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WORLD CLASS CLASSROOMS

By CYNTHIA LESCALLEET
clecalleet@hcnonline.com

02/26/2008

Ask local parents with children at boarding school about that decision and they’ll tell you they get some odd looks and remarks by other parents who might equate the option with Hollywood portrayals of them as bastions for privileged or wayward students.

Others might ask them how they stand not having their child at home. Or wonder how they can afford tuition. They might even wonder if the child did something to merit banishment.

But more families on the sidelines seem to be wondering why they didn’t look into boarding schools for their own children. And more students are bringing the idea to the dinner table, which industry sources said is how the pipeline works best.

Such was the case for parent Laura Gurra, whose high school-aged daughter awaits word from several boarding schools for next year.

The student, who preferred to remain unnamed while her applications are under review, said she was attracted to the accessibility of teachers that comes from a small student-teacher ratio as well as the chance to focus on her music studies.

“It’s a great opportunity,” she said.

Gurra, initially overwhelmed by the hunt online, was sold on the idea for her daughter upon learning how the days are “so structured and packed with classes and activities.”

Educational consultant Deborah Spagnoletti, whose specialty is boarding schools, has noticed increased interest at her seminars on the subject. The topic comes up more often when she is counseling students looking for a fit among educational environments, she said.

Self-esteem, independence, maturity and self-motivation are among the results her clients have reported about their children away at schools where opportunities in and out of the classroom allow them to excel academically and socially. And parents appreciate the boost to college applications such qualities bring.

Spagnoletti, an Upper Kirby resident whose company is Educational Consulting of Houston, described herself as a “guide.” A certified educational planner, she tours boarding school campuses frequently to assess tangibles, such as programs and facilities, and intangibles no website can convey. She handles the full range of boarding schools, from traditional ones offering academic rigor or special interest programs to therapeutic ones serving students motivation or nonviolent emotional issues.

The fact that boarding schools now cover such a range of interests, abilities and special needs has clouded how they’re viewed, she said, as has the crush of information available online.

Regardless, not every school is a good match for every child, but when the fit is correct, “boarding schools can be magical places,” said. (She did not mean that literally, a point to make given the popularity of fictitious Hogwarts in the Harry Potter book series.)

Yes, their families miss them when school’s in session, but parents said they talk more often — and more meaningfully — on the phone or on visits than they would have had their children been in and out at home. Plus, their students no longer have to do homework and eat while being hauled across town to sports practices.

Parent Cynthe Hughes said she just laughs when people ask her — often with incredulity or shock — why some of her children have attended boarding schools. One son, 16, is currently at Choate in Connecticut . A daughter boarded prior to college.

“It’s a different education than here,” she said of their high school experience. While Houston has some great day schools, boarding school “has the added education of living with peers and living with teachers.”

One aspect she noted was that unlike most high school students, boarded students must all follow the same rules and suffer the same consequences.

That makes parenting a teenager a lot easier, she said, by removing the need to play “the heavy.”

Hughes did not attend boarding school though her brother and husband did. She views the educational option “an opportunity, not a punishment.”

Hoping to spread that attitude is the Association of Boarding Schools, an organization for college prep schools that is currently moving from Washington, D.C., to Asheville, N.C.

Boarding schools today have moved beyond the stereotypes portrayed in Hollywood, TABS sources said. Based on findings of its recent survey, TABS launched a campaign to let the public know that boarding schools have evolved. Enrollment demographics, for example, are more diverse than ever and more scholarships are available.

The TABS report, “The Truth About Boarding Schools,” quantified how students come to learn in and out of the classroom. The survey polled 2,700 students and adults who attended boarding schools, private day schools and public schools.

Survey results found that boarding students study more, exercise more, play more sports and participate in more activities than students in other school programs. They also make lifelong friends since they become each other’s surrogate family.

Boarding schools are about the total experience of growth and independence, not just academics, said Lawrence Sampleton, admissions director of St. Stephen’s Episcopal School of Austin on a recent swing through Houston interviewing candidates.

For that reason, he recommends that a student have a “compelling” reason or motivation to attend one as well as a genuine interest in doing so. Those who do get the most from the opportunity.

FACTORS AFFECTING INTEREST

There are several theories that might explain why interest in boarding schools appears to be rising, education industry sources said.

Houston’s population is growing and the number of slots at its private schools is somewhat static, observed Deboarah Spagnoletti of Educational Consulting of Houston.

Good schools here are busting at the seams, she opined.

Admissions department sources polled at a few private high schools, however, declined to share their application rates.

Meanwhile, the Independent School Association of the Southwest to which they belong does not keep aggregate figures, said its executive director, Rhonda Durham. Still, she said, more interest in boarding schools wouldn’t surprise her: More people are finding out about more (types of) schools on the Internet.

Our schools are sorry they cant take more students, Durham said of ISAS’s 83-school membership, including several in Houston.

Another factor possibly driving interest in academic boarding schools, Spagnoletti said, is that Houston has more people from places where boarding school is a more common track, whether due to family tradition or lack of suitable local schools.

Also, with the transient nature of the energy industry here, affected families turn to boarding school as a way for their children to have stability when parental job transfers are frequent.

At the National Association of Independent Schools in Washington, D.C., spokeswoman Myra McGovern said shes not surprised Houston might be a growing market of interest in all types of private education.

As an area grows, public education must accommodate by adding schools or upping the number of students in a classroom, whereas private schools dont.

Meanwhile, there are just a lot more high school-bound students around, McGovern said, pointing to population figures the organizations Demographic Center tracks.

In Houston, for example, the number of 10-13-year-olds grew 8 percent and 14-18-year-olds grew 11.5 percent between 2000 and 2007. These are the age groups applying to high schools and colleges, respectively. Both figures exceed national rates of 6 percent and 8 percent, respectively. Anxiety leads candidates to apply to more schools, which makes acceptance rates decline, she said.

Also, NAIS is watching the impact of a change in parenting styles and issues between Baby Boomer parents and the Generation X parents, she said.

Education sources agreed that more parents are looking into programs, but their children are the ones who often got them onboard about boarding schools in the first place.

 

POINTS OF VIEW

Parents and students considering boarding schools have different concerns when theyre looking at potential schools. Heres how one admissions director summed up them up. Parents want to know:

  • Quality of academics and academic support
  • Security and safety
  • How a school handles hard decisions, such as infractions for drugs, alcohol and sex
  • What is the communication between school and parents?
  • College placement preparation and results

Kids want to know:

  • How hard is it?
  • Who are the other students and are any like me?
  • What are the dorms like?
  • Hows the food?

Source: Lawrence Sampleton, admissions director of St. Stephens Episcopal School in Austin.