As you contemplate your son’s educational future, one thing is sure. You want him to attend one of the nation’s top boarding schools. The question is, when?
The obvious, and most popular, starting points are ninth and tenth grades.
- Ninth grade because it’s the natural beginning of the traditional four-year high school experience. It’s also the earliest most secondary boarding schools start admitting students.
- Tenth grade because that’s when the real work of high school really begins. AP courses, varsity sports, leadership positions—these are usually off-limits to the average high school freshman.
If you son starts secondary boarding school in tenth grade, will he have to make up ground to reach his classmates who have already made friends and adapted to life away from home? If he starts secondary boarding school in ninth grade, will he still have to wait a year to truly reap the benefits of top-notch academic and athletic programs?
There are good arguments for starting boarding school either year. But as Tim Murphy, Director of Secondary School Placement at The Fessenden School, points out, many boys who spend their ninth-grade years at a high-quality junior boarding school like Fessenden go on to shine at top secondary boarding schools and independent day schools.
Rather than entering at a disadvantage, these boys begin tenth grade on equal or better footing than their classmates.
In a junior boarding school, ninth graders are leaders.
“At a four-year high school, your son is always going to start on the bottom rung,” Tim says. “He will always be among the youngest students. In most cases, he won’t have the opportunity to play on varsity teams with the best coaches. There are very few leadership opportunities available to ninth graders.”
At a junior boarding school like Fessenden, on the other hand, ninth grade students are the big men on campus. They’re captains of varsity-level sports teams. They take the lead roles on stage. They’re presidents and chairmen of clubs and committees.
At Fessenden, as Tim describes, the younger boys look to the ninth-graders as role models. Some ninth-graders serve as proctors, mentoring the younger boys and helping dorm parents manage residential life. Others serve as table monitors in the dining hall or run the Upper School’s morning meetings.
Leadership opportunities help ninth-graders build confidence.
These leadership experiences do more than bolster a student’s resume. It bolsters his confidence, as well.
“Fourteen and 15 are critical ages for developing your academic self-confidence, your self-esteem as an athlete, and your social ability to network with different kinds of people,” Tim explains. “If you’re a ninth-grader at a school with 1,000 students, you’re looking up at all of these high-achieving, accomplished students. You’re doubting yourself a little bit. If you’re a ninth-grader at Fessenden, you feel more confident. You feel like a leader. You feel like you’re accomplishing things.”
The author Malcolm Gladwell often writes about the idea of “relative comparison,” Tim says. According to Gladwell, bright, talented people often do better as big fish in a small pond where their gifts can be nurtured. As big fish in a big pond, they often burn out, driven to quit by the futility of keeping up with the even bigger fish.
“When you feel academic, social, and athletic confidence, you take more risks,” Tim explains. “You push yourself harder. You’re more willing to put yourself out there and add challenges to your daily life than you are when you’re a freshman feeling inadequate about your ability to contribute to your community.”
What do you think? Which is the best year to start boarding school?
Are you thinking about enrolling your son in a secondary boarding school in ninth grade or tenth grade? How did you arrive at your decision? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
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