As you work your way through the process of choosing the right boarding school for your child, you will find it very easy to get side-tracked. Nothing wrong with getting side-tracked. Just make sure that you get yourself back on track. There are three to five schools for you to visit. Lots of observations, evaluations, assessments and questions. Make sure that you have checked all the boxes.
The location of the boarding schools on your list is important simply because travel these days is never easy. Review the logistics involved carefully. Ideally you don't want to be more than a couple of hours from the school. That may seem unrealistic but practically speaking it is not. For example, there are dozens of schools within an hour of Boston's Logan Airport. From there you can get to many major metropolitan areas within two hours. Incidentally, those New England boarding schools are old hands at transferring students from campus to airport. Those are precision operations honed over many years so that just about every travel eventuality is thought of. Naturally, cellphones make communications with you waiting anxiously on the other end much easier than they were back when my daughters went to boarding school. So draw a circle 60-120 miles out from any major airport. If boarding schools fall within the circle, you should be all set.
Once you have more or less decided where you are looking for schools, then you can begin to get granular with that very important item on your check list: academics. Just like the boarding schools which you have been looking at, each school's academic program is unique. No state or federal government is telling a private school what to teach or how to teach it. Yes, there are state-mandated minimums in core subjects. But the reality is that 99.9% of private schools meet or exceed those minimums. Why is that? Because you and I, their clients, demand a rigorous academic component in our children's education. That, after all, is one of the things we are paying for. In most cases it is our main reason for sending our children to private school.
This brief video illustrates the Harkness Method.
The major decision you have to make here is whether you want to stay with a traditional approach to academics or go for the progressive approach. Traditional means a full-fledged college preparatory academic curriculum replete with Advanced Placement courses and SAT/ACT test preparation. If that sounds like you are boxing your child in somehow or that it smacks of teaching to the test, in some respects that's true. The difference is that boarding school teachers don't just teach the required material. They will do that very well and very eficiently. But because their class sizes are small and all their students are there to learn, boarding school teachers can take most of the subject matter to the next level and in some cases the level above that. I know this from my own experience. My eldest daughter loved English literature. When I asked which Shakespeare play she was reading, she exclaimed, "Oh Dad! This semester we are reading Julius Caesar. Next semester Hamlet is on the list. And I think we'll do King Lear in the spring." Her former public school was hard-pressed to get through one Shakespeare play a year.
Hindsight assures me that I would probably push for the progressive option if we were sending children to school now. I personally feel that letting a child's imagination run as far as it can is very important these days. Successful people seem to be the ones who think outside the box. That works for me. And that's something progressive schools seem to get and do very well.
The third item on your checklist is just as important as the previous one which had to do with academics. Most boarding schools offer a wide range of athletic activities. Many schools have athletic facilities which rival and, indeed in many cases, are better than those at many colleges. You will find some combination of hockey arenas, soccer, football, field hockey and lacrosse fields, natatoria, badminton and squash courts, golf courses, equestrian facilities and workout rooms at boarding schools on your list.
Why are athletics so important to private schools? Simply because they have made it their mission to educate the whole child. As the Roman satirist Juvenal stated centuries ago: mens sana in corpore sano which we can translate as "a healthy mind in a healthy body". That is why athletics are compulsory in private schools. Everybody participates. That doesn't mean that your daughter has to play varsity lacrosse. It simply means that she chooses an athletic activity which she enjoys. The sports offered change according to the seasons so there is always something fresh on your child's plate.
If you and your child decide that you need an advanced level of training and coaching in a particular sport, then add that item to your checklist. Do your due diligence very carefully to ensure that your child will receive the expert guidance she needs and expects.
This fourth item on your checklist is closely linked to the previous two items, athletics and academics. Once again the reason why boarding schools insist on a strong extracurricular activity component in their programs is that they aim to educate the whole child.
You will need to do your diligence carefully to confirm that the schools in which you are interested offer the activities your child wants. If a high standard is necessary, for example, if your son plays trumpet and wants to perform in a jazz ensemble, confirm that he will be able to do that. Extracurricular activities, just like sports, are coached by members of the faculty. In some cases the school will bring in professionals from the outside when circumstances warrant.
The school will probably have included rehearsal rooms, theaters and auditoria in its tour when you visit. Be sure to explore these in depth to confirm that they suit your requirements.
The last item on your checklist is in many ways the most important one. After you have taken care of items one through four, you need to look at the intangibles of which the major one is the answer to the question: "Is this school the best fit?" This is a question you and your child must both answer and be in agreement. You might be thrilled with the academics, sport and extracurriculars. They are everything she needs and even rather likes. But your child's experience at boarding school will come off the rails if the school is not the best fit.
Take time to assess the school community and the way in which its members interact. Is the warmth and friendliness superficial or the real thing? In boarding schools you will see clear signs of leadership both from the top and in the dormitories and residences. There is always an adult around. That presence is vital. If you don't see it, that raises a red flag.
Most of the time you won't have to worry about some of the nasties such as drug abuse, hazing and bullying. There is zero tolerance for those kind of things with which teens love to experiment. Honor codes and discipline policies are explained and are part of everyday life at school.
Tolerance for others is a major focus in most boarding schools as they try to teach important life lessons about respecting others and their differing ideas and viewpoints, cultures and so on. Boarding schools try very hard to educate their students to the reality that they are members of a global community. What they say and do matters. It matters a lot. Good luck with finding the best boarding school for your child.