Eighth grade was a tough year for Barry Fausnaugh's son. The checks and supports the family had put in place weren't enough to keep the bright, personable 13-year-old organized and on track. "At the end of spring break, we stepped back from our routine and took a hard look at where he was with all his assignments. He broke down and asked if he could go to military school," says the Bethesda father of two. "He seemed really sincere about it….This was not a whimsical request."
As Diane Berman looked at her "independent and self-sufficient" son, she knew he needed a broader high school experience, "both academically and socially. He's the kind of kid who'd go to summer camp and love it," says the Potomac mother of three. "It's not something we forced upon him. He was part of the entire process. He realized this was a fabulous opportunity."
Rick Pfleeger, 16, of Alexandria believes boarding school will give him a leg up when it comes to college admissions and knows he'll "be able to adapt to college life more easily. My sister went to another boarding school for high school and had a really good experience. I thought it would be fun to try out," says the junior who boards five days a week at Sandy Spring Friends School in Sandy Spring, Md.
Trading Bedroom for Dorm Room
The reasons children trade their bedroom for a dorm room vary greatly but some are more common than others, according to Patricia Murphy, a certified educational planner and academic access consultant in Chevy Chase. They include: developing a talent or pursuing a sport, obtaining support for specific learning differences, increasing one's chance to attend an elite college, reaching one's full academic potential, and having a secure and stable environment when one's parents travel frequently. Then there are times when "a kid just needs a fresh start," she says. "If they're struggling with friends or they find themselves in a social dilemma, they may have trouble digging themselves out."
"Boarding school gives you the opportunity to reinvent yourself," says Mike Rodgers, director of admission at Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va. "My advice to new students is that no one needs to know more about you than you want them to know."
Boarding Schools Differ
Schools, like the students who attend them, have different personalities. "Some are traditional, others progressive. You can choose between a single-sex or coed school. Some have a religious affiliation. Of course, curriculums differ. Some boarding schools offer a more hands-on or experiential education," says Murphy.
For example, Oak Hill, a college prep school with a nationally renowned boys' basketball team and highly regarded equestrian program, works with teens who "haven't achieved the success they're capable of," says Rodgers. "That involves more than just performance in the classroom. It includes accountability and responsibility. Here, you grow up."
That's what happened to Fausnaugh's son after entering Randolph-Macon Academy in Front Royal, Va. "When we were first visiting the school, one parent in particular said, 'When he comes home for the first time, he'll sit at the dinner table, use good manners and put his napkin in his lap.' Darned if he didn't," says Fausnaugh. "His whole demeanor and attitude about helping when asked and doing things he's supposed to do has really improved."
Berman also saw growth in her son's level of maturity just a few months into his freshman year at Eagle Hill School in Hardwick, Mass. "He never shared a bedroom with someone, so he had to learn to be respectful and mindful of others. ...When he came home that first Thanksgiving, I noticed a little difference. By February, he was like a brand new kid in a very positive way."
Structure, Independence and Opportunity
Such maturation derives from a structured environment that provides residential students with a certain level of independence and the opportunity to make choices. "Within our boundaries, it's easy to make good decisions but not impossible to make bad ones," says Rodgers.
"There's a large adult presence and that encourages everyone to keep their attention in the right place," says Ken Fishback, head of the boarding program at Sandy Spring Friends, which is primarily a day school. Each boarding student has an academic adviser and a family group head, the individual who coordinates the family group to which the student is assigned. Students dine one night a week with their family group. On two of the other nights, "tables rotate so that eventually you have the opportunity to sit with every adult and every student. It helps knock down barriers."
Pfleeger has formed a variety of friendships at Sandy Spring Friends. "Some of my closest friends are from Korea and Vietnam. I will always remember the different lessons learned from each of them."
International students comprise about 20 percent of Oak Hill's enrollment. "Seventeen countries are represented on campus," says Rodgers. "Our international students bring a different world view and, as a result, classroom discussions can go in many directions." The classroom experience is often different at a boarding school due to a combination of small class sizes and engaged faculty, some of whom live on campus.
"I've been impressed by the caliber of teachers - their backgrounds and dedication to the kids," says Berman of Eagle Hill's faculty. "It's like family."
Study Halls and Small Classes
"The individual attention that comes from a small class size is terrific," says Fausnaugh, who watched his son's B's and C's rise to straight A's at Randolph-Macon. Academics permeate "day-to-day life, something that is hard to do at home."
The mandatory two-hour evening study hall at Sandy Spring Friends has gotten Pfleeger "in the habit of setting aside time to get my work done. As a junior, I know how to plan my assignments and manage my time," he says.
Boarding school students spend twice as many hours a week-17 versus 8-on homework than do their public school counterparts, according to The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS). And 90 percent of residential students report feeling academically challenged.
At residential schools, learning extends beyond the classroom, notes Murphy. "Academics, social activities and extracurriculars all take place on campus. No time is lost schlepping kids from one place to another."
As a result, residential students participate in more after-school activities than do their day school peers, according to TABS. That includes sports-12 hours a week compared to 9 hours-and artistic endeavors like music and painting-6 hours versus 4 hours.
Fausnaugh's son managed Randolph-Macon's baseball team. The position came about after the student suffered a bout of homesickness. "We called and talked to the colonel about our concerns. He was very helpful and creative in getting Will involved," says Fausnaugh. This year, Will hopes to play for the team.
Character Development and Leadership Opportunities
Character development and leadership opportunities are woven into the fabric of boarding school life. "We model Christian values but pull in facets from many other cultures," says Rodgers. Oak Hill also offers a training seminar that prepares students for campus leadership positions, such as school ambassadors.
As a sophomore at Randolph-Macon, Will Fausnaugh is back in his dorm's freshman hall serving as a mentor. "It's an entry level leadership role, if you will," says Barry Fausnaugh. "He's there to help freshman learn their way around and get with the program."
Despite the multitude of benefits boarding schools have to offer, they are not for everyone. The price tag - which can run from $25,000 to more than $65,000 for tuition, room and board-can be off-putting. "Boarding schools are very expensive, which is why they have traditionally been for an elite population," says Murphy. "While there is a good amount of financial aid out there these days, a free ride is unusual. But, in the end, the price tag is often not as daunting as it might first appear."
To be successful in boarding schools, students need to be open to the experience. "That's not to say everyone comes here with a grin on their face. There is always some anxiety stepping into the unknown," says Rodgers.
"You have to be willing to try new things, to put yourself out there, to make new friends," says Pfleeger. "That will just open so many new doors and set you up for success."