Twenty-two of my thirty-two years in independent schools were spent in day schools, some very good and some fairly mediocre, but all of them had good students with dedicated teachers. Their debate teams did well; the football teams reigned supreme. Most went on to colleges and parents were fairly pleased with their investment. However, it wasn’t until I went to my first boarding school as an assistant headmaster that I realized that these are schools that take education to another level. And by that, I don’t mean that boarding schools are repositories for more advanced placement or honors classes, nor am I suggesting that the college placement was any better. All of those are features of schools that can be found anywhere. Where a school defines itself is where its soul is, and the soul of a boarding school lies in its development of a unique community of adults and students all living together; sharing a common purpose as defined by the mission of that school. Such schools are places that are not defined by the culture of the immediate surrounding community but by the multitude of experiences of their students, many of whom come from regions of the country and the world unknown to the average independent day or public school student. Boarding schools are places where students develop an appropriate sense of independence that all parents inherently wish for our children. Boarding schools, by their very nature, encourage and guide their students to learn to develop those emotional intelligence skills we often find so elusive in a seventeen year-old.
How these schools do this is something that can only be discerned by walking the campus and spending time listening and observing. Doing so, one will find, for the most part, motivated students with a common purpose happily engaged in the lives of each other. Artificial barriers to understanding and acceptance tend to disappear; social cliques can be rare; and intellectual risks can be taken without fear. The possibilities for expanding the education of a child beyond the classroom are enormous. As an example, I often think of a boy who came to us some years back as a sophomore from a local public school. We soon found that he had an extraordinary voice, but his talent had been unrecognized by his school. Freshmen rarely get recognition for their talents in large schools, often because they are too fearful to even attempt to share their talent. Yet, he was auditioning for our school musical and, yes, he had an extraordinary voice. He went on to become the highlight of our entire theater program and is now on a full scholarship studying opera at a conservatory back East. I do not believe this would have happened had he not transferred to a boarding school like ours.
Imagine a place where your son or daughter rooms with a student from Malawi or Kiev. Imagine students with a range of religious backgrounds living in the same hall together. If we have learned anything of the events of this new century, it is that the days of cultural isolation are over – we are all so interconnected. It is inevitable that our children, when they become adults, will be faced with a completely different kind of world – a world that requires a different sort of individual. I am not certain children can learn that worldview without venturing beyond the block they live on. Boarding school students experience the world through classmates and teachers who come from cultures and places different from their own. They are poised for success in the new, global environment. Experience a boarding school and you will understand.
Leo Marshall serves as the Director of Admission and Financial Aid at The Webb Schools in Claremont, CA- a coed, boarding school offering grades 9-12.