Choosing an Independent Boarding School

April 6, 2004

by Howard and Matthew Greene

The public has long been intrigued by the world of independent schools. Many novels, films, and articles have portrayed life in a boarding school, usually based on a misinterpretation of the world of living and learning which exists in the top schools today. For increasing numbers of families of all walks of life, an outstanding boarding school can represent an exciting alternative to a public high school that is not meeting the interests or needs of individual students. In a recent interview with William Dennett, Director of Admission at Choate Rosemary Hall, a highly selective independent boarding school in Connecticut, we discussed some of the reasons families choose a school like Choate, the changes that have occurred there and at other outstanding boarding schools in recent years, and the kinds of students who might thrive in such a setting. Here are some of the points he made, and which we find confirmed at many private schools across the country:

  • Families choose boarding schools in particular for the growth, independence, and separation from home that they provide for students. In many instances, parents feel they have better quality time with their children when they come home from school, since they take care of the daily routine of homework, activities, and teacher relations on a regular basis while at school.
  • Boarding schools build confidence and provide solid preparation for college. According to Dennett, students "practice taking care of themselves intellectually twenty-four hours a day. They think for themselves all the time." Independent schools "teach kids how to think better, and how to ask a good question." They do it before college, and the schools "make the space available for it to happen."
  • Surprisingly, given their elite and selective reputation, boarding schools often provide a more diverse group of students within which to study and interact socially than is found in many public high schools or private day schools. Students will meet others from most every state and ten to twenty percent of their peers will be from other countries, and from a variety of ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds. This makes for an interesting learning community.
  • Most students at boarding schools choose to be there. They have abilities and the desire to do well and pursue their interests. Everyone can take advantage of the extraordinary choice of athletic, artistic, and leadership opportunities that are made available.
  • Students can be themselves at these schools, away from some of the conforming social pressures at their local high school. As Dennett recalled one student describing it, "You don't have to check yourself at the door." For many students, a private school provides a feeling of safety and an opportunity to advance their academic and other talents at a high level with little risk of criticism or intimidation.
  • Independent schools often take a stronger stance on key issues of morals, values, skills, and social concerns. "We stand for something," Dennett says. "We send a strong message on diversity and our educational mission. We have a commitment to that. Boarding schools are no longer just the place for the privileged."
  • An essential message for families considering a move to an independent school is that the style of the educational process is key. Students will not be bored, and "they will not be a number," according to Dennett. Independent schools tend to be more flexible, and freer to adapt their educational program to address their own goals and the needs of individual students.

Bill Dennett's and Choate's message is a consistent one we hear from many independent boarding and day schools of varying styles and directions. The students at these institutions are not "problem kids", elitists, or kids who are "sent away" because they can't hack it at the local school. More and more families are choosing these schools because of their missions, their educational offerings, the diversity of their student bodies, the background of their faculty and administrators, and their ability to serve students as individual learners. If you are considering a private school, we encourage you not to let cost limit your options, since there is a great deal of financial aid available from these schools. Focus on the benefits of the educational processes at different schools as they fit your son or daughter. These schools clearly can provide highly beneficial transformational experiences for many students.