Before you decide you don’t want to read about some stodgy, elitist boarding schools, pause for a second.
Maybe you’re thinking about the places portrayed in movies: exclusive and packed with badly-behaved, super-wealthy kids. But in Canada’s modern boarding schools, old stereotypes don’t hold. Today, these schools are caring and striving to be inclusive, diverse and well-rounded.
“The schools want the students who want to be there,” says Gordon Boughner. He boarded at Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ont., for secondary school but attended public school during elementary years. “Admissions isn’t just by the fact that you can write the cheque,” he says.
Admissions: about more than tuition
Boughner says boarding schools set aside money for endowments that can be provided to eligible students who need some help paying tuition. This helps schools attract great students – and be attainable to more families.
Another outdated perception is that parents make the decision about boarding school entirely on behalf of their kids. But Boughner says nowadays, kids are very much involved. In his case, it was his youngest son, Andrew, who approached his parents about private school. (Andrew graduated from his father’s alma mater last June.)
Kids are leading the charge
Stuart Grainger, Head of Trinity College School, concurs. “It’s the biggest change. Kids are doing the research. Kids want to go to these places.”
What’s driving this? Boughner says that his son realized there would be little support at his local public high school for balancing academics with the sports he loved. But he knew that at boarding school, there would be multiple emphases: academics, community service, sports and many other extracurriculars.
Everything is on campus
Grainger explains that kids at boarding schools don’t have to worry about getting to and from. “How am I getting to school? How am I getting to practice? How am I going to meet with Billy to go over that project? How is the band going to get together? They’re all there.
“So you know, it’s just a question of connecting with people as opposed to having to worry about how you’re going to get involved.”
Grainger references the ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ concept.
“This is the village.”
Bob Snowden is Head of St. Michaels University School in Victoria, B.C. He says the students are always actively engaged in a host of pursuits.
“Between their academics and their sports and their extracurricular,” says Snowden, it’s a pretty busy life, which is what you want.”
And because non-academic activities are scheduled so that they don’t conflict with classes, students don’t have to drop activities they love – and can try ones they might not otherwise have time to consider. Plus, some of the cost of boarding school is offset by the fact that parents don’t have to pay for private lessons separately in the community.
Living at school means learning to be independent
“There are all kinds of personal and social qualities and quite a bit of character development that takes place,” says Snowden.
“They do learn to look after themselves. They learn self-reliance, how to interact constructively with other people.”
Queen Margaret’s School in Duncan, B.C., has a co-ed day school but offers a boarding program for female students.
Wilma Jamieson is Head of School there. “We look to help our students prepare themselves for the demands that they’ll have moving into a university, college or trade school setting.”
Time management and how to study
Michael Robinson had attended the local public school in his northern Manitoba hometown. But he says there were limited opportunities there. He and his parents decided together that he would board at Winnipeg’s St. John’s-Ravenscourt School – an eight-hour drive away.
He says time management and learning how to study properly were two important skills he learned. But it was hard at first.
“I did well in school before, but I always finished work in class,” says Robinson. “When I came to SJR, I experienced actual homework. I was shell-shocked. But they have study time set aside, a lot of school help, and peer-to-peer studying groups. If you are struggling, teachers are there to aid you after school.”
What if a student is struggling?
Adolescence is a tender time of age, fraught with the many changes associated with growing up. But living at boarding school doesn’t mean kids won’t be able to cope – and thrive.
St. John’s-Ravenscourt Head of School, Jim Keefe, says the school has several strategies in place.
“We’ve got counselling teams,” says Keefe. “We’ve got a full-time nurse who’s available to boarders ’round the clock. We train our boarding staff in supporting social, emotional and academic needs. And we’ve got two families living in our boarding community, to create a real family feeling.”
Jamieson says her school also has peer support programs. “It’s a residence assistance program, which are student leaders who each have a group of students, who would be cross-grades, that they could connect with.”
Grainger says this peer support is key.
“The research shows that if a child’s having a difficult time, whether it’s homesickness or otherwise, that kids tend to tell kids first.”
Peer support members are trained to listen and support their fellow students, and if it’s necessary, redirect to one of the adults in the school community.
Structure = freedom to thrive
Living at boarding school offers a structured regimen. Keefe says a typical day at his school starts with breakfast at eight, classes from eight forty-five to four, and extracurriculars until six in the afternoon. After dinner, there is study time.
Three meals are scheduled throughout the day, as well as snack times, including before bedtime.
Healthy food, comfortable digs
“The food has really improved from 50, 40, 30, 25 years ago,” says Grainger. “The quality is significantly better. All schools are far more conscious about the variety of healthy eating choices.”
Dietary options include halal, vegan, gluten-free and more. Popular dishes from international cuisines are also common.
Robinson considers himself a foodie and agrees whole-heartedly. He says the food at his school is “really good”. But he remembers his father always joked that at the boarding school he attended in his day, the food was “absolutely terrible. It was bland, it was porridge.”
Boarding students stay in double rooms comparable to those at university dorms. Sometimes there are triple-room set-ups. When single rooms are available, they are usually reserved for senior students. There are common areas and plenty of showers.
Better parent and child relationships
If you think you wouldn’t want to consider boarding schools because you don’t want to be separated from your kids, there is a great side benefit to consider.
“The relationship between parent and child improves,” says Grainger, “because there is a degree of distance from the parent. Parents are still involved in the lives of their children. But not micro-managing.”
Boughner said once his son expressed interest in private school, he insisted that he board in order to get the full benefit.
“We said okay, dig deeper to afford boarding. In my mind, it’s putting the icing on the investment.”