New England Boarding Schools — Accessible Education Alternative

Photo by Ryan Jacobson on Unsplash

When someone hears the term “boarding school” a couple things cross their mind. Snobby, white, rich kids in New England in ivy-covered brick buildings. For some, it may be a memory of their parents threatening, “If you don’t get your act together we’ll ship you off to boarding school.” Although both thoughts about boarding schools are very common, they are a drastically different environment than the stereotype of a student’s boarding school experience.

Throughout my schooling I attended both public and private schools. I attended my local public school every year apart from my last two years of high school. My public high school was one of the worst for academics in my region of Massachusetts. Very little emphasis was placed on ensuring that students were gaining a solid academic foundation. The school had a low graduation rate and only a handful of kids went on to two or four-year college. This was an environment that was not beneficial to my education or my search for challenging and engaging academics. Aside from academics, I experienced trouble when it came to athletics and being bullied at school.

At my public high school, I was a high achieving student in a school with limited academic resources and ability to prepare me for college. Entering my freshman year of high school, the school’s budget had just received massive cuts. The cuts included funding for AP programs, enrichment programs, and low-level school sports teams. Entering my freshman year of school, only four AP courses existed. Following my freshman year, only three remained. I sought out more academically challenging courses by trying to supplement my schedule with online and dual-enrollment classes and received push-back from school administrators, despite the school having access to alternate resources.

Through these experiences and the desire to find more challenging academics I believed that I would benefit from a change of where I went to high school. In this search I came across local boarding schools.

Entering Berkshire School there were many things that I found shocking. The facilities, Saturday classes (you didn’t read that wrong it says SATURDAY), eating in the dining hall, competitive sports, and making friends from all over the country and world. As shocking as each of these were for me, they are the norm among New England Boarding Schools.

First, the facilities — they were nicer than those of many colleges. Compared to my public high school which had a leaking roof, little heat in the winter, no air conditioning, and peeling paint — I was in another world at Berkshire.

Saturday classes. This has been the hardest things to explain to people outside of the boarding school community. Friday nights were not spent hanging out with friends, they were used studying with friends. Every Saturday morning we were in class with sports games in the afternoon. Sunday was our only free day each week usually spent hanging out with friends in the dining hall in the morning and studying in the dorms at night.

Another thing that was a bit different, eating every meal, every day of the week with your classmates (and sometimes teachers). Although I was a day student, I was one of less than 40 day students at a school with 360 students who boarded. Due to this, I stayed at school for nearly all meals and even went to school on Sundays to do homework and eat in the dining hall. Twice a week my school had required sit down dinners, known as community dinner, where students and faculty were assigned a table and made to sit with one another at random. This often created some awkward situations of individuals at tables not knowing one another or more often becoming a lively table of new friends. Each community dinner, every table would have a student who was a waiter and were required to bring the food to the table and cleared the table at the end of dinner. Every student performed this duty at least once a semester with older students doing it more often. This dinner was vital to bringing various communities in the school together but also allowed for the entire school to see each other under the same roof.

Athletics and the arts were something that every single student at the school took part in. You were required to play a sport or participate in art each afternoon, every season. This allowed for everyone to try new activities because you never needed experience to play a sport. This was one of the best parts of my school. Every student participated in something and contributed to the school. Whether it was Varsity Football or Theater, all were just as important to the community and praised in front of the school.

Finally, the biggest change — the academics. I sought out more challenging academics and I sure found them. The school offered 17 AP courses with many specialized advanced classes. There was an aviation program and a mountain program that included camping and hiking. My worst grades in high school were my first year at Berkshire. I was learning so much and working many hours more each day. My ability to manage harder material and study for major assignments had been entirely changed. Still, attending a boarding school and wanting to really be pushed in school was entirely different than most other kids from my old school district.

“Boarding school” is a term that often intimidates people due to its strict and antiquated connotations. Hearing those words, the first thought that many people have is of a bunch of wealthy, entitled, spoiled kids. Of course to some extent those kids exist within the realm of boarding schools, but to my surprise, many of kids I encountered at my boarding school had entered after their freshman year of high school due to problems they faced in their schools back home. Whether they were looking for more challenging academics, an escape from bullies, or the prospect of joining a championship athletic team, kids sought out boarding schools for reasons entirely different than the stereotype that exists.

Through movies like Dead Poet’s Society, there is a common belief that kids at New England boarding schools are exclusively upper-class white kids who expect to attend an Ivy League University. Although these students do exist, they do not exist as much as is believed. I attended Berkshire School (Sheffield, MA) and had students from 30 states and 30 countries with 35% of students being students of color. The dynamics and goals of boarding schools have greatly shifted over the last 30 years in order to incorporate students from many different backgrounds. A much greater emphasis has been placed on recruiting and attracting academically talented students from many different backgrounds versus those solely of privileged backgrounds who can pay the steep 60k tuition.

It seems to be rather unknown that many of these schools give significant financial aid. Berkshire School gives more than 33% of students substantial aid each year with the average grant being over 40k per year. Many schools have need-blind admissions processes and don’t admit students based on the amount of aid they need. This type of admission policy ensures that they are admitting students who will be strong members of their communities. It is also common for families below certain income levels to not be expected to contribute to their students tuition. Phillips Exeter Academy (Exeter, NH) offers full financial aid for families making below $75,000. At Phillips Exeter, over half of their students receive need-based financial aid.

One of the most important benefits of boarding school is that it opens doors to students that would not have existed without the foundation that they provide their students. Programs like New Jersey SEEDS (Scholars, Educators, Excellence, Dedication, Success), guides middle school students who are academically qualified from New Jersey to private day and boarding schools throughout the nation. The program lasts for 14 months, beginning the summer after 7th grade with a three-week academic residential program. Throughout a student’s eighth grade year, they attend Saturday academic courses and attend a final residential program prior to their ninth-grade year.

Each year, NJ SEEDS places roughly 95 incoming high school students in private day or boarding schools. Students are placed at the most academically competitive schools across the nation, primarily placing students on the East Coast. They currently have over 350 students in their scholars program at the high school level and serve students from socioeconomically underprivileged backgrounds, guaranteeing that students will be admitted with “significant financial aid packages.”

I first learned about NJ SEEDS from a friend at Berkshire School. After applying to the NJ SEEDS Scholars Program in 7th grade, she was matched to Berkshire School. Through the program, she was able to attend Berkshire for four years and become one of the highest achieving students at the school. She was a first-generation college student. In her time at Berkshire, she was involved in three varsity sports and many student organizations. She has just completed her freshman year at Harvard University. She has spent this summer serving as a Student Advisor to NJ SEEDS students and is completing an internship with JP Morgan & Chase.

By learning about boarding schools through attending one, I discovered what incredible opportunities they can provide their students. Through the effort that boarding schools are continuing to make their schools increasingly more accessible, they continue to gain high achieving students. By programs like New Jersey SEEDS aiding and supporting students and their families, they allow students opportunities that can aid their future success.

I am beyond thankful to have had the experience of both my public and private schools. Each was vital in shaping me as a student, By attending my public high school, I learned so much about my own motivation and desire to learn. After transferring to Berkshire School, I learned so much about what it really meant to go to a boarding school and what types of opportunities became possible with this type of education. Through both experiences, I have also been able to learn that I hope to help improve public education systems in the U.S. in order to give greater access to resources for all students, not only those that can pay the tuition or get a scholarship to a private school.

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