hear announcements of students who have been admitted to colleges, and it reminds me of the value and purpose of Oak Hill – to transform young men’s and women’s lives, and put them on a path toward success. We call ourselves a structured boarding school; a coed, college preparatory school; a place where students can grow, be challenged, and have an opportunity to start fresh. But these are all just words, and it is a blessing to see these words in action as our seniors start to plan their futures.
As the Director of Student Affairs, one of the things I have been talking with students about is the connection between our structure and academic success. We limit cell phone usage. We require promptness, a standard of appearance, and politeness. We do not tolerate disrespect, and we prohibit certain behaviors. Why? Because we believe that there is a connection between these principles and these college acceptances. Students here are allowed to focus, encouraged to engage, and pushed to reach our high expectations. Academic success can happen elsewhere, but we believe this is a special place where learning and behavioral needs are acknowledged and addressed, and where students can build patterns that will aid them as they move on to college and beyond.
As we enter January and a new semester, my focus is going to be on the little things—the little, simple things we do each day which define us and show what kind of people we are. We will emphasize being on time, tucking in shirts, pushing in chairs, being respectful and attentive, coming to class prepared, watching the words that come out of our mouths. These things all seem small in themselves, but I am convinced that the small decisions we make today define and prepare us for our future.
May you have a blessed, refreshing holiday, and I look forward to seeing our campus full of students again soon!
Aaron Butt, Director of Student Affairs