New York City families have a wide range of educational options for their children, including boarding school. Boarding schools are somewhat of an East Coast tradition (though of course they exist throughout the country), and there are many benefits of these tight-knit educational communities. However, sending your child to boarding school is a major decision that should be weighed carefully in light of your child’s unique personality, developmental needs, family circumstances, and other factors.
As we consult with families on the best schools for their family in NYC, we’re often asked how to decide whether boarding school is the right fit. We’ve put together the following list of considerations that you should evaluate carefully if your family is contemplating boarding school.
(First, a couple of important definitions. Boarding schools are exclusively private schools, and many “private” schools in New York call themselves “independent schools” - the terms are interchangeable. Also note that many boarding schools offer both a traditional boarding option, where students reside at the school, and a “day school” option where students attend the school but do not reside there.)
Considerations if Your Family is Weighing Boarding School
- Student independence. Evaluating your child’s level of independence is probably the most important factor to weigh when deciding whether boarding school is the right fit. Sending your child to full-time boarding school is similar to sending them to college - they’ll be in an entirely new environment that demands strong attention to both academics and personal life, and navigating a major change of pace from their prior routine. While boarding schools obviously provide (significantly) more supervision than colleges do, you still need to recognize that your child will have a great deal of freedom to manage their own day-to-day. For some students, this is an incredible opportunity for personal growth; for others, it’s an overwhelming environment that they’re not quite prepared for. Consider whether your child currently takes initiative to ask for help from adults in their school community (teachers, coaches, etc.) when they need academic support or other guidance. Also consider whether your child currently demonstrates the ability to manage their own personal lives - do they keep a schedule for themselves, keep up with hygiene and other self-care, etc? If so, they might thrive in a largely self-directed boarding school environment; if not, they might not be ready (yet) for increased personal responsibility.
- Student personality and social preferences. Obviously, boarding school is a much more intense social environment than normal school. Students are typically interacting with each other around the clock, from classes to after-school activities to evening study time and social time with their roommates. This highly social environment will be a huge positive for some students, but may not be a fit for others. Consider whether your child has the social battery to benefit from the advantages of a 24/7 program, or whether they thrive with more alone time or down-time during evenings and weekends.
- Family circumstances. There are a wide range of personal family circumstances that may impact whether boarding school is a good fit for your child. Consider your child’s relationships with you, their parents, or other family members like siblings, grandparents, extended family, etc. What will those relationships look like during your child’s extended absence at boarding school? Of course, this is highly dependent on where the school is located, your family’s ability to visit or bring your child back for weekends and holidays, and other logistical and financial concerns. For some families, boarding school may also pose challenges because students are needed at home for caregiving or other familial responsibilities.
Other Boarding School Options to Consider
If any of the above considerations make you wonder whether full-time traditional boarding school is the correct choice for your student, you may want to explore other boarding school formats that give your child more time to develop before entering the residential community, and/or are more of a middle ground between normal school and boarding school. These include:
- “Redshirting” or “Reclassing.” These terms are used to describe the decision to hold back a student to repeat a grade (and/or start kindergarten a year later) so they’re older when they move through their education. Children whose birthdays fall in the latter half of a school year (for example, March-August birthdays) will be among the younger students in their class if they adhere to a traditional schooling timeline. Holding them back a year, particularly if considering boarding school, may be a wise decision; it allows students to mature (academically, socially, etc.) before diving into advanced schooling.
- Entering boarding school later in high school. While most boarding schools admit the majority of their classes on the traditional high school timeline (beginning in 9th grade), there are schools who admit students in 10th or even 11th grade. Therefore, your student could start boarding school a bit later and benefit from one or two more years of social and academic development before entering the boarding environment. This practice also allows students from lower schools that extend through 9th grade (there are several of these in NYC) to transition seamlessly from that school to a new boarding school. This option could also work nicely in conjunction with post-graduate programs - read on below.
- Post-graduate programs. Certain boarding schools offer “PG” programs for post-graduates, meaning that students who have already received a high school diploma can attend another year of school (typically at a different school) for additional academic or extracurricular opportunities. These programs give students an additional year after high school to prepare for the transition into college, which is sometimes beneficial for maturity and development, deepening of involvement in passions or pre-professional pursuits, and college admissions. While it can be difficult to predict whether a program like this would benefit your child while they’re still only an 8th grader, it’s good to know that these options are available, especially when considering how to time your child’s entry to boarding school.
- Five-day options. While the classic boarding school experience is a fully residential program seven days a week, there are a handful of schools that offer five-day programs where students study and live at school during the week but return home on the weekends. While this approach can be a huge benefit for certain students (a slightly less overwhelming and immersive social environment, more time with family, etc.), the constant transitioning between school and home life can pose challenges for others - it all depends on students’ and families’ unique needs.
Factors to Evaluate When Choosing a Boarding School
If boarding school does feel like a strong option for your child and family, it’s time to move forward with evaluating specific school options. While many of our standard recommendations for evaluating the right school for your family still apply, there are a few particular factors to consider when researching boarding schools:
- Special programs and facilities. Similar to other non-boarding independent schools, many boarding schools offer particularly unique programs and tracks, or state-of-the-art facilities for certain student activities. For instance, some schools are particularly catered toward top athletes, while others offer in-depth artistic programs, entrepreneurship immersion, nature-oriented experiences, STEM opportunities, and more. If your child has a clear passion for a certain subject or activity, certain boarding schools might be an excellent way for them to deepen their pursuits.
- School leadership. When sending your child to boarding school, it’s particularly important that you trust and are aligned with the school’s leadership team. As with any school research process, it’s important to spend time evaluating a school’s particular philosophy and worldview, and how that vision is carried out by school administrators. While some parents are wary of school leaders who are new to their jobs, we encourage you to be open-minded; a new leader shouldn’t necessarily be a red flag in your research process.
- Location. This factor is an obvious but still critical consideration. The location of a boarding school impacts how often students will be able to travel home, or how often parents and other family members can visit to attend games/performances and take part in programming. Also consider travel logistics: many boarding schools are located in relatively rural environments, which can be a great benefit for student experience but can also be a bit of a travel headache (sometimes with financial implications).
- Percentage of boarders. Boarding schools range in their percentage of students who are full residential boarders versus day school attendees. Some families feel that if they’re sending their child to a boarding school, they’re going for the true boarding school experience where the majority of students are living on campus. We find that any percentage over 70% of boarders makes a school feel like a true residential campus. Relatedly, schools vary in their percentage of international students/boarders; some families may appreciate the added diversity and global perspective offered by a boarding community with a higher ratio of international students.
Clearly, there are a wide variety of factors to take into account when evaluating whether boarding school is the right fit for your family. While the overall process of school research and admissions is relatively similar to non-boarding independent schools in New York City, selecting a boarding school often feels a bit more high-stakes due to the extent that your student will be immersed in the community. Thankfully, there are a wide range of excellent boarding schools around the New York region (and beyond!), with a breadth of philosophies, specializations, and opportunities to cater to any student and family.
Exploring boarding school for your family? We’re happy to help! We regularly advise families on their boarding school research process, and the boarding school admissions process. Reach out today to begin a conversation.