"Most kids want to be lost. They don't want to be held accountable. Small size may not be attractive to them, but it is to their parents."
"Small boarding schools?" Prospective boarding school parents might
think, "Every school that we've looked at is smaller than the public
school our child currently attends."
Families face the obvious questions of school types in their evaluations of boarding school options for the student- single sex, coeducational, structured, athletic. But even within the independent school world, small boarding schools thrive as a unique genre presenting students and families with challenges and opportunities that one finds only in an an inclusive, communal environment.
Fundamental philosophical differences in mission set small schools apart form their larger brethren. Small schools allow themselves to be shaped and driven by the students they serve rather than by institutional structure and tradition. Focus on the student and family drives small schools. They believe in their students. As with any school, families and students will find practices and philosophies that are bigger than any one student or group, but, in small schools, families will also find communities that are more flexible, more responsive to student interests, and more willing to exercise personal concern.
Traits and Qualities
Families exploring small boarding schools will find that they all share particular traits:
Small means something special in the boarding school world- a learning environment in which everyone is connected. The close-knit environment expects, and demands, more participation from students and families.
No one stands alone. Everyone must support one another. Diversity and intimacy grow out of this required collaboration. Students must open themselves to working and sharing with everyone.
In a small boarding school, one is much more likely to have a varied core group of friends than in a larger school. The small student body is unlikely to contain more than a couple of students just like you. Students must extend themselves in the small boarding school environment.
The connections center around personal relationships that students must build while living and working in what is essentially an extended family. Everyone knows everyone in a small school- students, faculty, administration, the maintenance staff. All members of the community must work together to make the school operate. Students will learn to to love their friends, faculty, and staff- warts and all.
From a personal perspective, small schools offer intriguing advantages. Small school students must push themselves beyond their comfort zones to help the school and their peers. This season's drama production may need another cast member or an athletic team may need more players. One can find students with athletic prowess participating in the term's drama production and vice versa.
Marylou Marcus, former director of admission at the Dublin School, explains:
"They (small school students) can play a varsity sport; they can do theater; they can be a star in a production. They can try something new, whether it's photography or ceramics. Small school students can be a big fish in a little pond. You can be team captain and proctor.
You're noticed; everyone knows you."
Risk is encouraged, and required, to make the school work.
Faculty and friends will know and celebrate your achievements as well as support you and, perhaps, chastise you when you don't fulfill your potential as student and member of the community. Faculty are aware of the risks and commitments that the small living setting demands. They stand ready to help their students even if that means a stern rebuke.
Parents are an integral part of the connections made in small schools. Academically, small schools often communicate both formally and informally with parents. A phone call from an advisor at early signs of struggle often opens communication lines. Conversely, parents often call to share their concerns from a recent trip or a conversation with their student.
Small schools ask parents to participate in extracurricular activities- such as fund raising and social events throughout the year. A school may ask for volunteers during a parents' weekend, for participation on a planning or fund-raising committee and for a contribution to the annual fund. With smaller financial resources than their larger brethren, small schools need parents to serve in primary support roles.
Small boarding schools present an opportunity to live and work in a tight web of opportunity and meaning that few people are privileged to experience in the modern world. This closely-knit environment is not for everyone; it can prove difficult. As a student, if you like community connections with students and adults, then you might thrive in a small boarding environment. Everyone will know who you are and what you should be doing. It's demanding, but it offers great opportunities to learn and to participate in situations in which you never dreamed of finding yourself.
We appreciate interviews with the following in preparation of this article:
Marylou Marcus, Educational Consultant
Andrew Walpole, Educational Consultant, Newark, DE