The Hillsdale Academy: A Model for America

Robert C Hanna
Hillsdale College

Robert C HannaRobert C. Hanna is the associate Professor of Education, Hillsdale College.

The Hillsdale Academy is a private, coeducational K-8 school founded by Hillsdale College in 1990. Since then, it has become a model for Americans seeking true educational reform. On May 16, 1997, a ground-breaking ceremony for a new facility was held. When the Academy opens its doors in the fall of 1998, it will include a high school. Here, Hillsdale College Assistant Professor of Education Robert C. Hanna explains why this small school has a national impact.

There was a time when you could walk into almost any American school and find a mission statement prominently displayed. Based on timeless ideas and values concerning the proper upbringing of children, each statement was carefully and lovingly crafted with the care of an artisan and was meant to last for generations. Each was meant to speak to all of us, regardless of our individual differences. But somewhere along the way, we stopped listening. Meanwhile, self-proclaimed experts in the new philosophy of progressive education defined progress more and more as rejection of the Western tradition. The conscience-troubling mission statements were finally removed from virtually all public and most private schools around the country.

But when you enter the Hillsdale Academy office, a mission statement is prominently and proudly displayed. It proclaims that the Academy “educates children to become successful, productive, and independent members of a free society.” Enter any Academy classroom and it is evident that the teachers are still as dedicated to this mission as were our forefathers. Observe Academy students at work and you will witness the results of “solid preparation in the fundamental academic skills of reading and phonics, writing, and computation.” Examine the classroom holdings and you will find “the best of the Western tradition.” Speak to Academy parents and you will learn of their children’s moral growth from the “values-centered approach” of “personalized instruction from teachers dedicated to the well-rounded development of the young.”

From a Vision to a Model

In just seven years, the Hillsdale Academy has grown from a vision derived from Hillsdale College’s affirmation of the Judeo-Christian faith and Greco-Roman culture to a nationally acclaimed model for American education. Visitors are administrators and teachers from public schools, including charter schools; clergy and lay ministers from church schools; trustees and administrators from established and planned independent schools; and parents who teach their children at home. They find, to use Hillsdale College President George Roche’s words, “a safe, orderly, encouraging school atmosphere” and students who are acquiring “a sense of personal dignity and responsibility.” And they learn firsthand that the Academy demonstrates the often forgotten truth that one curriculum can meet the educational needs which all children, by nature of their humanity, hold in common.

The Hillsdale Academy Reference Guide

For those who cannot visit the campus, who plan to open a school of their own, or who intend to reform an existing school, there is the Hillsdale Academy Reference Guide, a unique curriculum outline for kindergarten through the eighth grade. (A high school version is currently in preparation.) One thousand copies of the Reference Guide have been sold or distributed. Seventeen schools have been founded using the Reference Guide as their model; forty more are scheduled to open their doors in the next two years.

Parents as Partners

The Academy’s extraordinary success is also due to the fact that parents are regarded as vital partners in the educational process. Far too often in today’s schools, parents are belittled or ignored or treated as “the enemy” when they speak up for traditional education and question the latest trends, from multicultural courses and self-esteem exercises to sensitivity training and outcome-based education. Academy parents are treated with respect and their voices are heard. They actively help teachers and administrators fulfill the school’s mission. They know that the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development of their children does not end after the last class period, nor does it end after extracurricular activities. It continues at home.

Personal Testimonials

Personal testimonials regarding the Academy’s effectiveness abound. Not too long ago, a new student was admitted to the eighth grade. Headmaster Todd Avis did not give her tests to determine her “type of intelligence,” “learning style,” or “special needs.” Instead, he interviewed her to ascertain the seriousness of her academic purpose. He also discussed with her and her parents the Academy’s mission statement. When this eighth grader, who had never before studied French, found herself on the first day of school in a French class, surrounded by students already able to speak French, she doubted her ability to succeed. So her teacher asked her to stay after school three days a week for additional instruction. Her parents helped her with her homework. Within a few months, she no longer needed extra instruction. Soon after that, she recited “The Night Before Christmas” in French during the Academy’s holiday program. Before the school year was over, a teacher overheard her speaking French and explaining its meaning to younger Academy students during the lunch hour. The following year, when she entered high school, she qualified to enroll in French II. The Hillsdale Academy makes this kind of difference in the lives of its students every day.