• Brian Hetzel

Eagle Hill School: A Visit to a Gem in Hardick, MA

Updated: Dec 23, 2019


Welcome to Eagle Hill School

An independent high school for students with language-based learning differences

Eagle Hill can be a bit of a drive, but trust me—once you are there, you will realize it was well worth the trip. Nestled amongst the foothills of central Massachusetts, the campus sits on 200+ acres with gorgeous views of the Quabbin Reservoir. It’s not uncommon to see bald eagles in the skies above, hence the name of the school.


Once on campus, visitors are greeted by Dana Harbert, the Director of Admission and one of the friendliest (and funniest) people in the secondary school world. The admission office is located in the oldest building on campus, the Cochrane House, built in 1759, and while there are modern updates, it still has a feeling of historic New England life. If he is on campus, most families that come through for tours and interviews will stop in and meet the head of school, PJ McDonald. PJ is credited with rejuvenating the school; building on a plan he started after taking over at the young age of 28. Unlike most secondary school visits, the admission officers who will be conducting the interview give the tours. I love this aspect of their process, as it gives both the student and the parents time to get to know the staff before the interview. My clients have reported back that they felt much more relaxed by the time the interview came around.


Dormitories


While out on tour, you will experience one of the more modern campuses in the boarding school community. Many of the dorms are either fairly new or recently remodeled. Dana, Enfield and Prescott Halls were updated and remodeled in 2012 and house the underclassman, all in double rooms. Across campus sits Harmsworth Hall, the upperclassmen dorm that houses 105 students, all in single rooms. Built in 2004, it is quite spacious and modern, a true favorite of all students on campus. And for the lucky students that live there, they have direct access to the nurse’s office, which is on the first floor.


The Cultural Center


The Cultural Center is the true showpiece of campus, in my opinion, where the core of Eagle Hill’s mission is on full display. Students’ energy and creativity are mined here, whether it is through the 500-seat state of the art theater, adjoining black box theater, spacious woodworking classroom (where all theater sets are handmade and constructed), multimedia classroom, recording studio and music classroom, graphic arts studio and classroom, or the artist in residence program and studio (different professional artists arrive every few months), the Center has it all. The top floor also houses the dining commons, an open space where students can be found bouncing from table to table to talk and eat with their friends during casual meals. Also, all meals are made from scratch in-house, which is quite rare in the secondary school world. I can report that the food definitely does not disappoint. When students are not using the Center, it serves as a public performing arts facility, complete with a professional box office (yes, the students operate it) and a full schedule of incoming acts.


WHIKS


Next on tour is the WHIKS, a 2,000 square foot college-style student union that has everything a student will need to kick back and relax for a bit. With comfy furniture, three fireplaces, an outdoor fire pit, loads of TVs, a snack bar, billiards and more, EHS students have everything they need to zone out for a while. Depending on the season, there is also a pool, which converts to a skating rink in the winter. Yes, they’ve got all the bases covered.


The Ronald M. Bagglio Sports and Fitness Center


The Ronald M. Bagglio Sports and Fitness Center sits on the hill overlooking the rest of campus. Built in the last 5 years, it has all the modern trappings any athlete would want. Fully stocked weight room, hardwood basketball court, synthetic courts to allow for indoor tennis and batting cages, squash pavilion, a competition swimming pool, a suspended track, a rock climbing wall and a cardiovascular center. Did you want to practice your golf swing? Well, you're in luck; they have a brand new golf simulation center. And just for good measure, there is a skate park out back because, well, why not.


PJM STEM Center


Brand new to the campus after opening in early September, the PJM STEM Center stands as one of the finest high school STEM facilities in the country. In all of my travels amongst independent schools over the years, I have never seen anything quite like this. I was lucky enough to have been invited to the grand opening, and the space certainly lived up to the hype. The school's motto during the project goal was "creating the adjacent possible. My words will do no justice to EHS's own, so please click the link below to read more and view photos of the facility. The video at the bottom of this post will also provide a view into the new space.


Eagle Hill: Creating the Adjacent Possible


Richardson Academic Center & A Unique Scheduling System


All academic classes are held in the Richardson Academic Center, a short walk up the hill from lower campus. Eagle Hill has a unique curriculum, one that is curated for each and every student. I say this because no one student has the same schedule, thanks to the innate structure of the program. The brainchild of the design, Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs Dr. Michael Riendeau, builds each student's schedule, one by one, over the summer. At Eagle Hill, the belief is that not every diagnosis is the same. While two students may share a dyslexia diagnosis, for instance, their needs are vastly different due to educational background, strength of their previous school's curriculum, family circumstances, access to quality resources, etc. So, It makes sense to build each schedule to fit the exact needs of every child. In the 6 years since the program has been implemented, not single schedule has been the same.

Here is a brief video that explains the unique scheduling and why they feel it is invaluable, especially for their students:


Eagle Hill's Unique Curriculum


As the video explains, the 9 month-long semesters allow each student to explore their academic interests without being locked in to rigid quarters or traditional semesters. This helps foster academic passions in areas previously unknown. It also increases academic confidence, something so often stripped down with kids who have been dealing with learning differences for years. The schedule also allows students to add critical skill building classes specifically for their learning difference. All of this while still taking other core classes. With an average of 6 students per class, the schedule offers unparalleled support. For further reference, see the example schedule below.


Eagle Hill has recently been authorized as an IB World School; so select upperclassmen will be able to complete the rigorous Diploma Programme. The programme is not for the faint of heart and requires significant time and organization to complete. However, it is a great addition for students who want to push the boundaries of their academic pursuits. Those students that do not want to take the full programme can still earn certificates in specific classes that peak their interests. For more information, please visit their website here.


A Magical Place


All in all, for the right student, Eagle Hill is a magical place. As someone who has struggled with learning differences my whole life, it is amazing to visit a place where learning, even for the most challenged students, is possible. The school is not focused on students getting by, they want their kids to thrive. Eagle Hill does an extraordinary job in tracking their graduates and they have found that their students have a higher percentage of graduating from college than the general public does. Quite an achievement for many students who arrive on campus wondering if it is even possible to make it through high school.


For more information, please visit Eagle Hill’s website here.


-Brian



FAST FACTS


Founded: 1967 Head of School: Dr. PJ McDonald Grades: 8-12 Enrollment: 220

Boarders: 196 States: 27 Countries: 10 Acres: 200+ Full-time faculty members: 80, 119 total employees Student to faculty ratio: 2.5:1 Average class size: 6:1 College Acceptance: 96% Accreditation: NEASC Summer Program: Eagle Hill runs a five-week summer session for boys and girls ages 10-16.

Eagle Hill School believes:

· That every student can learn.

· That every person who interacts with a student is a teacher

· That leaning differently demands teaching differently

· That the foremost responsibility for pedagogical decisions lies with individual teachers.

· That all teachers should have the necessary resources for implementing the curriculum.

· That parent partnerships are an essential component in the pursuit of academic and social development.

· That we must encourage students to learn about learning and to form their own beliefs in search for intellectual autonomy.

· That personal and social growth must be nurtured alongside intellectual development.

· That the exploration of the arts and exposure to athletics and physical fitness are essential components in the development of independent, curious, and critical thinkers.

· That we should cultivate in our students a sense of moral responsibility for their thoughts and actions.

· That we should inspire our students to be global students who embrace the differences in the world that they will inherit.


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