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Choosing a Boarding School? Weigh These Five Factors

portrait of Hugh SilbaughBy Hugh Silbaugh, Dean of Teaching and Learning

All boarding schools say that close student-faculty relationships and strong academic programs are among their central features.

To find a truly great match for a student, families should study what sets a school apart. Geography, size, characteristics of students, degree of formality, and school history will begin to tell that story.

Before making your short list, all schools should demonstrate that their academic program makes good students better, providing them with strong options for college and life.

Here are some other points to consider as you begin the search.

1. The basics
Do your homework as a family. Check on teachers’ credentials. Talk to the admission office about what the school values in hiring teachers. Look for depth of knowledge, passion for their subject, and a love for working with adolescents.

Tip: Ask students at the school or admission officers to characterize the faculty and share stories about students and faculty living and learning together. Ask a tour guide to tell you about a favorite teacher.

2. The program
What do you care about? It’s tempting to focus on a school’s college matriculation list. What you really need to ask is whether a school is well equipped to help you to develop into your best self.

If a student is interested in mathematics, for instance, pay extra attention to the composition of that department and connect with a faculty member before choosing to enroll. Consider the course offerings. Are there AP and honors courses? Does the school offer advanced and elective courses or interdisciplinary courses?

Tip: Look for signs that a school focuses on the process of learning, not just on the outcomes.

3. The advisor
Ask a lot of questions about the advising system. The quality of a school’s advising system can make or break the experience of a boarding student.

An advisor typically meets weekly with advisees, helps them shape their academic schedule, and understands their goals and challenges. Advisors also know school regulations and policies and have a sense of what students will encounter. Advisors should be closely connected with parents, apprising them of progress and acting as the first point of contact.

Tip: Talking to parents of current students can help families get an authentic picture of the care students and families can expect as part of an academic community.

4. The pedagogy and learning culture
Learn as much as you can about the broader learning environment.

What kind of peer collaboration is valued and expected? What tools does a library offer? What other resources are available to students? Who shapes the curriculum of the school? What core skills will every graduate have? How does the school understand the intellectual and social needs of students of different ages?

Tip: None of these questions has an easy answer but people's responses will give you a sense of what’s at the heart of a school.

5. The integration
While academic quality is essential, it isn’t the whole story.

Students live at boarding schools, and their academic success cannot be separated from their social and extracurricular experience. Ask about student life, about the relationship between the dean of students and academic leadership.

Tip: Seek a place that cares as much about relationships as performance. The most productive school environment will care about both.

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