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Institutions: Boarding school

May 13, 2013

Hotchkissby Stephen G. Smith
Published in U.S. News and World Report, May 14, 2001

Upward of 15 million Americans go to public high schools, 640,000 to parochial high schools, more than 150,000 to independent secondary schools, and 42,500 to boarding schools. Snap quiz: Which schools produced four of the leading candidates for president last year?

The giveaway is that President Bush went to Andover. At roughly the same time, Steve Forbes was a mere 4 miles away at Brooks, and Al Gore was living in a dorm during his senior year at St. Albans in Washington. A decade earlier, across the Potomac in Virginia, John McCain graduated from Episcopal.

Bush was a 15-year-old sophomore when he arrived from Texas. He knew at once that his academic background was not as strong as most of his classmates’. For a time, Bush feared he would flunk out, and he was never more than a middling student. He played varsity basketball and baseball but was never a star. Still, he was a big man on campus thanks to his irrepressible personality, cocksure manner, and love of the limelight. Bush was a member of his class rock-and-roll band, not for singing or playing an instrument, but merely for clapping. He was also High Commissioner of Stickball, managing to organize a league of campus teams open to even the most uncoordinated boys. “Andover,” he says, “was a life-changing experience.”

For more than 200 years, boarding schools have been a unique educational experience in America, not only because youngsters leave home at 14 or 15, but also because they come from all parts of the country, not just within daily driving distance of a high school or independent day school. Some graduates look back on their old schools with misty-eyed nostalgia, others hated every minute, still others simply endured, but no one denies the intensity of the experience, or its lifelong imprint. “I’m a victim of Episcopal High School,” McCain said during the presidential primaries. “The principles embodied in the school, and especially in its honor code, are those I’ve tried to embody in my own life.”

Through most of their history, boarding schools served the old Establishment. The great schools catered to students who were male, white, well born, and rich, with a smaller number of schools serving their female equivalents. When the old Establishment started crumbling, the schools struggled to adjust to a world that put a premium on sexual equality, diversity, and achievement earned by merit, not birth.

As in the larger society, the 1970s and 1980s prompted an identity crisis among boarding schools. Complicating matters was the surging popularity of independent day schools as an alternative to high schools. The day-school boom continues, with enrollment rising an additional 20 percent in the last decade. Day students now outnumber boarders by roughly 4 to 1.

But during that time, the number of schools with boarding students held steady at upward of 240, and the boarding population increased slightly. The top-tier boarding schools, despite tuitions of $25,000 or more, are getting more applications than ever and are now as selective as the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges. They owe their success to richer curricula, extraordinary facilities, greater diversity, and a significant increase in financial aid (directory of school data, Page 65).

large_news567205_432925Consider the prestigious Group of Seven in the Northeast–Andover (the oldest, founded in 1778), Choate (1890), Deerfield (1797), Exeter (1781), Hotchkiss (1891), Lawrenceville (1810), and St. Paul’s (1856). The schools share and vet one another’s admissions and financial information. Their total number of completed applications for the school year beginning last fall was 17 percent higher than it was 20 years ago. Their overall acceptance rate dropped from 35 percent to 29 percent, making them more selective as a group than all but a half-dozen national liberal arts colleges.

The endowment per student at six of the seven schools exceeds that of such Ivy League colleges as Penn, Brown, and Cornell, and five exceed the endowment per student at the prestigious “Little Three”–Amherst, Williams, and Wesleyan. This allows the seven boarding schools to give financial aid to one third of their students (up 6 percentage points in the past dozen years) with the average grants covering more than 71. 4 percent of tuition, up nearly 5 percentage points in the same time. With schools such as St. Andrew’s, Deerfield, and St. Paul’s officially making admissions decisions on a “need-blind” basis–that is, without regard to an applicant’s ability to pay–and with a number of other schools doing so on a de facto basis, often with even greater outlays of aid, the notion that boarding schools are the preserve of the rich has become obsolete. To the extent that the top schools have a problem with socioeconomic diversity, it often involves attracting students from middle-income families that have trouble qualifying for aid but are hard pressed to pay full freight–a situation that also exists with colleges, which use loans to help make up the shortfall.

Boarding schools are also benefiting from changes at home. With family life under increasing strain, either because of divorce or work demands on both parents, boarding schools offer the comfort of close adult supervision and experiences outside the classroom that are positive and fulfilling. “Most boarding parents would argue that they enjoy a better relationship with their child,” says the Rev. D. Stuart Dunnan, headmaster of St. James School in Maryland, “because they are no longer their child’s study hall proctor in the evenings or their social policeman on weekends.”

When President Bush entered Andover in 1961, the pre-eminence of boarding schools was simply a given. At Exeter, for example, 57 of the 208 graduates that year went to Harvard. Deerfield headmaster Frank Boyden visited Princeton every spring and was allowed to review the list of boys slated for admission; if he expressed strong approval of certain boys who had not made the cut, Princeton would reverse itself. Boarding schools also produced an outsize number of lawyers, doctors, educators, investment bankers, and presidents. Bush’s father went to Andover, Franklin D. Roosevelt graduated from Groton, and John F. Kennedy from Choate. (JFK’s report card was riddled with C’s and D’s, and his headmaster pronounced him “childish” and “irresponsible.” He was nonetheless admitted to Harvard.)

During the ’60s, boarding schools were in the public eye as never before. Time put Andover on its cover, and Deerfield was the subject of a major feature story and later a cover story in National Geographic. Two celebrated novels of boarding school life appeared: John Knowles’s A Separate Peace (1960), which was based on a Milton boy (David Hackett, a schoolmate and close friend of Robert F. Kennedy’s) and set at Exeter; and Louis Auchincloss’s The Rector of Justin (1964), inspired by Endicott Peabody, the rector of Groton for 55 years. John McPhee’s biography, The Headmaster (1966), traced Boyden’s 66 years at the helm of Deerfield.

“The kids in 1967 looked exactly as I did in 1957,” says Lance Odden, who is retiring this year after 29 years as headmaster of Taft. Then came 1968, and the changes that had been roiling the outside world hit boarding schools likes a thunderclap. “You’d walk around a campus in New England, and it looked like a Grateful Dead concert,” recalls Michael Mulligan, head of Thacher. (The schools also had to adjust to coeducation, which was adopted at the first of the great boys’ schools in 1970. Today, only one third of the schools with boarding students are single sex.)

Holden Caulfield, who had entered the literary pantheon in 1951 with the publication of J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, suddenly became the poster boy of boarding schools. The 16-year-old Holden likes reading Dinesen, Hardy, and Maugham, and especially Ring Lardner, but he gets booted from Pencey Prep (Salinger attended Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania) after flunking four of his five courses. With the bill of his red hunting hat turned backward (a fashion statement of contemporary interest), careering from everyday angst to “madman stuff,” he heads for New York and his ultimate breakdown. Catcher in the Rye, which has sold 60 million copies around the world, remains a staple of high school reading lists, and Salinger’s depiction of boarding school is seared into the American imagination. Holden rails at the “phonies” and “crooks” from wealthy families, but in fact he comes from the same milieu: He’s the son of a corporate lawyer, goes home to an Upper East Side apartment with a live-in maid, and spends his summers in Maine, playing golf in the morning and tennis in the afternoon.

In film, crushing conformity drives a boy to suicide in Dead Poets Society (1989), starring Robin Williams, which was filmed at St. Andrew’s in Delaware. In School Ties (1992), shot mainly at Middlesex School in Massachusetts, the young scions are mindlessly antisemitic and intoxicated by their sense of entitlement.

Boarding schools take another beating in reviews of All Loves Excelling, a novel published last month by Josiah Bunting III, headmaster of Lawrenceville from 1987 to 1995 and now superintendent of Virginia Military Institute. He tells the story of a young girl driven to succeed by a pathologically ambitious mother. Bunting sets the story at a prestigious boarding school as it might have existed a generation ago, then superimposes the corrosive effect of college admissions today. The combination makes for satire subtle and powerful enough to be read literally. “A novel that does for prep schools what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for slavery,” declared the Christian Science Monitor.

Boarding school administrators are exasperated by these negative images. As Barbara Chase, head of school at Andover, points out, “There is very little understanding and appreciation of the true nature of these schools. It has to do with stereotyping, and it has to do with the use of words like ‘exclusive.’ The real picture is much, much more complex.”

In addition to the socioeconomic mix at boarding schools, their geographic diversity makes them unique among public and private schools in America. Some small (220 to 350 students) and medium-sized schools (500 to 600 students) draw students from 36 or 37 states; large schools like Andover and Exeter have students from 45 or 46.

More conspicuous is the enormous increase in the number of African-American and Asian-American students. Gone are the days when a school of 500 might have five or six black students. At most schools with a national enrollment, better than 1 in 5 students is a minority.

In the same way that the boarding schools of imperial Britain once educated the sons of the world’s elite, the boarding schools of superpower America are increasingly popular destinations for international students. Many schools draw students from more than 20 countries. “Any good boarding school today looks like the United Nations,” says Henry Flanagan, head of Western Reserve Academy. The old-boy network, suggests Deerfield headmaster Eric Widmer, is giving way to a “new network” that transcends sex, skin color, socioeconomic background, and national borders.

But despite their national and international reach, boarding schools are little known and little understood in many parts of the country. Even in a cosmopolitan city like Washington, many parents view sending a child away to school as a sign of trouble: They assume either that the youngster is behaving badly or doing poorly in school, or that the family is somehow dysfunctional. In fact, some boarding schools have made a specialty of serving kids with learning difficulties or behavioral problems, or some combination of the two.

More often, boarding schools attract kids who are seeking greater opportunities–to stretch themselves academically, to play sports at a higher level, to try acting or painting, or simply to grow into their own skins. “I don’t mean this facetiously, but they may be ready for a new nickname, or a different landscape, or a different mix of friends,” says Groton headmaster William Polk. Agrees Benjamin Williams IV, head of Cate, “They can create their own successes, and they can make their own mistakes. It’s a lot harder for a parent to let them do that when they’re home.”

With admission to Ivy League colleges growing more competitive by the year, boarding schools have had to content themselves with a smaller share of admissions. Even so, they remain highly successful in preparing students for elite colleges. The Group of Seven alone will send 400 graduates to the Ivies this fall, and hundreds more will arrive from other boarding schools.

That said, it is more useful to view boarding schools as ends in themselves, not simply a means to getting into college. When Hotchkiss headmaster Robert Mattoon Jr. and his wife, Lyn, an English teacher at the school, were living in Arizona in the early 1980s, they asked themselves this hypothetical question: “If you had the resources to send your child only to a boarding school or to a liberal arts college, which would you choose?” The Mattoons chose boarding school, he says, “because you learn how to develop the skills to learn, and then no matter where you go to college you can put those skills to work.” The result? One daughter went to Exeter and then to Barnard, the other to Milton and then to Dartmouth.

So what are these schools typically like? Boarding schools of 40 years ago were isolated places, and the frustration of waiting in line to use a pay phone to call home is a memory shared by many graduates. Today, most dorm rooms are wired to the Internet, and many have telephones. Students have classes five days a week and sometimes on Saturday mornings. In the afternoon, they are required to play sports, participate in an extra-curricular activity, or perform community service. One weekday afternoon and again on Saturday, most kids have games against other schools. At night, they study in their rooms or the library, or go to faculty residences for extra help.

The campuses, often in breathtaking settings, are dotted with classroom and administrative buildings, dormitories, dining halls, libraries, science centers, theaters, galleries, gymnasiums, hockey rinks (in New England), and outdoor swimming pools (in California and the South). “We are much more like a liberal arts college than an independent day school,” says Dennis Campbell, headmaster of Woodberry Forest. “The resources at the best boarding schools are as good as or better than at a liberal arts college.”

The academic programs at top independent day schools and competitive-admissions public high schools are often as good as–or even better than–many of their boarding school counterparts. But boarding school leaders feel that other factors elevate the academic experience when students are away from home. Exeter’s principal, Tyler Tingley, who spent six years as head of Blake, a respected independent day school in Minneapolis, puts it this way: “I spent much of my career in day schools trying to convince the best students not to go away to boarding school. I always argued that at day schools they would have as many good teachers, rich classes, and the support of home. When I came to Exeter I was struck by the fact that the story I told all those years really isn’t true. The fact that we’re able to draw students from all over the world brings a kind of student here that you simply don’t find at a day school. We also have kids who all have ambition, who have an interest in being independent, who want to live on their own. That gives them a quality of confidence that I think contributes a lot to their ability to learn.”

The best boarding schools offer college-level courses in almost every discipline, and they will spend extra money so that youngsters who have exhausted the regular curriculum in Chinese, say, can take advanced courses even if it means scheduling a class for only a couple of students. “To be able to take kids from breadth to depth in a curriculum that’s really guided by an effort to present liberal learning in all its magnitude and glory–that’s what you’d like families and students to be thinking about,” says Andover’s Chase.

Beyond academics, boarding school students take part in an enormous range of extracurricular activities, from athletics to modern dance, from debating to performing community service. “They learn that they can do things that they otherwise wouldn’t even have tried to do,” Deerfield’s Widmer says. “The process of discovery is very much a part of going to one of these schools.” For teenagers, trying something new without the support and encouragement of parents can be a turning point in maturation. Says Cate’s Williams: “We have a faculty member who jokes that before parents’ weekend, our kids are adults. Then their parents show up, and they become kids again.” Learning to be independent, and how to work with and lead others, is what Taft’s Odden considers the chief benefit of a boarding school education: the development of social intelligence.

The result of engaging students on so many levels, Chase says, “is that on weekends there are lots and lots of things going on, the centerpiece of which is not drinking.” Not that boarding-school students don’t break rules prohibiting liquor and drugs. But it is a matter of degree. As Mulligan of Thacher says, “No matter how much partying might be going on at a boarding school, I guarantee you that it’s less than what’s going on at an average day school–by a long shot.” Boarding-school parents also take comfort in knowing that their children aren’t driving around at night.

Even so, many boarding schools relaxed their standards of dress and conduct in the 1970s and 1980s, in part to make themselves more attractive to reluctant applicants. Now many schools are reasserting themselves in the moral education of their students.

Parents, connected to their children and the faculty by E-mail, are increasingly involved in school life, and their message is clear: Take the concept in loco parentis more seriously. Come to grips with issues related to “sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.” Stamp out hazing. In short, take care of our kids at least as well as we would at home. Parents and educators agree that the secondary school years are the best time to turn a youngster into a responsible adult. “Colleges have given up formation of character,” says Campbell, who served 15 years as dean of Duke’s divinity school before taking over at Woodberry. “Partly it’s because they don’t know, or because they disagree about, what values to espouse. In the boarding schools, there’s much more clarity about that–and much more attention to it.”

The unique feature of boarding school education remains what it’s always been, “a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week proposition that provides a total life experience for kids,” says Hotchkiss’s Mattoon. For many graduates, the years spent in communities of their peers produce something akin to love. You can see it in the faces of college freshmen who drive back to Deerfield for the Friday night bonfire before the Choate game. You can see it, more deeply and poignantly etched, in the faces of men from Andover’s class of 1938, who returned to their old school last fall to lay a wreath at a memorial service for schoolmates killed in World War II.

In Hotchkiss’s 50th-reunion yearbooks, most of the alumni recall the school as “the place they learned habits for a lifetime and made friends that they kept up with for a lifetime,” Mattoon says. He goes on: “Interestingly enough, they rarely mention where they went to college. This was the place that shaped them and had such a profound lifelong impact on them.”

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