An Interview With Oak Hill School

  • Reporter: Leon Cheong

    Interviewees:  Susan Andrews, Executive Director

    and Matt Poynter, Director of Education, Oak Hill School


    1.  Oak Hill has a variety of programs, including speech, occupational therapy, and mental health services. Could you explain how these services coordinate to cater to a student’s unique needs?


    A multidisciplinary approach to planning and program implementation is the hallmark of the Oak Hill program, and the principle the school was founded on. Each student is supported by an education specialist, a speech pathologist, an occupational therapist, and, when appropriate, a psychotherapist. These teams meet regularly to plan, problem solve, and share insights, and work collaboratively to implement the program.

    2. How does the transition program work?


    Whether preparing students for the next stage in their academic journey, developing vocational skills for entering the work force, or cultivating daily living skills to maximize independence, planning for transition underlies all of our programming. We connect families to resources and help them plan for the practicalities of aging out of the school system. Planning for transition involves:

    • Meaningful academics

    • Functional skills, activities of daily living, and self-advocacy

    • Vocational preparation

    • Recreation

    • Support for families


    3.  What kinds of methods (e.g. private tuition, tuition subsidized by school districts, fundraising) enables Oak Hill ensure that as many students as possible can have the opportunity to attend?


    As a non-profit organization, we depend on a combination of school district funding, private tuition and fund-raising to support a far-reaching, staff-intensive program. Arts education, field trips, on-site gardening programs, swimming, and community work experience are all important aspects of attending Oak Hill.


    Most Oak Hill students are placed by their school district. The difference between district funding and the real costs of the program are met through individual donor and foundation support and fund-raising events. We enjoy significant community support; however, it is an ongoing challenge to meet our commitment to provide the best possible program for our students.


    4.  What are some of the ways the staff is able to attend to the needs of individual students? How does Oak Hill adapt to the student? How does the student adapt to Oak Hill?


    The individual differences each student brings to the table demands a highly responsive, thoughtful, and individualized program. As we develop a relationship with a student, we assess his or her interests, strengths, challenges, preferences, and learning style. The better we know a student, the better we are able to create an environment that optimizes learning potential. We engage students through their interests, strengths, and sensory system. Some students love water, swinging, bouncing on the trampoline, or hiding under a blanket; others are motivated to sell lemonade or quesadillas in a student run business; and others gather interesting rocks, read about dinosaurs, or develop games on the computer.


    Classroom programs follow a continuum of standards-based learning, with goals and expectations set for each student. Therapeutic programming, including speech and occupational therapy, is infused into the classroom setting. Sensory and visual supports, augmentative communication systems, attuned staff members, and frequent case discussions help us create a comprehensible learning environment for our students, where they are understood and valued.


    Some high school students find regular schools to be daunting social and sensory environments. For such students, Oak Hill Prep delivers a full range of course work for which they may earn diploma credit.

    5. In what sort of situations does Oak Hill engage students beyond the physical campus?


    All of the work we do at Oak Hill is designed to help students navigate their world as effectively and independently as possible. On any school day, you’ll see Oak Hill students at a farmers’ market, hiking the hills of Marin, attending class at Autistry Studios, or shopping for groceries. These experiences provide key opportunities to generalize skills across contexts and access learning in authentic settings. The Transition Program, in particular, involves young adults in supervised work activities including restaurant work, pet care, retail positions, and others.


    6. How are students taught to overcome obstacles and become healthy, happy, active members of society?


    When asked why he was able to successfully participate in academic and group activities at Oak Hill after years of unsuccessful classroom placements, one student recently said, “They get me.” He articulated something that is true of all students: when they are understood, and their individual differences are valued, they can thrive.  We know that students learn and grow best in the context of close relationships, and we believe that all our students are capable of close relationships. The ability to form these close relationships is the most important life skill of all, and it is central to our purpose.


    Our kids and their families have a difficult road to travel. Yet we have seen students overcome significant obstacles, learning to self regulate when their nervous systems feel awry, communicate and socialize in situations that challenge their sensitivities and need for predictability, and learn flexibility in a world that is constantly changing.


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                Susan Andrews, with an MA in Education from SFSU, is a proud member of the founding Board of Directors of Oak Hill School in San Anselmo, and its Executive Director since 2011. An actively involved grandmother of a school age child on the autism spectrum, Susan served for nearly two decades as Director of Presidio Hill School in San Francisco, Head Teacher and Supervisor at Cross Cultural Family Center SF, and as Executive Director of Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley. Her educational career began in 1972 as founding Director of The Playgroup, still going strong as Papermilll Creek Children’s Corner in Pt. Reyes Station.


                Matt Poynter has been working in the autism community in the Bay Area for fourteen years. He earned a master’s degree in special education from SFSU and was one of the first cohorts to participate in Project Mosaic, a program to prepare highly qualified educators to meet the unique needs of learners on the autism spectrum in diverse settings. Matt’s spent nine years as a classroom teacher at Stanbridge Academy in San Mateo, and then spent two years as an education consultant across the Bay Area. During that time, he came to know Oak Hill through several students who attended the school, and became full time director of education in July 2010.  


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