What to Look For in a Boarding School
Choosing to pursue a boarding school education is no small decision. The name “boarding school” itself is even a bit deceiving, as it implies that living away from home is the main distinction. But another way to look at boarding school is that it’s an immersion into an all-encompassing educational setting that offers an entirely unique approach to how a student experiences learning, develops socially, and even views their future. Boarding schools entrench students into a community that not only aims to advance their education, but also boosts character development along the path they wish to pursue.
So, it’s only natural that choosing a boarding school should be as multifaceted a process as each student’s unique qualities. If you’re just embarking on the boarding school search or have yet to make a decision, our list below acts as a solid starting point for narrowing down the best educational experience for your family.
Create a Wish List
Early on in the process, sit down with your child and brainstorm a list of hopes and concerns about the boarding school experience. Get it all out in the open without worrying about whether one school will meet all the criteria. Creating this guide will help you determine the “must-have” factors, wish-list items and things that you’d prefer to avoid. These early topics may include:
- Location/distance from home
- School and class size
- Extra-curricular activities, specializations and supporting facilities
- Cost and financial aid
- Personal connection or recommendation
- Philosophy and mission statement
- Spiritual affiliation
Then, go a step further in your discussion. Especially if you’re looking at boarding high schools, every unique institution has the power to shape a student’s future. Drew Casertano, Headmaster of the Millbrook School in Millbrook, New York, encourages students to take this opportunity to consider their long-term goals, “This is the first time in an adolescent’s life when they actually have to think about who they want to be.”
The right boarding school should provide the atmosphere to foster this growth along a path to which they feel drawn, both in and outside the classroom.
Explore the School’s Philosophy
A boarding school’s mission statement contains specifically handcrafted wording that should reflect their values and goals. This statement is the central focal point from which all decisions at the school are made, making it an excellent launching-off point for narrowing down schools and determining their values.
Meg Grover, Director of Admission at the Millbrook School, reiterates the importance of considering a school’s mission statement in the early stages of the search. “Before [families] get to campus, they should look at the mission statement of a school. As parents, you need to reflect on whether or not that reflects the values that you have as a family.”
Take the time to explore the curriculum materials, teaching methodology and how the school works to uphold and social and emotional balance. These factors determine topics like homework, test taking, grading, mentoring, and setting long-term learning goals. Traditions and history also shape how a school approaches yearly meetings, uniforms and community building.
Families can also glean insight into the administration by checking out faculty professional development and curriculum growth opportunities. The culture within the teaching community directly reflects the culture created in the classroom.
Rankings and Reviews
Private education is an investment, especially in the case of an all-encompassing as boarding school. And while rankings are useful, The Association of Boarding Schools, or TABS, advises focusing on finding the right fit for each student based on academic focus and curriculum style.
Additionally, beyond test scores, student-teacher ratios, and other stats, seeking first-hand reviews and visiting the school for an in-person interview is the most important part of this step in the process to get a sense of each school beyond the numbers.
Specializations and Focus
An affinity for a specific academic focus is one of the top reasons for seeking an independent school education. Narrow down your choices by ensuring your shortlist features the performing arts class, science offering, or broad range of Advanced Placement classes that you seek. As students’ interests develop over the years, variety is key.
A common draw toward boarding schools is the extended athletic facilities, ones that even match or challenge many university arenas. Casertano of Millbrook advises families to look beyond the programs themselves during your on-campus visit. Specifically, he recommends identifying which facilities and support systems breathe life into these programs. Is there a structure in place to fully promote students in their endeavors on a daily basis?
Extra curriculum support to look for include:
- International partnerships with schools and professors
- Mentorship with specialized teachers in your field and the opportunity to create independent study projects later in your education
- The college counseling experience
Daily Life, Social Development and Community
“For a [boarding school] experience to be truly exceptional,” Casertano explains, “two realities have to exist: one is that the student needs to be known and known well by a group of their teachers.” The other, he continues is, “You need to be needed. You need to play a meaningful role in the life of your community.”
Many teachers overlap in a student’s schedule: instructing in the classroom, coaching on the soccer field, and supporting them around campus. Teachers get to know each student as their fully rounded self and can mentor them as such. This creates a community where each student is truly known and needed, as Casertano notes.
Boarding schools also offer a wider range of programs to explore and connect with peers regarding student’s passions, spirituality and identity. Are there LGBTQ+ programs on campus, for example? Discuss community-centric offerings as well as opportunities for student-run initiatives or faculty mentorship.
Prep for Your On-Campus Tour
Perhaps the most important portion of the process, tours and overnight visits help you push past the on-paper facts and provide a much clearer view of daily life at the school.
Meg Grover points out that observing the school community and its energy is a window into daily campus life. For example, she advises you ask: Do the students greet one another as they pass on the path? Do they greet you? Take a look inside the classrooms as well. Feel for an energy of engagement with the lesson and the discussion taking place.
Additional areas of focus on your trip may include:
- How does the school communicate and collaborate with parents throughout the school year?
- Housing questions: access to supervision and assistance, quality of space, etc.
- Tour specific facilities based on your academic, artistic or athletic focus.
- Which student groups and events do the school regularly offer and where do they meet?
- Where do students go in the event of a medical question?
- Does the cafeteria offer options for those with dietary restrictions?
- How do the school and its students interact with its surrounding area?
Once you’ve narrowed your search down to one or two schools, ask about shadowing or overnight visits to connect with the students one-on-one. Nicholas Maldonado, the Recruitment and Admissions Coordinator of the Arthur Morgan School in North Carolina, uses a 48-hour interview process to encourage prospective students to observe the daily schedule first-hand and connect with potential classmates before starting themselves. “This structure allows for applying students to get a real feel for what our school and community are all about. They can picture what life would be like if they were accepted and therefore make an educated decision. They also get to start forming relationships so when they do become students, they already feel like they know someone.”
Boarding school selection all comes down to the unique qualities of each school and your student. The distinctive culture and mission statement of each institution will serve your child’s life in a different way. It’s also important to remember that admission departments hope to find the best fit for your student as much as you do — an idea that can quell nerves during the interview process. Finding the right fit should come down to choosing a boarding school that excites and inspires your child to learn the whole year round.
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