July 25, 2015

Printed in the Today's Pulse "Community Conversations" section

by Lisa Knodel

MASON, OH – Mason parents Tom and Linda Thistleton felt called to start southwest Ohio’s only K-12 private classical and Christian school more than two decades ago. This August Mars Hill Academy – located on 13 acres in Mason – will begin it’s 20th year serving 350 students from across the region – from as far south as Newport, Kentucky to as far north as Centerville, Ohio. Tom Thistleton, the school’s founder and a member of the board, talks about the school.

Q: How did the idea for MHA begin?
A: Back in the 1990’s, my wife Linda and I read a book called “Rediscovering the Lost Tools of Learning,” which motivated us to think differently about education. Instead of constantly chasing after the latest educational “reforms,” the author made the case that we should return to the proven classical education system that had historically produced great leaders and thinkers, including many of our country’s Founding Fathers. We became convinced that we should start a classical and Christian school in Cincinnati, which we did in the fall of 1996.

Q: What makes MHA unique?
A: First, we are a thoroughly Christian school. We really believe the beginning of wisdom and knowledge is the fear of the Lord. Augustine said that we should learn as much as we can about as many things as we can, because all truth leads us to God. This not only informs why, how and what we teach, but it also shapes the culture of the school. We have high expectations for our students, desiring that they work heartily as unto the Lord in everything they do, honor their teachers and love one another. We see ourselves as partners with our parents, helping and serving them with their God-directed task of training up their children in the way they should go. The MHA culture is the foundation for everything else we do and is our most distinguishing characteristic.
Second, we are decidedly anti-modern and anti-faddish. We’re building on an educational foundation that was laid over several thousand years and produced the great men and great works of Western Civilization in every field: theology, literature, drama, math, science, music, etc. Modern education is characterized by novelty. We’ve been trying to fix something that wasn’t broken and now, we’ve broken it and don’t know how to fix it. Our answer to this dilemma is simple in theory but difficult in execution – re-discover and re-apply the proven methods that produced so much that is virtuous, honorable and beautiful in the past.
Third, the way we teach is very different from what you might see in a typical school in the Cincinnati area. Using the classical method, our younger students build a foundation of knowledge through lots of teacher interaction, hands-on activities, movement, singing and chanting to help them memorize. We teach Latin beginning in fourth grade and logic beginning in seventh grade, and we emphasize critical thinking. Our older students probe, question and debate and discuss some of the most pressing issues in today’s society, striving to see everything through the lens of a Biblical worldview.

Q: What does the “classical” approach to education mean in terms of classroom instruction?
A: We focus on grammar and writing, rhetoric and public speaking. Our students read original documents, as opposed to watered-down summaries or revisions. Younger students don’t just memorize the popular stanza of a classic poem – they learn the whole poem to more fully understand the author’s meaning. Middle school students don’t just learn about the Constitution – they read it. Our seniors aren’t just writing term papers – they write a formal thesis paper, which they present and defend in front of a panel of adults and faculty. MHA teachers encourage their students to go deeper and to examine everything through the lens of Scripture.

Q: How do MHA students compare academically to other students?
A: On average, 25 percent of our graduating seniors have been named National Merit Scholars or Commended Students. Our standardized test scores are impressive.But that’s not all we’re about. Our graduates leave MHA armed with unique tools for life. Five of my own children have graduated from MHA, so I can say with certainty that our students leave our school well-prepared for college, work, service or whatever their future holds.Also as an independent school, Mars Hill Academy does not accept funding from local, state or federal governments, or religious denominations. We are one of just two schools in the city who can say that. Our independence permits us to provide a true classical and Christian educational experience that is pure in mission, vision and result.

Q: How is Mars Hill celebrating its 20th year?
A: Our 20th school year kicks off with a “homecoming” celebration of sorts on Saturday, July 25. This will be a fun time of fellowship for past and current MHA families, faculty, board members and supporters.We’ll have a special all-school convocation on the first day of school (Aug. 18), at which time we’ll also dedicate our new gymnasium.A more formal anniversary celebration will take place at our annual Blue & Gold Gala Auction on Oct. 24 at The Manor House in Mason, during which we’ll take a look back through the years at God’s provision for MHA, and look forward to a promising future. We’ll recognize this milestone in smaller ways throughout the school year as well, including a historical timeline.

Q: How has MHA changed over the past 20 years?
A: We began our first school year with 27 students and three teachers. This fall we have 350 students and 43 staff members. We started with a handful of families holding school in churches around the Cincinnati area, moving four times before building our permanent campus in Mason in 2006. Since then we’ve added another classroom wing and a gymnasium.What hasn’t changed during our 20 years is the focus on community. Yes, we’re quite a bit bigger than when we began, but we still know each other, care about each other and build each other up spiritually. We are a family. Our classes are still relatively small, and new families are always surprised at how well their teachers know each individual student and work to draw out each student’s unique gifts.

Q: What impact has MHA had during this time?
A: When I think of impacting the community or the world, I look at our alumni first. They are using their gifts in so many ways. We have alumni writing for top publications, and others impacting the world of business and finance with integrity. We have graduated incredible stay-at-home moms dedicated to raising godly children, as well as missionaries serving in dangerous countries such as South Sudan. We have several alumni in medical school and serving as nurses. Quite a few have become teachers. One alum just received his PhD in physics, and he’ll be working at CERN in Switzerland on the particle accelerator. Our students are following where the Lord leads them with a fearless and uncompromising faith, fulfilling their calling through Christ.As for our current students, I have lost count of the number of employers who seek out Mars Hill students for summer jobs. Our students are known for their ability to learn quickly, hit the ground running and work hard.Our teachers have had an amazing impact as well. Even after 20 years, I am regularly reminded how blessed we are to have such a dedicated, caring faculty. Teaching is not just a job for them, it’s a calling. We often have alumni come back to school to visit their old teachers, who have become valued friends and mentors.

Q: What does the future hold for the school?
A: We’re really excited to be adding a gymnasium to our building this fall. It will be great to finally have our sports teams play their home games at MHA. We’ll likely be adding another classroom wing in the next few years as enrollment increases. We continue to add extracurricular, service and leadership opportunities for our students. But in addition to these changes, I hope that the future of our school includes a continued enhancing of our vision: partnering with parents in the training of their children for God’s glory.

Q: What would you say to families who want to learn more?
A: I would encourage parents to get online and read Dorothy Sayer’s essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning” or better yet, check out Doug Wilson’s book, “The Case for Classical Education.”At Mars Hill, we recognize that to know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been. I love that my kids are studying the same subjects, such as Humanities, Latin and Greek, that St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and James Madison studied. The list of people who were classically educated and have impacted our world throughout the ages is endless. Instead of changing educational methods and philosophies with the prevailing cultural winds, we think it’s time to get back to what works.

View this article in Today's Pulse online at http://www.todayspulse.com/news/news/local-education/tom-thistleton-mars-hill-academy-founder-and-mha-b/nm4Bf/

Photo: Mars Hill Academy founder Tom Thistleton in the school library