By the time your child enters middle school, you may already be thinking about the next transition, but it’s entirely possible that boarding school isn’t even on your radar.
Long gone is the myth that boarding schools are primarily the domain of privileged or unruly kids. Today, students come from a wide variety of cultural, geographic, and socio-economic backgrounds. These diverse learning communities create more dynamic and fulfilling classroom experiences for all, and teens, in turn, learn the importance of tolerance and respect for differing views and perspectives through the bonds they develop in such close-knit educational settings.
Beginning your high school search early (at least 16–18 months before your child will enter high school!) will afford you time to visit, compare, and contrast a broad range of schools. While there are many different educational settings to choose from, boarding schools are growing in popularity, as they offer students a unique secondary school experience and the opportunity to build lasting friendships and affiliations.
It is not uncommon for boarding and independent day schools to offer similar choices in terms of settings, size, teaching philosophies, curricula, and after-school activities. Boarding schools, though, also offer a range of schedules, including Saturday morning classes, evening study halls, and five- or seven-day boarding options. Many offer entry in 9th or 10th grade (and sometimes later), the availability of a post-graduate (PG) year, unlimited access to teachers and advisors, stimulating and fun weekend activities, and a variety of artistic and athletic options with on-site or nearby fields, courts, and rinks.
Boarding schools are especially appealing to students who are self-starters and independent. Often, these kids have had successful sleep-away camp or summer travel experiences. And for those who are uncertain whether this option might be a good fit, many institutions offer summer programs to give prospective students a gentle introduction to the boarding school experience.
Boarding school students receive “round-the-clock” attention from dedicated and passionate faculty. These learners don’t seem to mind the “triple threat” phenomenon prevalent at most boarding schools, where teachers also fulfill the roles of dorm parents and coaches. There is a distinct advantage to having educators who are not only familiar with each student, but are also aware of what transpired in the class, on the athletic field, or a performing arts stage every day.
In their interactions, teachers and students often develop close relationships through which educators make meaningful, enduring contributions to the academic and personal development of their students. For example, since classes are small and teachers are deeply engaged in many areas of their students’ lives, teens may be encouraged to try an activity, enroll in a class, assume a leadership position, or develop a friendship they would not otherwise have considered. Moreover, there is usually nowhere to hide if students haven’t done their homework, and as a consequence, they develop a sense of personal responsibility and an appreciation for the impact of being taught by educators who are deeply invested in their growth.
There are many factors to consider when determining if a child is likely to be successful in a boarding environment. First, it’s important to understand both a family’s and a child’s needs. Parents who have demanding careers, who travel extensively, or who are perhaps in the midst of a transition may find that a boarding school is an ideal educational option for their family. While some may hesitate to allow their teen to “leave home” before college, many also find great comfort in knowing that there are frequent breaks, long weekends, and opportunities to come home throughout the school year. Most schools encourage parental visits, and if the location is within driving distance, it is easy to attend a child’s game or performance, even to meet for dinner.
Boarding schools set demanding daily schedules, and teens will need to learn to manage their time, meet deadlines, and be self-sufficient. While teachers are available and typically aware of their students’ needs, children have to advocate for themselves, practice self-discipline, and get to understand themselves as learners.
For instance, students are responsible for planning meetings with study groups to review for tests; organizing larger assignments like research papers into manageable portions that can be tackled over time; and scheduling appointments with teachers for classes that are particularly challenging. In addition, they will share facilities and, in most cases, live with a roommate — perhaps for the first time. They will need to take care of the communal space and be respectful of the needs of their classmates. Developing these skills is, of course, especially valuable in preparing for the college years.
If this isn’t an environment you were considering, select a few boarding schools to visit that are within an easy drive from home. From the moment you arrive, you’re likely to be impressed by their welcoming and inclusive spirit, diverse and well-rounded student body, and dedicated and experienced faculty. You’ll learn about the wide array of academic and extracurricular choices, the rich curriculum, and the influential role such an establishment can have in defining and fostering your child’s values, independence, skills, and identity.
The boarding school experience can be highly enriching, providing your teen with an outstanding education, a family away-from-home, and a network of relationships that will stay with her for a lifetime. When considering high schools this fall, with over 300 U.S. and international boarding schools — including military, single-sex, religious-affiliated, International Baccalaureate, arts-focused, special needs, and more — to choose from, why not include a few on your list?