Doing Better at Doing Good

Hill Center’s unique model still paying dividends for students

March 2, 2013 

Hill Center Principal Bryan Brander checks a student's work.


Solutions to pressing problems in our society often come from a very personal experience. The Hill Center based in Durham is no exception.

Driven to provide an exceptional education for his stepdaughter with learning disabilities, prominent local businessman and philanthropist George Watts Hill founded the Hill Learning Development Center in 1977.

Focused on providing an intensive remediation program for students with specific learning disabilities or attention deficit disorders, the founder made a smart start-up move: He formed a deep strategic partnership with an existing organization with the knowledge, resources and experience to accelerate its impact.

The partner was Durham Academy, a K-12 independent school with a long track record of success that remains a strong affiliate even after The Hill Center became an independent nonprofit in 1998.

Today, The Hill Center is recognized as an education pioneer globally for its work with children with learning disabilities. Its unique half-day model for students from kindergarten through high school provides multisensory instruction in reading, writing, math and Spanish. Each class has four students, and Hill-trained teachers provide each student with a differentiated learning plan that allows for intensive, individualized instruction.

Equipped with the tools, knowledge and growing confidence (something that often erodes among children who recognize they learn differently from their peers), the students then spend the other half of the day back in their “base” school. And after two to three years at Hill, students typically return full time to their schools – bringing with them the strategies needed to succeed academically.

The task they face is daunting. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, 35 percent of students with learning differences drop out of school. Fifty percent of juvenile delinquents and 60 percent of adolescents in drug treatment programs who have been tested are found to have learning disabilities.

Recognizing that learning differences present lifelong challenges but can be overcome, The Hill Center has developed proven interventions that enable struggling students to succeed. More than 30 years of experience and independent research show the approach is working. According to a 10-year longitudinal study from 1995-2004, RTI International researchers concluded that “from the time they enroll at the Hill Center until the time they leave, students … improved their skills in (reading, math, and written language) at a rate that is faster than expected for average students of the same age who do not have diagnosed learning disabilities.”

Over 90 percent of students graduating from the Hill Center go on to four-year colleges. They have attended some our state’s and nation’s best colleges, ranging from Elon University to UNC-Chapel Hill to Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design.

Replicated in other cities

The results have fueled demand to scale the program’s reach and impact. Today, the half-day school-base model has been replicated in five sites, including Greenville and Wilmington, as well as Colorado Springs, San Salvador in El Salvador, and Geneva, Switzerland. Additionally, The Hill Center has now partnered with several North Carolina school districts, including Brunswick, Carteret, Davie, Durham, Orange and Beaufort, to provide professional development and mentoring for reading and math teachers to enhance their support of students with learning differences. These efforts are also grounded in rigorous third-party evaluation by our North Carolina’s best education research universities.

With the dream of “a world that embraces the full potential of every person,” The Hill Center has further strengthened its outreach efforts by undergoing a rigorous international accreditation process for its structured multisensory language approach, permitting it to offer four different levels of teacher certification. In 2009, it also opened the Kirby-Horton Teacher Training Center to expand its onsite workshop capacity – and to house technology for online training and classroom observations. This has allowed The Hill Center to accelerate its vision of helping all children succeed regardless of their learning style. Today, more than 10,000 educators from more than 80 North Carolina counties, 17 states, and five countries have attended workshops to learn the Hill methodology.

Launched simply because of a father wanting to help his daughter, The Hill Center now offers a compelling lesson in scaled impact: start small, study what works, strengthen the program and sustainability model, and scale through high touch and high tech. Its leaders are the first to admit they are still very much on a learning journey – from which students around the world will continue to benefit.

Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and the author of “Life Entrepreneurs.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of the forthcoming book “The Messy Quest for Meaning” and blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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