Director of Academics Abby Hood discusses what she loves about Oliverian: the therapeutic focus, the creativity, and most of all, the quirky students.
Abby Hood exudes warmth, flexibility, and passion in her role as Oliverian’s Director of Academics.
With a background in both ecology and mental health, she understands the importance of allowing students to explore multi-disciplinary interests. Abby first began working at Oliverian as a science teacher, but her love of the school’s unique and talented students, beautiful campus, and wonderful faculty led her to take on a more holistic role. We sat down with Abby to talk about the Oliverian ethos, the students, and why she believes in both so deeply.
Q: How did you come to Oliverian?
A: I tried my hand at a variety of pursuits in my twenties, including wildlife rehabilitation and working at a mental health treatment center on a farm.
When I was finishing my graduate program in environmental work, I ended up doing a summer program working with high school students. I didn’t consider my own experience of high school to be especially pleasant, so I had no desire to spend any additional time there. But to my surprise, I absolutely loved working at this summer field science camp.
That’s what inspired me to to consider working at a high school after I graduated, and how I found Oliverian. It was a great fit for my interests in mental health, holistic wellness, and the values of a caring and accepting community. I’ve been here more than 10 years now, and it’s been the first phase of my life where I’ve been able to consider a working place to be a working home. It’s a pretty awesome spot.
Q: How do therapy and counseling come into play from an academic perspective, and how are they incorporated into the classroom?
A: Oliverian’s therapeutic approach is very much in-situ. We don’t expect that the most important work is necessarily happening during formal therapy sessions. Kids are doing the work of life, which for them is primarily school and building relationships with others. The role of therapy is not to isolate them from those things, but to put them in those contexts and provide support, introspection, and coping skills to help them be successful and discover how to be their best selves.
Our counselors strongly inform our approach with certain kids. For instance, one student had a ton of anxiety about academic tests. Our approach with her was highly therapeutic, emphasizing how she could tackle and diminish this anxiety over time, while not removing her from those challenges. We wanted to see her do the hard work of facing anxiety head-on in moments she wanted to avoid it, and therefore be able to start conquering it.
Q: What kind of flexibility do you see being taken at Oliverian to accommodate student needs?
A: I asked that same student’s humanities teacher to accept her third quarter term paper, which was due in March, in mid-June instead. We didn’t care when she completed it, as long as she successfully faced this task that was causing so much anxiety.
We also had a student this year with a significant sleep issue who was unable to be successful in her full load of classes despite being very bright. So we diminished her course load, allowing her to sleep in until 11:30 each day, and she was able to get some footing and gain confidence.
Another example is a student who is extremely anxious about Spanish speaking assessments. Her teacher realized how difficult they were for her and started calling the tests “speaking parties,” so even though it was still an assessment being graded, it was treated in a different way. This helped the student rid of the negative associations she had with test taking.
It’s all about getting creative — from scheduling, to deadlines, to testing.
Q: What does the college admissions process looks like for any given student, and what kinds of programs are the students being prepared for?
A: The colleges that our kids end up attending are highly variable because our kids are so different. It’s everything from community colleges focused on a vocational future, to competitive liberal arts colleges. Our kids have different needs and interests when it comes to the college experience.
The majority of our students take standardized tests in their junior year. Students also spend time exploring what their career interests are and what learning environments work for them. I share college ideas with them and their parents, and we encourage college visits so they can start to get a sense of what’s out there. It’s also fairly common for us to work with seniors who are coming into the year having done no preparation for admissions.
I pride myself on taking a very sane and balanced approach to the admissions process. It’s very individualized, and we don’t take the “one size fits all” approach to what kind of deadlines you should be shooting for, or what kind of schools you should be looking at.
Q: Do you feel a lot of the students coming in already have a sense of what they’re interested in, or is that something they foster while at Oliverian?
A: It’s really a mix. Our curriculum and academic program have a lot of choice built in, encouraging students to try a lot of things. Three times a year during electives week, kids can take short intensive courses that expose them to different topics. We also have elective classes that kids take each quarter in addition to their core curriculum. We endeavor to provide students with different experiences to help them find their strengths and passions. There’s also reflective work that goes on as they engage in the college admission process to help them consider different futures.
Q: What kind of students thrive best at Oliverian?
A: It’s not one type of student. It’s really about a kid’s readiness, and the stage they’re at in their personal development process. What we provide is a highly supportive, loving, and accepting environment for kids who have struggled for a variety of reasons, but are ready to engage, to have the freedom to make choices, and to make good use of positive adult connections in order to be their best selves. We don’t want just one kind of kid; in fact, the campus gets a little wonky when it’s skewed too much towards one type of student. We need a balance in order for this quirky little community to thrive.
Q: Is there any advice you’d give to a parent or student who’s considering Oliverian?
A: I would just highlight the support we provide and the restrictions we don’t provide — that’s an important balance for families and students to understand. For instance, if parents want their child to proceed in life with no bumps in the road, then Oliverian might not be the best fit, because we believe the bumps are opportunities for learning. What we try to do is really be there with a supportive approach when students struggle.
My advice would be to think about the long term goal, which is for the student to be self-sufficient as an adult in the world, and that in order to get from wherever you are to that goal, there needs to be a tolerance for risk and for discomfort.
Q: What would you say makes a successful teacher or role model within the Oliverian community?
A: We give kids space, but we are also incredibly attentive, engaged, and hands-on in terms of the level of care and love that the kids feel from us. What characterizes a great Oliverian teacher is a combination of real love for kids in all their quirky glory, paired with a lot of flexibility and the ability to come up with new approaches. Adaptable, flexible, loving, warm, engaged, funny — those are some of the traits that I think are most important in a successful staff member here.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about working at Oliverian?
A: What I love about Oliverian is that we don’t measure success by test scores or by Ivy League college acceptances. We measure it by moments with kids where we see growth, where we see grit and resilience and strength, where we see them get back on their feet after something difficult. We have kids who were considered weirdos at other schools or felt like they couldn’t be themselves, and they can be here, and are celebrated for that by our faculty. The thing that brings me the most pride is the sense that high school doesn’t have to be this unhappy, judgy place divided into popular kids and wallflowers and jocks. It can be something very different — a school where fun, eccentric kids can find their home.