A program that started in a little yellow house 40 years ago is now the go-to resource for Triangle families whose children struggle academically.
When it opened in 1977, The Hill Center was a facet of Durham Academy (DA). In 1980, the center was dedicated to founder George Watts Hill and changed its name from the Hill Learning Development Center to The Hill Center.
The center now operates as a nonprofit with its own board of directors, but is still affiliated with DA. Its students in grades kindergarten through 12 come from a variety of public and private “base schools” – the schools students attend when they’re not at the center. Many are also homeschooled.
In addition to the regular school year program, in which students spend either the morning or the afternoon at the center, it offers summer programs, tutoring and teacher training.
RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
Lifelong Durham resident Louise Rollins is a proud member of the Little Yellow House Club – a small group of educators at the center who taught in the original building.
She started as a substitute teacher in 1986 after graduating from Guilford College, then taught in the lower school for a couple of years before leaving to raise her family. She returned as a middle school teacher 13 years ago and now serves as the middle school coordinator and assistant director for the summer program in addition to teaching reading and writing.
A DA graduate herself, she’s known about The Hill Center since eighth grade, when a couple of her friends received help from the program. Her three children – Will, 27; Carlton, 24; and Sarah, 20 – attended Durham Academy, too, and Will spent a year with the center. Her husband, Steed, is a Realtor with Peak Swirles & Cavallito Properties.
Louise said the center’s tried-and-true formula is what makes it so successful. “We do something by repetition until it’s mastered,” she says. “It’s very routine, it’s very predictable and it’s very differentiated.”
Most classes have just four students. Some high school math classes have only two. The individualized attention assists students whether they struggle with ADHD, dyslexia, autism or simple reading comprehension. It also helps keep distractions at bay.
“I can see when the kids just slide a piece of paper in their notebook instead of putting its three holes in the binder,” Louise says. “They don’t get away with that. It’s our vigilance in keeping them organized and holding them accountable, giving them those skills to be independent and self-advocates.”
Educators focus instruction for each student based on his or her particular learning differences. Louise says a recent lesson centered on the novel “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain. The class listened to the story together as an audiobook, but they didn’t complete the same assignments.
“I had two pretty low-functioning eighth-graders, and I wanted to expose them to Mark Twain. It wasn’t that they weren’t going to take away a lot, but just to know the story and be exposed to it,” she says. “The other two kids in that class who were very high functioning, I just differentiated how I assessed them.”
Educators teach students practical strategies like crossing off the words in a word bank as they use them. “It seems obvious to use, but it’s not always obvious to them,” Louise says.
The middle school has a money management program, MoneyWorks, that teaches students important life skills. Each student receives a mock checkbook, debit card and a salary and must pay monthly bills and encounter unexpected expenses. They also must be prepared for class, or they face financial consequences. There are rewards for doing the right thing, too. Students can use “money” they have at the end of the year to buy real gift cards.
Seeing kids who have struggled “get it” is one of the most rewarding parts of Louise’s job. The other, she says, is the gratitude of parents. “For some people, they’ve tried so many things, this is kind of the last resort,” she says.
Louise, whose son attended The Hill Center for a year, says she understands that it is a commitment for families, and one for which parents often aren’t prepared.
“You plan for college, you put money aside for college, but
all of a sudden your child gets to fourth grade and they aren’t reading, and you can’t figure it out and you need a lot of help,” she says. “You don’t plan on [spending thousands] for three hours a day, and you’ve got to figure out transportation.”
The Hill Center does its best to help families make it work, providing more than $250,000 in aid each year to students with demonstrated financial need. Additionally, parents may be able to earn tax deductions for tuition and fees, and some students qualify for North Carolina’s Special Education Scholarship Grants for Children with Disabilities program, which gives up to $8,000 a year for specific educational expenses.
The Hill Center is an investment. But for the families of the more than 170 students who attend, it’s one they know will pay dividends in the future.
A STUDENT’S PERSPECTIVE
Braden Holdsclaw is competitive.
The fifth-grader says his favorite activity at The Hill Center is playing Word Attack. “They have words on the iPad, and you have to read them out,” he says. “There’s a time test where you have to read as many words as you can in a minute, and I like those kind of challenges.”
His natural drive – combined with The Hill Center’s methods – are working. Since he started at the center two years ago, his spelling has improved from a second-grade to a fourth-grade level. His reading progress is also impressive, advancing from a first-grade level to a sixth-grade level – a year ahead.
To say that Braden’s parents, John and Marcene Holdsclaw, are pleased with the 11-year-old’s progress would be an understatement. “We’re ecstatic. We can’t say it enough,” John says. “He wrote something one day, and I was like, ‘Who wrote this?’ He said, ‘I did.’”
John, a senior vice president for D.C.-based National Cooperative Bank, and Marcene, who works with North Carolina Head Start, live in Chatham County’s Governors Park neighborhood. They decided to put their son in The Hill Center’s morning program after testing revealed there were some areas where a gap needed to be filled. John says among all the educational options in the Triangle, there was one obvious choice.
“The Hill Center just has such an amazing track record,” he says. “We’ve seen so many students who have gone on to base schools and have excelled because of the foundation they received at The Hill Center.”
Braden, who previously attended Emerson Waldorf School, is currently homeschooled in the afternoons. He will likely transition back to a base school in the next couple years. For now, both he and his parents are happy with the community The Hill Center provides.
“They just had a service day the other day, they’ve been bowling, they raise money through the Hill 5K race every year,” he says. “We consider ourselves to be purpose-driven people and – not that most schools don’t – we really feel that Hill has that.”
The Hill Center creates a typical, full school day atmosphere by providing recess and reward systems like students would partake in at a base school. Students earn raffle tickets and Hero Bucks for doing good work. John says Braden can often be found counting out his Hero Bucks at the kitchen counter after school, recounting to his parents how he earned them.
“One time I earned five Hero Bucks in one day because we came back from our break and all my homework, [my teacher] said, was super-duper good,” Braden says.
When he earns those rewards, he feels especially confident – a continuation of the positive feelings he has every day at The Hill Center. John says his son hops out of the car in the mornings, excited to go to school.
“I’m super-duper happy,” Braden says.
CONTINUING THE LEGACY
When Chapel Hill resident Scott Morris was a sophomore at Chapel Hill High School, he had trouble paying attention and was falling behind. Today, he’s the vice president of real estate firm Morris Commercial. For him, it all turned around at The Hill Center.
His parents heard encouraging stories about the center from family friend Jean Neville, but Scott was unsure. “I was very reluctant to try any model other than what I was used to, even though it didn’t fit me,” he says. However, upon his first visit to the center, the welcoming and encouraging attitudes of everyone he met changed his mind.
At his base school, Scott was easily distracted and struggled to follow the teacher and understand the lessons. He needed individual attention – and that’s just what he received at The Hill Center.
“With a smaller class size and the help of the amazing teachers at Hill, I went from almost failing math to making A’s and loving geometry and calculus,” he says.
He attended until he graduated high school in 2001. Over the years, he and his family remained involved with the center to help other students receive the same life-changing assistance he found there.
This school year, the Morris family and their business, Morris Commercial, are sponsors of The Hill Center’s Community Educational Series. It educates community members about topics related to the science of learning and learning styles and provides teachers and parents resources to more effectively help students.
Scott’s mother, Waynell Morris, also established an endowment fund at the center this year in honor of mothers who advocate for their children. The fund will help ensure the school remains on the forefront of teaching by providing funding for priority investments.
Scott’s wife, Elizabeth Broyhill Morris, serves on the center’s board of directors. She is also the founder of the inspirational website, thisislivinghope.com. Scott and Elizabeth live in the Arbor Lea neighborhood with their children, Woodson, 4, and Nora Anne, 7 months.
Scott says what makes The Hill Center stand out from other educational resources is its dedicated team of educators. “The teachers and the executive staff are all so passionate in their work toward helping children better prepare themselves with the unique tools that will help them succeed in life,” he says. “It is truly remarkable.”
Photography by Briana Brough