By the late 1960’s, a number of comprehensive private schools for elementary age children with learning differences had come into being in the greater Philadelphia area. However, the same could not be said for adolescents with learning differences. The few programs that were available tended to be one dimensional, oriented only toward vocational training, or were designed to mix students of different exceptionalities. In the public sector, these children were treated as marginal “products” – just barely worth the cost of educating.
Elissa L. Fisher, Ed.M., saw great potential in these children and as she saw their needs being inadequately or ineffectively met, her distress grew. Determined to meet these needs appropriately, Mrs. Fisher set out to design an educational environment that would treat all aspects of the problem.
The result was a program with several critical components. The group sizes had to be limited. Academic and group therapy had to be appropriately combined. Thorough training had to be given in both basic skills and subject matter. Experiences had to be realistic. The students had to be provided with opportunities in which they could learn to cope with failure as well as success. They had to be able to earn a recognized high school diploma as a result of their efforts. Those critical components, established many years ago, continue to exist in the Hill Top program today.
With the encouragement of her family, friends and colleagues, Elissa Fisher’s goal was realized on September 12, 1971, with the opening of The Hill Top Preparatory School, Inc. A faculty of six met the four students who entered that day. As a fully licensed, diploma granting, private, nonprofit, secondary day school, Hill Top has, since its inception, welcomed adolescents with learning differences from all social, religious, and ethnic backgrounds.
Friends, relatives, colleagues, Board members, and foundations had pooled their financial resources to make the school possible. They realized that any program setting out to meet the complex academic, social, emotional, and physical needs of students with learning differences would be an expensive undertaking. Tuition alone would not support such an extraordinary endeavor. Acceptance of state subsidized funds would carry with them labels for the students as neurologically impaired or emotionally disturbed. The danger of permanently stigmatizing the students in this way prompted resistance to state funding. Students were coming to Hill Top to rise above their disabilities, not to be set apart by virtue of having received assistance. The refusal of state funding generated new problems associated with securing private funding.
Hill Top’s first three years were spent on the campus of Cabrini College in Radnor. Through the generosity of Sister Regina Casey, President of the College, and the Cabrini Board of Trustees, Counsel Hall was made available to Hill Top. Not only was the facility perfect for the small student body, but the tranquil atmosphere helped reduce many of the students’ fears about school. The courtesy extended to Hill Top by Sister Regina, her successor, Sister Mary Louise Sullivan, the Cabrini faculty, and Dean Dorothy Brown gave Hill Top an auspicious beginning.
As the school grew, so did community support. By 1973, Hill Top needed more space for its twelve and thirteen year-olds. The Radnor Friends’ Meeting educational building became the home of the junior unit at that time. Hill Top had entered what was later to be known as its nomadic period.
In the fall of 1975, Cabrini College began to accept male students and required the use of Counsel Hall. Through the kindness of Marcus Mamourian and the members of Saints Sahag and Mesrob Armenian Church in Wynnewood, temporary accommodations were arranged for the senior unit for the academic year of 1975-76.
Throughout the five years following the founding of the school, Hill Top’s Board of Directors were seeking a permanent home for the growing school community. Enrollment had reached waiting-list status and space was at a premium. The nomadic period was taking its toll on the staff and Hill Top’s plans for future growth. Finally, in the spring of 1976, under the leadership of Board Chairman Robert Kardon, Hill Top acquired the property in Rosemont previously owned by The Booth School.
The beautiful twenty-five acre campus allowed Hill Top to double its enrollment and to provide a comprehensive secondary program, including laboratory sciences, a full range of electives, a complete physical education curriculum, and competitive team sports.
Hill Top moved to the Rosemont property in July, 1976. Parents, students, staff, and Board members worked twelve to sixteen hour days to prepare the facility for the September opening. Floors were refinished, 250 gallons of paint were applied, fire and panic equipment, lighting fixtures, and carpet were installed, renovation of several classrooms was completed, and a thorough cleaning of all areas was accomplished.
By the fall of 1977, the enrollment had doubled and the school was well on its way. Course offerings were enlarged, the transitional college program was expanded, new staff was in training, and fund-raising efforts were intensified to handle the cost.
Hill Top was quickly becoming recognized professionally for the strength of its program. Educators from across the United States as well as representatives from Canada, Israel, and India came to observe procedures and techniques and to discuss with the director and staff the development of the school’s academic/clinical format.
With the arrival of Janet L. Hoopes, Ph.D., as new Board chairman in 1980, came impetus for research and the sharing of Hill Top’s results with the broader professional community. That same year, June M. White, Ph.D., Hill Top’s curriculum coordinator, completed her research in hypothetico-deductive reasoning in the learning disabled student. Research was immediately undertaken in two new areas. Hill Top psychologist Bruce Miller, Ph.D. began his work in a comparative study of role patterns and interactional styles in families of adolescents with learning differences. Another staff member, John Tuton, M.A., began examining the relationship between children’s sensitivity to phonemes as the basic building blocks of language and their success in learning how to read.
The Hill Top clinical staff presented repeatedly at Pennsylvania Psychological Association meetings. The academic staff presented at meetings of The Orton Society, The Association for Children with Learning Disabilities, The National Science Teacher’s Convention, and at in-service programs for teachers in various colleges and private schools.
The importance of Hill Top’s history is truly seen in the success of its students. Approximately 95% of Hill Top’s graduates go on to college following graduation. Most of these students keep in close touch with Hill Top staff members through visits and letters.
Graduation day has become an informal homecoming for Hill Top alumni, and each year their arrival to celebrate the “passage” of a new class is eagerly anticipated. Alumni share their successes and sorrows with the Hill Top community and make suggestions for improving the program. The staff utilizes these ideas to help other young people compensate for their learning differences.
Today, Hill Top remains on the cutting edge of providing innovative approaches for students with learning differences to gain the self-confidence and academic skills necessary to succeed in higher education and successful futures. Hill Top’s dynamic administration and faculty are dedicated to the school’s mission and the bright futures of all students who enter its doors.
Each year, we look forward to continued growth and take pride in the fact that Hill Top remains a superior school where students with learning differences gain self-confidence and believe in their abilities to reach their dreams.