Research and Leadership Initiative Prepares Students for Success

at Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy

Photography by Daniel Smyth

Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy (CHCA) students receive a solid foundation of knowledge and hands-on experience through countless academic, curricular, and social opportunities. One class in particular is uniquely positioning students for success in the essential fields of research and leadership.  

This is the sixth year of CHCA’s Research and Leadership class, held in the Martha S. Lindner Upper School Campus.

Rocco Rotello, PhD, recently joined CHCA as the Upper School teacher to instruct the research portion of the class. Dr. Rotello brings an impressive breadth of expertise as his background includes a PhD in experimental pathology from the University of Colorado, research training at the Harvard University Medical School as a post-doctoral fellow and more than 15 years leading the biologics/monoclonal antibody effort for Procter & Gamble Pharmaceuticals. 

“Research is a process that occurs in all disciplines, so I will expose the students to all areas of research,” says Dr. Rotello. 

Students are encouraged to ask questions and make as many independent choices as possible. Dr. Rotello introduces the early stages of hypothesis formation, including the ethics of research, the model, cost, funding and proposing an idea. 

“I can recognize a student’s interest and help lead them into that venue, whether it’s business analytics, sociology, patient research – I want to capture their interest,” he says. “I always promote courageous curiosity.”

In the leadership emphasis of the class, students are introduced to the concept of servant leadership, which Upper School teacher Jody Petersen explains isn’t exclusively a Christian philosophy. 

“Servant leadership is crucial for business, medicine, music, art – in every vocation and in every aspect of life,” says Petersen, who teaches the leadership portion of the class. “Students might enter the class reluctant, but they soon realize that there are incredible opportunities that pique their interest in many areas.” 

It isn’t a typical class structure. Students don’t read a book in preparation for a test, and note taking is replaced by research, hands-on learning, and presentations by professionals in various fields, and it does require students to do substantial work. In fact, it is an honors credit due to the amount of effort involved. 

The first thing students are challenged to do is write a mission statement about their life’s passion and to learn more about themselves through various exercises and psychological assessments. Leadership skills are developed through an emphasis on the ability to present ideas. Students gain insights by observing professionals and work to apply those skills through various presenting exercises. 

“It’s been exciting to be a part of this class and to witness all of the things our students are accomplishing. Watching them get excited and passionate about a topic is inspiring,” says Petersen.

CHCA’s Research and Leadership initiative was triggered by visits to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Arlington, Virginia, and Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. 

“We wanted to develop our own unique program that allowed students to understand what it means to do independent research and then carry out a research program for multiple years alongside mentors either from our own faculty or the broader community,” says Dean Nicholas, PhD, CHCA’s Upper School principal. “Our vision is to have students presenting at professional meetings, publishing, and developing patents based on their work. We are well on our way.”

Students demonstrate their research and leadership skills by embarking on a unique Leadership Challenge. This competition among students is supported by Magnified Giving – an educational organization that partners with schools to inspire and engage students in philanthropy. 

Research and Leadership students split into two groups with the ultimate goal of investing a $1,000 grant into one non-profit in the community. 

“Students research the social causes in our city, decide which non-profit works on those causes, then decide which cause or foundation should receive the grant,” says Petersen. 

Each Leadership Challenge group is responsible for contacting agencies, scheduling site visits, interviewing, learning about philanthropy, requesting grant applications and deciding which cause or foundation has the greatest need. 

Both groups present a thorough, compelling presentation to their entire student body who votes on the outcome and awards the winning non-profit. 

CHCA student Madyson Shank recently helped her group earn a $1,000 grant for the Hearing Speech & Deaf Center of Greater Cincinnati. Mady shared how hearing loss has personally affected her life through her two siblings who are hearing impaired. Now a senior, Mady is using her passion for helping those with hearing impairments by creating a Student Organized Service (SOS) group at CHCA. 

Mady’s sister, Emma, is currently enrolled in the Research and Leadership class. “I’m interested in public speaking and getting involved in the communications field, so this class is going to be so helpful as I move into my junior and senior years,” says the CHCA sophomore. “Research gives me an open mind about what I want to do in the future.” 

Christina DelGreco’ 15 graduated from CHCA and is a biology major at Notre Dame. Christina explains how the class inspired her interest in research. “The Research and Leadership sophomore class set me up to do aquaponics research with Dr. Savage for the rest of high school. Not only did that opportunity help me realize that I have an interest in research, but it also taught me a lot about how to actually handle work in research, which came in handy this past summer – I had the opportunity to intern at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden’s CREW (Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife) plant lab and work on oak tree conservation research projects.” 

Hope Hansee’ 16 was in the Research and Leadership class as a sophomore as well and continues to impress with the skills gained in the class and carried beyond the high school years. Hansee chose to study the effect of the length of time a child spends as a part of the foster care system. This led to a connection with Sarah Beal, PhD, of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, and they proceeded to develop the research project during Hope’s junior and senior years. 

“Dr. Beal indicated that Hope’s work was master’s-level, including the completion of a manuscript for submission to a peer-reviewed journal,” says Petersen. “If published, Hope will likely be the lead author on the publication.” Hope is now a freshman attending Wheaton College. 

“When universities see that our students have already engaged in substantial research, it puts them into a different pool of college applicants,” says Kara Ussery, CHCA’s Director of Counseling. “This is a key factor that can set their application apart and show the college their prowess in a specific field or the passion they have for an individual topic.”

Success stories like these are only the precipice of what’s to come in the future. Students equipped with this experience are spreading out into various areas of the world and making a meaningful impact through their work.

Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy is located at 11525 Snider Road, Cincinnati, OH 45249. For more information, call 513.247.0900 or visit