The Boarding Advantage in Challenging Times

Invariably I begin Zoom calls with my shelter-at-home high school juniors with some variation of, “How is online schooling treating you?” With few exceptions, my kids, particularly those enrolled at boarding schools fire back with “good,” “solid,” or “going well.” Contrast the upbeat tenor of a sequestered-at-home boarder with one of the handful of public school juniors with whom I consult; the difference is night and day. Not all, but many of my public high school juniors have only an hour or two of class each day, much of the time focused around assigning and discussing homework assignments. For one student, attending class is optional. “Half of my classmates are no shows to my Zoom classes. In fact, our principal just made a new minimum attendance rule,” she added.

As an independent educational consultant working with both high school- and college-bound students, spring is typically a period in which work with school clients begins to wind down, just as engagement with college clients, specifically rising seniors, ramps up. GPA’s and SAT tests are evaluated as lists of colleges are assembled. Involvement in the arts, athletics, clubs and summer jobs are rendered down to 150-character descriptions that fit neatly into the activity section of the Common Application. Travel itineraries are discussed and devised before a student and parents head off on a connect-the-dot excursion from one college town to the next. Upon return from these whirlwind tours, more discussions about what was liked and disliked, colleges are added and deleted, in an effort to find the sweet spot of a few ‘reach’, some ‘target’, and a sufficient number of ‘likely’ schools so that all are able to sleep restfully while awaiting spring decisions.

A recent call with a “St. Grottlesex” student began with apologies that she could only spend 45 minutes instead of the original agreed upon hour. “No problem, what’s up,” I asked. She went on to say that she had another Zoom scheduled with a teacher from the winter term. She explained that, due to COVID19, the spring term was pass/fail, but that her school had offered the opportunity to any student who was motivated to redo winter assignments in an effort to learn more and improve grades. Another boarding client texted last week to postpone our call because her dorm was involved in an all-school scavenger hunt. “My roommate is in a different time zone – and I really want to team with her – and this is the only time that works!”

I have asked myself, “Why it is that boarding students and their respective schools seem to be managing, with few exceptions, so much better than their public-school counterparts?” At first, I suspected the age-old ‘class size’ was the difference. Stepping back, however, I began to recognize boarding school traits that I suppose I simply took for granted while parenting 3 kids through boarding schools, or during my 20-year tenure as a boarding school teacher and administrator. Indeed, it was easier to get to know 12 to 14 students than 20 to 25, and certainly simpler to control a smaller group while teleconferencing. However, I am convinced that there are reasons beyond class size that account for why, at least anecdotally, boarding schools and their students have fared far better in this tragic pandemic. Could it be that as both academic and residential communities, boarding schools regularly must “pivot” due to the innumerable circumstances that pop up? It may be the ‘can do’ and ‘all in’ mindsets among adults who buy into a boarding school community. Afterall, isn’t pivoting to online instruction just another ‘hat’ that boarding schools are asking their faculty to wear? And who is more accustomed to donning yet another hat than the notorious triple threat faculty. Indeed, a number of boarding schools are thriving during these challenging times by not only drawing on long established traditions and brands, but also by maintaining a growth mindset as they adapt to dynamic online learning platforms. The strong bonds that teachers and advisors cultivated with students during more “normal” times are paying dividends during this period of distant learning. Unfortunately, many public schools were not able to establish the same mentoring communities and thus, learning is negatively impacted when attempting to deliver content remotely.

And let’s not leave out the students! Again, I admit my sample size is small, but every year I work with a handful of both boarding school and public school kids, and I consistently find bordering school kids to be more pulled together. I find that I spend much less time helping my boarding students with organizing their calendar, despite the fact that they typically are much busier with athletics, clubs, and homework. Perhaps it’s the hardship of living away from home that has steeled them to the lessons of showing up where they are supposed to be, when they are supposed to be there, with fewer reminders.

Has COVID19 presented challenges for all high schools and their students? Undoubtedly yes. That said, due to the native mindset of boarding school administrators, teachers and students, it is this constituency that is best equipped to roll up their sleeves, lean in, and transcend the pandemic challenges that lay in their path.