Many parents feel that they know a boarding school because they have spent time on its web site. They 'liked' the school's Facebook page and are following it on Twitter. They also have watched all the YouTube videos the school has posted on its YouTube channel. They and their child are convinced that the school is a good fit for them and their requirements. So why bother actually hopping on a plane, renting a car, booking accommodation and taking all that time to go and visit the school? It goes without saying that you need to visit any school to which you are thinking of sending your child. The school will insist on it because they want to meet you in person whenever possible.
Your educational consultant may have given the schools glowing reports. Your great uncle has always spoken about his years at one of the schools on your shortlist with great fondness. In fact, he has given generously to his alma mater. One of your colleagues in the Boston office has a daughter at another school on your shortlist. She apparently loves her school's equestrian program. But that's their opinion. You and your child need to set foot on each campus on your shortlist, scope each one out and use your own judgment about whether your child will be happy there for three or four years. Here is a list of things to look for and questions to ask.
Things To Look For and Check Out
The dorm rooms
Given that your child will spend several hours a day studying in her dorm room, be sure to review what can and cannot be brought into the room. The school will have lists, of course, of things they will not allow - hot plates, microwaves, mini-fridges, etc. - but ask.
Here is a brief overview of Madeira School.
The meal arrangements
Allergies? Gluten-free? Lactose intolerant? Vegan? Other dietary restrictions/requirements? All need to be discussed and clearly understood. The school nurse and dietitian need to be involved if your doctor requires your child to follow a specific diet for medical reasons.
The quality of supervision
As I have pointed out many times in other articles about boarding schools, these residential schools take their role as your surrogate very seriously. The code of conduct and 24/7 supervision, however, may strike your child as excessive. Have that discussion with her. Make sure she understands the rules and boundaries. If she breaks those rules, depending on the seriousness of the infraction, she risks being asked to withdraw from school. This short video showcases some new classrooms at Detroit Country Day School.
If the school is located in an urban area, understand what the rules and regulations are regarding visits to the local shops and restaurants. Perhaps the location in a town may be a deal-breaker when you actually visit and decide that you would rather have her isolated out in the countryside somewhere.
What about day students? Are they permitted to drive to school? Will your child be invited to drive home for a meal at a day student's home? Who is responsible for the supervision then? Better to worry about details like this before you sign the contract.
Questions To Ask
Do they have the specific academic courses you want?
Hopefully, the schools which you are visiting earned a place on your shortlist because they have most of the things you wanted. But when you visit, ask about the courses you really want your child to take. Sometimes courses will not be taught depending on staffing and scheduling issues. This question is particularly relevant if your child already demonstrates above-average interest and competence in a specific subject. She will not be happy if she is held back.
Ideally, your child will be able to explore several subjects in depth. That will help her begin to refine her career objectives. No, it is not too early to be thinking about careers. The old approach was to just let her get into college where she could find herself. That approach is not strategic enough in today's job market. Encourage her to set some goals and shoot for them. In eight or nine years she will be glad she did.
Do they have the specific athletic programs you want?
Use the same sort of line of questioning when it comes to the schools' sports programs as you used for academics. Confirm that the sports which she really enjoys and wants to play are offered at the appropriate level for her needs. If she needs advanced coaching, confirm that she will be able to have that and that she will be able to fit it into her schedule.
Most boarding schools have their sports very well-organized. Moreover, sports are an integral part of the program, meaning that everybody engages in an athletic activity at the same time. Usually, that's Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. But some schools offer more variety and multiple skill levels. Make sure the programs fit with your objectives and plan.
Do they have the specific extracurricular activities you want?
Extracurricular activities are not frills or even extras. They are activities that emphasize teamwork, character development, and socialization in so many special ways. All contribute to your child's development. But make sure that the activities which she knows and loves are indeed a part of a school's program.
The following brief video shows the Marching Band of Jesuit High, New Orleans performing at Disney World.
What about religious observances?
If your family is not particularly observant and you are considering a school that has chapel regularly, make sure you are comfortable with that. Many boarding schools are non-denominational. Others belong to a particular faith.
What about medical emergencies?
Are there trained/qualified staff on duty 24/7? How close is the nearest hospital? I am not trying to scare you. Just making sure that you know how emergencies will be handled when you are two or three hours away by plane.
If anything else comes to mind, ask about it. Most boarding schools are only too willing to answer your questions in order to proceed to the next stage of the admissions process which is the application. The visit will cement your final decision into place.
By now I hope you have a very clear understanding of the importance of physically visiting schools on your shortlist wherever and whenever possible. Don't leave this important step out.
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