Founder reflects on MHA impact

What started as one family's dream of what education could look like for their own family has grown into the only PreK-12 grade classical, Christian school in the greater Cincinnati area.  

Mars Hill Academy -- located on 13 acres in Mason -- began its 25th school year August 18 serving 249 students from across the region -- from as far south as Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, to as far north as Xenia  

"Back in the 1990s, my wife, Linda, and I read a book called Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, which motivated us to think differently about education," said Tom Thistleton. "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 focuses on educating the whole child -- mind, body, and soul -- and equipping them for the future. We became convinced that we should start a classical and Christian school in Cincinnati."   

Thistleton, who founded the school with his wife in 1996 and serves as a member of the board, tells more about the school and its history. 

Q: What makes MHA unique?  

First, we are a thoroughly Christian school. We really believe that 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-faddish. We’re building on an educational foundation that was laid over several thousand years and produced the best that man has said or written 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 -- recover and reapply 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 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, logic and argumentation (in the best sense of that word), and rhetoric and persuasion. Our students read original documents, as opposed to watered-down summaries or revisions. Younger students memorize whole poems to more fully understand the author’s meaning. Middle school students study the U.S. Constitution. Our high school students read books like The Iliad and Dante’s Inferno and as seniors write a formal thesis paper, which they present and defend in front of a faculty panel. 

Our school scored first in the nation for the past two years on the Classic Learning Test, which is a college entrance exam like the SAT and ACT. On average, more than 20% 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. Six 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.    

Q: How has MHA changed over the past 25 years?  

We began our first school year with 27 students and three teachers. This fall we have 249 students and 40 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 25 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?  

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 like The Wall Street Journal, Washingtonian, Philadelphia Magazine, 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. We have several alumni in medical school and serving as nurses. Quite a few have become teachers. One alum received his PhD in physics and worked at CERN in Switzerland on the particle accelerator there. Our students are following wherever the Lord leads them. 

Our teachers have had an amazing impact as well. 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.