Boarding school is often synonymous with secondary school. It’s easy to understand why. In the United States and Canada, boarding schools for students in ninth grade or higher far outnumber those that serve students in ninth grade or lower.
In fact, the Association of Boarding Schools’ online directory lists only 11 schools (out of a total of about 300) that exclusively serve students in ninth grade or lower. And, of the top five schools listed in Business Insider’s “Most Elite Boarding Schools in the U.S.,” only one accepts students below ninth grade—and just for eighth grade.
It’s no big mystery, then, why so many of the families that have visited or talked to The Fessenden School had never heard of the concept of a junior boarding school before they began their school search.
As a junior boarding school, Fessenden accepts boarding students in fifth through ninth grade. Many of them then go on to complete their high school education at top tiered secondary boarding schools.
This is why junior boarding schools often used to be called, “pre-prep” schools, explains Caleb Thomson ’79, Director of Admissions at The Fessenden School. Among the many benefits of a junior boarding school like Fessenden, Thomson says, is how it can prepare students for future success in some of the nation’s top secondary schools.
In addition to the strong academic preparation students receive, boys who attend junior boarding school before secondary boarding get a leg up on their peers who come from public schools or private day schools for two reasons, notes Thomson:
- Boys learn to live and study in a boarding school environment before going on to the larger, higher-pressure environment of a secondary school.
- Junior boarding schools allow boys—especially in ninth grade—to gain valuable leadership experience and build their resumes in ways that are hard to do on the bottom rung of a secondary boarding school.
1. Learning to Be Independent
Many students will encounter a more rigorous academic environment and a more competitive student body at a secondary boarding school than they did at their previous schools. The Association of Boarding Schools (which comprises mostly secondary schools) reports that the average boarding school student does 17 hours of homework per week, compared to nine hours for private day school students and 8 hours for public school students.
According to the same report, 91 percent of boarding school students say their school is “academically challenging,” compared to 70 percent of private day school students and 50 percent of public school students.
In addition to the stress caused by high academic standards of competitive secondary schools, many boarding school students find themselves living apart from their families for the first time in their lives. Those first few months at a secondary boarding school can be quite challenging for a first-time boarder.
However, for students coming from a junior boarding school, the transition to secondary boarding school is often seamless.
Thompson notes that at a junior boarding school, “boys have an opportunity to experience a very nurturing, close-knit, family-oriented boarding environment prior to going off to a bigger, less structured, secondary school.” He reports that boys become more independant and arrive at secondary school equipped with solid organizational and study skills.
That’s not to say that boys at a junior boarding school like Fessenden aren’t challenged or that they never experience homesickness. But the entire school community is designed to provide the support boys need to overcome their challenges and adapt to living away from home.
For example, more than 70 percent of the Fessenden’s Upper School faculty live on campus, spending time with the students not only in the classroom, but in the dining room, on the playing fields, and on weekend trips. An individualized mentorship program helps boys gain the skills they need to succeed at Fessenden, at top secondary boarding schools, and throughout their lives.
(For more on how Fessenden supports boys and their parents, watch this video on the school’s philosophy of being “partners in parenting.”)
2. Big Fish in a Little Pond
Whether they went to a private or a public high school, most parents remember the intimidating experience of being among the youngest, least experienced students in the school, having to wait their turn behind older students for leadership opportunities or to take center stage in sports or the arts.
“When you go to secondary school you start as a freshman. You are a ninth grader. You are at the low end of the totem pole,” Thomson says.
This is not the case at a junior boarding school.
“Here at Fessenden, the ninth grade is a transformational year,” Thomson attests. “You are the big man on campus and there are endless opportunities to lead and explore your passions. These are the types of opportunities that make boys really standout to secondary school admissions officers.”
Thomson cites the Proctor program as one of the many leadership opportunities at Fessenden. Ninth-grade boys who become proctors have achieved “the highest level of leadership,” he states. Proctors at Fessenden live in underclassmen dormitories, mentoring the boys while helping dorm parents manage residential life. This is a leadership position that is not available to most boys until secondary school, or in some cases college.
The older students at a junior boarding school also have opportunities to lead on athletic teams that they wouldn’t at secondary schools. Ninth-grade student-athletes at Fessenden can become captains of their varsity teams, rather than members of freshman teams at other schools. In addition to that, they have the opportunity for a higher level of play.
Thomson, who also coaches varsity soccer and tennis at Fessenden, says his teams regularly compete—and frequently win—against high school junior varsity teams.
“Our boys are getting opportunities to play at a really high level,” he notes. “Higher than they would probably be able to during the early years at their secondary school. It’s not about wins and losses, though. It’s about teaching good sportsmanship and preparing our student-athletes to compete at the secondary school level.”
With these leadership opportunities come more impressive resumes; resumes that might help junior boarding school students get into better secondary schools than they would otherwise.
“If you are at a regular middle school that goes up through eighth grade, you could be a class president, but you wouldn’t really have the leadership opportunities or competitive sports teams you would have at a junior boarding school,” Thomson says. “When secondary schools look at an applicant from Fessenden, they know the type of boy that they are getting with regard to their academic preparedness, athleticism, character, and extracurricular talents.”