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Remembering Our Founder

Elissa L. Fisher Ed.M.
Dr. Elissa Fisher, founder of Hill Top Preparatory School, passed away on November 4, 2022.
She leaves behind anElissaFisher amazing educational legacy of innovation and leadership. Elissa Fisher’s passion for education began in college. A 1957 graduate of Gettysburg College, she planned to further study clinical psychology, however, a genuine interest in the field of education continued to surface. While working on her master’s degree at Temple University, Elissa married Jim Fisher. Together, they dedicated their careers to developing a life-changing curriculum for students who learn differently that incorporates counseling and social/emotional development into a phased academic curriculum.
 
Elissa was called to the teaching profession through her alma mater, Gettysburg College. Here, she taught students diagnosed with serious learning disabilities in a nearby school district. These two years of instruction were among the most difficult times of her professional life as these children came from families who struggled with poverty, mental illness, alcoholism, and drug addiction making educating them merely part of the hurdle.Through this experience, Dr. Fisher realized that social and emotional factors were also contributors to students’ academic struggles. 
 
Over the years, Dr. Fisher learned more about educating children with learning challenges and was continually redirected from psychology studies to working with learning disabled children.  Elissa worked at numerous schools and often struggled with organizational roadblocks. That is when Jim, now an ordained minister, suggested she start her own school.
 
They planned together and in 1971 founded Hill Top Preparatory School with their first board consisting of other dedicated educators and professionals, as well as enthusiastic and generous supporters. They took their research and experience working on the premise that neurologically-based learning challenges did not result from a lack of intelligence or motivation. Dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia commonly impacted higher-level cognitive skills such as organization, time management, planning, abstract reasoning and also affected long and short-term memory. Further, some students would also experience different forms of attention deficit disorder. Their emotional difficulties would revolve around feelings of frustration, low self-worth, fear, anger, depression, alienation, boredom, emptiness, loneliness, and the stigma of feeling different. And so, the Fishers determined that any effective programmatic intervention would have to be systems-oriented and include a therapeutic approach both academically and clinically. Elissa used her education and experience to develop pioneering curricula and programming while Jim was instrumental in establishing the concept of group counseling eventually becoming Hill Top Prep’s Clinical Director.
 
These theories were unheard of at the time, however Elissa and Jim were resolved that they would provide an environment where all aspects of the challenges of the learning-disabled adolescent could be understood and treated.
 
The pioneering philosophies that they incorporated included academic phasing that allowed for differentiated placement within subject areas based on a student's skills, as well as their strengths and weaknesses. Students would have the opportunity to participate in elective and extracurricular activities to enhance self-image, socialization, and range of skills. A perpetual diagnostic multi-disciplinary approach in which the student is seen as part of the team was needed. Metacognition was stressed with instruction in analytical and logical reasoning. At this time, these philosophies were rarely employed. As a result, students were either struggling in traditional classrooms or underchallenged in special education schools.
 
Equally as groundbreaking was the incorporation of clinical programming for every student because the behavior of students with neurodiverse learning profiles often includes social and emotional difficulties. Their model for group therapy is still employed today at Hill Top and includes a counselor assigned to every student and required confidential group sessions held twice weekly focusing on student life. The objectives continue to increase metacognition; to develop communication skills in both cognitive and affective areas; to learn how to deal with authority figures in effective ways; to develop a variety of problem-solving skills; and to increase responsibility, for their learning and their behavior.
 
Dr. Fisher was renowned for her groundbreaking educational philosophies. She, along with school faculty produced “The Spectrum” a newsletter highlighting research and curriculum pedagogy. She also was often called upon to speak and present at conferences about her contributions to the field of learning disabilities. 
 
While the name “Hill Top” was the original choice of the board and faculty, the school started out on Cabrini University’s campus in Radnor, Pennsylvania, in the smallest of then college’s two dormitory buildings, Counsel Hall (now Rooymans Hall), with an enrollment of just eight students. In three years. enrollment more than tripled to 26 students and needed a bigger space. After exhaustive searches, the Fishers and the Hill Top team settled on The Booth School at the top of a hill in Bryn Mawr where the student body has grown to nearly 90 students.
 
Over its 51 years, Hill Top Preparatory School has graduated nearly 700 students and returned hundreds more back to school districts with the tools to turn their learning challenges into strengths. Today, alumni are working in technology, finance, education and more, as well as serving in the military and achieving success as entrepreneurs. They attribute Dr. Fisher and her life-changing curriculum to their success. 
 
In addition to the students and families who were impacted by Dr. Fisher’s curricula, many colleagues and faculty benefited from her pioneering insights into educating students with learning disabilities.
 
We are all grateful for Dr. Elissa Fisher’s commitment and drive to ensure that students who learn differently have a place where they can learn effectively and benefit from a curriculum that is specifically designed to meet their learning needs.
 
To celebrate the school’s 50th anniversary and honor the Fishers’ contribution to education, Hill Top Preparatory School named its Upper School building in honor of Dr. Elissa and Reverend Jim Fisher. Fisher Hall will forever remind us of their dedication to changing the lives of our students and their families.
"Elissa was a strong individual who did everything for her students... no matter the cost or the time or the resources she would move heaven and earth.  As all founders of a place like Hill Top Elissa gave everything to help to grow her school.  She was strong willed, single minded and stubborn as anyone I have ever met in my career.  But without Elissa Fisher and the stalwart support for her loving husband we would not have Hill Top." 
-Thomas W. Needham
Former Headmaster
2007-2022
“Elissa did so much more than have the vision for Hill Top.  She put in the hours and effort to keep it going.  Many months in the first couple of years, she would say to me, ‘please don’t cash your check until I tell you it will clear.  I haven’t raised enough money yet.’ She founded a wonderful educational institution to the benefit of so many! I am so proud and happy to have been with her from the very first.”
- Ida Jane Bailey
Former Faculty Member

"The thing that I most admired about Elissa was that she was not only responsible  for overseeing the running of Hill Top, she, personally, knew every student and their challenges.  In addition, she continued teaching classes.  This meant a lot to me as a member of the teaching staff because she knew, first hand, what it was like to be in the classroom and what her staff experienced on a daily basis.  She felt strongly about her students as well as her staff.  She promoted staff development, to enhance knowledge in the field of learning disabilities,  by holding workshops throughout the year and encouraged staff to attend and participate in conferences at the local level as well as the national level."- Betty Organt
Former Social Studies Teacher
Social Studies Department Chair
Senior Project Coordinator
1986-1993, 2000-2016

"Elissa emphasized 'Reality' in our Hill Top experience as students with both Jim and her most of all. We always had to be involved with our learning experience at Hill Top with Elissa and all of our teachers that we had for whatever subjects we took.
Most of all, Elissa and all of our teachers assigned us work and projects that not only benefited our learning experience, but also encouraged and built up our ability to move on and succeed in life afterwards as well!"
- Bill Bates
Class of 1974