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Boarding Beyond Borders, a Conversation at IECA’s Virtual Fall Conference

The major shifts of the last several months have left many families exploring educational options they had not considered before, including private day and boarding schools. Once families start to explore the opportunities offered by charter, independent, and boarding schools, the landscape changes dramatically and suddenly everything from the local public magnet school to a boarding school overseas seems possible. 

To shed light on the private and boarding school application process, as well as how to navigate it from afar during times of social distancing, we gathered a panel of experts for a candid conversation at last month’s Virtual IECA Conference. 

The panel brought together a wide variety of personal experiences and professional perspectives including two boarding school graduates, two current parents of boarding students, and three current or former boarding school faculty members. Here’s your chance to hear the questions we asked them – and the inside scoop they shared.

Ginger Fay, Applerouth’s Director of IEC Engagement, whose background includes a four-year stint as a college counselor at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, served as moderator. The panel included: 

  • Michael Shaver, who serves from Katmandu, Nepal as the Director of International Programs for the The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS), and is also a two-time boarding school parent
  • Sean Atkins, Director of Admissions and Financial Aid at Suffield Academy in Connecticut who is himself a boarding school graduate and current parent
  • Joshua Clark, Director of Student Recruitment and Admissions at TASIS The American School in England
  • Katie Garrett, IECA Professional Member and Founder of Garrett Educational Consulting and BoardingSchool360.com
  • Claire Strowd, Director of Admissions at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Georgia who is also a boarding school alumna.
What are some of the boarding school options out there and why might families be considering board school as an option?

Michael: 

There are many different options and each school offers a one-of-a-kind experience in terms of geography, academic opportunities, extracurricular activities, and student life. Among the options are traditional four year boarding schools, those that are more outdoor-oriented, single gender or co-educational, military or religiously-affiliated, junior boarding schools (serving students 10 to 14 years old), those that serve students with learning differences, therapeutic programs, and some that offer a “post-graduate” or gap year experience. 

Both of my sons have had a boarding school experience – one just graduated and one is waiting to start. It’s important to understand that boarding school is a 24-hour community that is centered around the student’s development. Everything about the boarding school environment is designed to benefit the student. Classes are small and engage the student’s curiosity and develop critical thinking skills. Having come from the higher education admissions side of things, boarding school students definitely have a smoother transition to college or university. I have seen that boarding school really helped our older son grow in terms of self-confidence, motivation, and conflict resolution skills.

How should families go about researching the options both in general and in this current time when travel is restricted?

Katie:

Your first line of research should be the school’s website, but those can feel overwhelming since so many have similar information. The “About” tab will give you a good idea of the school’s background, mission and philosophy as well as what percentage of students are boarding vs. day students. The Admissions tab will give you a timeline of the process and lots of resources, but feel free to call the admissions office to ask specific questions; they want to get to know you. The Academics tab will give you information on the school’s teaching philosophy and learning model as well as a list of classes that are offered (just make sure the classes you want to take will be offered when you want to take them). The Athletics & Arts tab will give you the scoop on extracurricular opportunities, while theStudent & Campus Life tab will give you a bit of insight into life outside the classroom. Then take the next step to start doing “virtual visits” at the schools you want to get to know better.

How do day schools fit into the research? Should local independent schools be considered and ruled out first? What do you see as the benefits of boarding vs. day student experiences?

Claire:

One of the obvious benefits to day schools is that families get to stay together for high school and parents get to experience students’ milestones along with the students. If there are a number of day schools in your local area, you might want to start there. But it depends on where you live – if you are in a rural area, there are not likely to be a lot of independent schools to serve such a small population, while in an city like Atlanta, where there are more than 80 independent schools in the metropolitan area, the number of options might seem overwhelming. I would encourage families to think about the geographical piece and the full experience – if families live a fair distance from a day school, the student’s opportunities to participate in extracurricular opportunities might be impacted. A long commute can mean leaving home at 6am, getting home between 7 and 8pm, and then facing two to three hours of homework. I grew up in a small town where the closest independent school was 40 miles away. Boarding seemed like the best option for me to maintain my relationships with hometown friends on school breaks while getting the more rigorous academic experience I was eager for. In some areas, there is a bridge option – there are some five-day boarding schools or traditional boarding schools that offer a five-day option, which can be the best of both worlds. There are a wealth of opportunities out there and each family’s situation is different, so I would say: keep your options open.

What does the application process look like? Does a 10-year-old need to write an essay or have an interview? Does every school require standardized testing? What do families need to know in order to get started?

Josh:

There are two components to every application: the first part is for the school to get to know the student and the second part is to access whether or not that student can be successful at the school. Each school has its own personality and you’ll see that full spectrum in the application process as well. For example, some schools have very specific standardized testing requirements while others don’t require any testing at all because of their educational philosophy. I would caution that you don’t judge a school or its rigor based on what application components they require; they have their own reasons for their process. That said, there are some commonalities – there’s usually a biographical component, there may be some short response questions, and a longer essay that the student will write. Some schools require essays of students of all ages; some don’t. There’s usually some teacher recommendations required – most often an English teacher and a math teacher in addition to a counselor or principal. And, of course, the schools will want to see the student’s transcript, but those transcripts and what information is included in them can vary widely. If families are lucky, they are applying to schools that share a common application system.

Let’s think about how students of color might approach this process. What might some of their questions and concerns be? What are schools doing to recruit black, indigenous and people of color? What are some of the things families of color might want to consider when researching schools?

Sean:

All of our schools have rich histories and so much to offer students, but we have heard in recent months that there are students in marginalized communities who have had difficult experiences at our campuses. We have been reflecting on those things – listening to students, parents and alumni. These have been difficult conversations, but they have brought us to a better, stronger place. Prospective students and families need to ask questions, maybe uncomfortable questions. Ask questions that mean something to your student, your family. Students want to feel welcome and comfortable on the campus they will be calling home, so it’s important for them to get to know the school and its community as well as they can before applying. On the school side, it is important to be intentional in our recruitment efforts and intend to be as diverse as possible, including socioeconomic diversity. The best question to ask is, What is this school’s plan for supporting students of color in the next three to five years? It is important for admissions offices to be diverse as well, so families of color, families in the LGTBQ+ community, and so on can see themselves reflected in the community they will join. 

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