Junior boarding schools offer students a unique chance to experience a challenging academic program, vast extracurriculars, and a cohesive, supportive community. Most do a great job at delivering on these promises–and many students will do just fine at schools to which they apply and are accepted.
But surviving and thriving are two different things. How can you help ensure your child thrives? The campus visit is crucial for gauging school “fit.” A junior boarding school can meet all your criteria for academics, athletics, and extracurriculars, but there’s no litmus test quite like setting foot on campus to determine if the school is truly right for your son.
When you’re on campus, consider the following. Your son is far more likely to thrive if…
1. The school has a feeling of connectedness.
How to tell:
Connectedness comes from a strong community. At a boarding school, community comprises students, teachers, coaches, staff, and dorm parents. And community is made stronger when these people have multiple opportunities to interact. Program size can play a role as well, so be sure to look at the size of the boarding population. Are there 300 students, or 50? How well will supportive and caring adults be able to get to know your child, and how well will the students be able to get to know and support each other? A program that’s not too big and not too small can provide a more nurturing environment, with multiple touch points and greater opportunities for adults and kids to connect. (At Fessenden, we find our boarding population of 100 offers this “just-right” feel.)
2. He’s ready for leadership opportunities–and the school offers them.
How to tell:
By the time a boy reaches junior boarding school age, he’s likely ready to begin experiencing leadership roles in varying degrees. And it’s important for educators to foster these opportunities, because they establish interpersonal and social skills, as well as build confidence in young men–a trait that strengthens their character in secondary school and beyond.
Junior boarding schools offer boys the unique opportunity to take on leadership roles earlier in their academic careers. The traditional junior boarding school extends to ninth grade. But in secondary schools, ninth grade is freshman year: students are the “low men on the totem pole” and the little fish in a big pond. As a result, they tend to retreat into themselves more and hold back. In the junior boarding school environment, ninth graders are, essentially, “seniors.”
Most boys benefit from the chance to step up and act as a leader–especially when the opportunity is presented to them as an honor and a privilege. Boys who have spent several years at a given school have likely waited for this time, when they have the chance to make an even greater impact on the school community.
When you visit campus, look for, and ask about, ways boys can serve as leaders. Opportunities may include serving as dorm proctors or prefects, leading community service projects, mentoring younger students as a “big brother,” tutoring peers, holding a class office, or captaining a sports team.
3. He won’t get pigeon-holed (as a jock, a drama kid, a nerd, a trouble-maker…)
How to tell:
Every school has a unique culture. Independent schools tend to be more welcoming and encouraging of students to try new activities and experiences–and this is, arguably, even more the case in a single-sex environment. In an all-boys school, a student doesn’t need to “posture” for the opposite sex. He’s not measured against classroom standards and behaviors that traditionally favor girls (sitting quietly for extended periods of time), nor is he held to gender stereotypes that dictate what is or isn’t OK for a boy to do. And for many boys, once girls are removed from the equation, “problematic” classroom behaviors tend to become non-issues.
A single-sex school typically offers more opportunities in extracurricular areas, such as sports. Because single-sex schools are serving more athletes (rather than just the most skilled players of each gender), they usually offer more sports teams and levels of competition. This benefits boys who are star athletes, because they can compete at higher levels, with fiercer competition, and receive more targeted coaching. It also benefits boys who just enjoy participating, because there’s a team and an option for their level, too.
Why is this important? Because the boy who wants to play sports but also wants to star in the school play has a chance to do so. He’s not obligated to devote all his time to sports, nor is he dissuaded (intentionally or unintentionally) from drama club because “it’s a girl thing.”
To really evaluate this, observe the student population and culture of the school during the campus visit. Is the same student involved in several different things? Is the community as excited about the upcoming science fair or school play as it is about the football championships? Do faculty and staff support and encourage students to pursue a variety of interests–even when they’re outside a student’s comfort zone?
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