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Boarding School: Is It Right for Your Kid?

We admit it: Boarding schools tend to have ... interesting reputations. Thanks to books and the movies, you may picture an elitist cult, troubled teens, a spooky manor or some other odd experience when you think of boarding school. With this impression in mind, the idea of sending your child to boarding school can quickly become confusing and downright scary.

This decision doesn't have to overwhelm you, though. We talked with Lucy Pritzker, who works as an educational consultant and helps families find the appropriate schools and settings for their children, to understand more about the boarding school selection process. (She is also the mother of three, one of whom is in his third year of boarding school.) Here’s the lowdown on what you need to know about boarding schools.

When your kid goes to a boarding school, it doesn’t mean that you're shipping your kid off, nor is it only for troubled kids.

1. There Is No “Right” Choice

“There is no ‘best’ school, but there is a school that is ‘best’ for your child,” says Pritzker. “Just because Aunt Sally’s neighbor’s son thrived at a particular school doesn’t mean your child will.”

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2. There Is No “Type” of Student Who's Best for Boarding Schools

When your kid goes to a boarding school, it doesn’t mean that you're shipping your kid off, nor is it only for troubled kids. “Yes, there are schools for troubled kids, but that is only one segment of the boarding school world,” says Pritzker. “There are wonderful schools for all different types of students.”

3. There Are Four Different Types of Boarding Schools

Junior boarding schools serve middle school-aged kids and provide a structured learning environment. College prep schools have what Pritzker describes as “rigorous academics” and help your teen reach academic goals to guide their future. Alternative schools offer a college prep curriculum with a twist. “Each school has a different culture and serves a niche population,” says Pritzker. Lastly, therapeutic schools have academic components, just like other schools, but also provide therapy support with clinical staff. Group, individual and family therapy sessions are built into the structure of the program.

4. You Don’t Need to Be Super Wealthy

“Surprisingly, in major cities, private schools can cost almost as much as a boarding school,” says Pritzker. “Many boarding schools strive to have socioeconomic diversity on their campuses and offer financial aid. There are also loans specifically for funding private school tuition.” On the low end, tuitions start around $25,000, though some (typically Christian) boarding schools can start even lower. For traditional boarding schools with a traditional school calendar, expect tuition to be anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000 (or more). Therapeutic schools can cost around $100,000 for a 12-month stint, though there are some that run as low as $30,000. Pritzker advises checking out financial aid and payment options. Many schools have scholarships available, and, for some therapeutic schools, your insurance can help cover costs.

5. It Won’t Hurt Your Family’s Bond

“Our society’s mental health model is based on ‘family preservation.‘ And for most, that means keeping the family together, often at all costs,” says Pritzker. “But families I work with find their family is preserved because of boarding school. It gives them a happy, thriving youngster who they can have a relationship with, either because their child is now in a rigorous academic culture that validates the child’s desires, or because they are able to play sports or perform more often or at a different level than they could at home. Or, it is because their child’s therapeutic needs are getting met in a way outpatient therapy couldn’t address.”

6. There Are Multiple Reasons to Look Into Boarding School

“Many parents come to me because they recognize that their child is a bright and capable student, but not achieving academically or socially—or both,” says Pritzker. “Often these are students who are unable to keep up with the pace or the amount of work expected in their local school. They require a high level of challenge, but at a slower, more relaxed pace with a focus on effort rather than production. These are kids from high-pressured schools and families. When I work with this profile, I am looking at schools that are alternatives to traditional college prep schools, but that can still prepare their students for four-year colleges and universities.”

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If your teen is struggling, boarding school may also be a good option for your family. “These are adolescents who, for a variety of reasons—trauma, family problems, behavior issues, substance abuse—need a therapeutic intervention and the 24/7 support of a therapeutic boarding school,” says Pritzker.

Lastly, boarding school might be just the new setting your child needs to succeed. “A third group, while they are not unhappy at home or school, are looking for a different experience—either kids with parents who went to boarding school and want the same experience, or a chance to be a part of a like-minded academic and social peer group, or a deeper opportunity in the arts or athletically,” says Pritzker.

7. Therapeutic Boarding Schools Can Be Beneficial to Your Teen, Even If You Don’t Think So

“Sometimes parents think that a child struggling at home just needs a place to reinvent him or herself. And sometimes, particularly when a child’s academic needs aren’t being met, this can be true,” says Pritzker. “However, when a child is using alcohol and other drugs and/or is angry and defiant with authority figures, merely a change of environment, with no therapeutic support, is not going to help. The issues the child struggled with at home will be repeated in boarding school. In these cases, I help my clients find appropriate therapeutic boarding schools.”

8. When in Doubt, Consider Hiring a Consultant

“Frequently, families use the Internet to do their boarding school search, and quickly find that there is an overwhelming amount of information. Hiring an educational consultant brings firsthand knowledge to the search,” says Pritzker. Educational consultants visit schools for insight into what sort of kid would do well there. While hiring one will add to the expense, it may be worth it if you're at a loss as to where to send your child. You can find out more about educational consultants and hiring one at the Independent Educational Consultants Association.

9. Know How Boarding School Differs From Other Schools

Boarding schools often offer more academic support than traditional schools. With small classes (some schools even offer one-on-one teaching, while most classrooms average no more than 12 students), study hall hours, access to teachers that live on campus and a general push for resources, your child can excel in the classroom and out. “Afternoon activities and extracurricular activities are just as important as the academic day,” says Pritzker. Another bonus? Many students come from all over the nation—if not the world—so your kid will be exposed to and work in a diverse community.

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10. Ask Lots of Questions While You Research

Consider things like ...

1. What is the typical class size? “For some students, too small a class can limit engagement in dialogue with like-minded academic peers, while for others, too big a class can mean less individual attention,” says Pritzker.

2. What is the style of teaching used in the school? “Some students do well in lecture-based classes, others thrive in discussion based, while still others need hands-on-learning experiences,” explains Pritzker.

3. What percentage of your students are boarders and what percentage are international?

But no matter how many questions you ask, says Pritzker, nothing beats a visit to the school, itself. “Parents often recall their feelings of ‘this is it’ when visiting college campuses. It can happen the same way when looking at boarding schools. Something just feels right,” she explains.

11. Boarding School Is Not a Last Resort

“Boarding school is an underutilized resource in this country,” says Pritzker. “I often hear the families I work with say that they wish they could have found a great boarding school sooner.” Enrolling a child in a boarding school is not a reflection of an inability to parent—it’s simply providing your child with resources they can’t get in a more traditional school.

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