While Hollywood often depicts children being “sent away” to boarding school, the reality is that many students go to boarding schools to participate in innovative programs, live more independently at a younger age and gain a better shot at getting into top colleges.
Today’s boarding schools offer students an array of academic choices, from robotics and engineering to intensive writing and arts programs. The campuses provide more opportunities and facilities to participate in sports, music and other extracurricular activities. And, because most boarding schools emphasize college preparation, students get accepted to universities at very high rates.
“Our students are really excited, really motivated to be here,” says Wynne Overton, chief enrollment officer at Chatham Hall, a girls boarding school in Virginia serving grades 9-12. “One thing that all of our students have in common is they’re planning to attend a college.”
Boarding schools represent only a sliver of K-12 schools in the United States. About 35,000 students attend U.S. private schools as boarders each year at campuses scattered nationwide, though mostly on the East Coast, according to the Association of Boarding Schools. This compares to about 48.1 million K-12 students who attended U.S. public schools in the fall of 2020, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Cost is a major factor. Although most schools offer financial assistance, the average annual tuition for seven-day boarding schools is $37,590, according to the Education Data Initiative, and the most prestigious schools can top $60,000 per year. The majority of boarders tend to be older students, while elementary school students are more likely to attend these schools as day students.
Smaller Classes, Larger Facilities
Class sizes at boarding schools usually range from five to 15 students, far fewer than most public schools. At Chatham Hall, for example, the average class size is eight and the student-to-teacher ratio is 5-to-1. This allows teachers to give students more attention, and schools can provide more individual counseling and mentoring services. Students also can reach out after hours to teachers and other faculty, many of whom live on campus.
Boarding schools often offer enhanced facilities such as ice rinks, fitness centers, and crew and equestrian centers. Smaller school sizes mean that all students can participate in sports if they choose. Most schools also offer the opportunity to pick up a musical instrument and play in a band or orchestra. While many more-established schools have college-quality libraries, most boarding campuses have created media centers equipped with computers, courseware and technology, and facilities designed for group collaboration.
More Experiential Learning
Because most boarding schools are relatively small, they can provide more experiential learning inside and outside the classroom. For example, Garrison Forest School, an all-girls school in Maryland with a boarding program for grades 8 to 12, offers a women in science and engineering program. Students are placed in labs at Johns Hopkins University and invited to work on research projects. They gain real-world experience and do college-level coursework as they work with mentors from Hopkins for a semester.
Beyond expanding educational opportunities and burnishing transcripts, the program also allows students to discover whether they really want to work in a lab or engage in complex problem-solving prior to entering college, says Michelle Placek, the school’s director of communications and marketing.
“You want to be a scientist or engineer, but here’s what it’s like,” she says. “Our whole mission is helping students find their voice.”
The Village School in Texas, a K-12 campus that houses boarders in grade 7 and higher, offers an entrepreneurship diploma that focuses on finance, leadership, international trade and marketing. Within the program, students can specialize in engineering or social-enterprise studies. Village students also can participate in various internships, mentoring and job shadowing at private companies or government agencies.
“It’s important that students learn experientially through activities like real-life internships and hands-on classroom activities,” says Natalie Goodwin, the school’s boarding admissions manager. “It is also important for students to have a variety of opportunities available to them such as IB (International Baccalaureate) diplomas and entrepreneurial programs that teach how to think and solve complex problems differently.”
Hanging With a College Crowd
A top reason why children go to boarding schools is to get into college, and nearly all campuses boast acceptance rates well above 90%. Because almost all students expect to attend college, they are focused on the same goal. Administrators say that helps students to avoid the distractions that can occur in a typical household or from peers who are less focused on academics.
“It’s really easy to sit down for study hall when all your friends are doing that,” Placek says.
Boarding schools say the experience is similar to college, except with more controls, support and guardrails in place because students are not yet adults. Children are given more control over their schedules, activities and free time than their counterparts in public schools, and thus learn to be more self-sufficient at an earlier age. They also learn to live closely with other people before college.
“This helps ease students into college life and beyond, preparing them to build relationships and create a safe and inclusive community with those they spend time with — even those from different backgrounds, cultures and experiences,” Goodwin says.
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