Is a Small Boarding School Right for Your Child?

By Audrey N. Ludemann, M.S.Ed

AT A GLANCE

Not every child is a candidate for a small boarding school, but for teens who struggle in a traditional school setting, it may offer the support they need to succeed academically and socially


Schools with a student body of 200 or less are a distinct and vibrant subset in the boarding school world. When first hearing of this niche, parents sometimes wonder if the size of enrollment is too limiting for teens. What they often end up discovering is that the small scale of this environment translates into big opportunities for their child—especially if that child has been struggling academically or socially in a traditional school.

The years spent in secondary school are all about helping children develop their personal identities and build an understanding of themselves as unique, valued members of a community. As defined by their mission statements and campus cultures, schools use different strategies and philosophies to help students in reaching these goals.

The close-knit community of a small boarding school offers a balance between connection and independence that helps many young people blossom.

In a small school, students may make personal connections at a deep level, prompting friendships that are based on common interests and personality rather than grade level. At one small school for example, students from different years often choose to room together. At this same institution, students choose new roommates and switch rooms a couple of times a year in a much-loved and highly anticipated school-wide moving day. The strong social connections from such traditions give small schools the ambiance of being a very large family.

The size of an institution can also affect the student-teacher relationship. In larger schools, students usually develop a rapport and closer bond with several faculty members each year. At a small school, all teachers know all students. There is a higher likelihood that a student’s dorm master may also be his or her coach and one of his or her teachers, so the community itself is more intrinsically connected.

This support structure and tight community, combined with the chance to be active in any interest, make small boarding schools empowering environments. “Everybody is a big fish in a small pond, integral to the life of the school athletically, academically, socially,” says Joanne Carruthers, president of the Small Boarding Schools Association. “In these really formative years,” Joanne says, “students learn to understand the impact they have on their world.” They then carry the knowledge that they are valued and effective community members with them when they graduate.

As always, the most important aspect of school selection is valuing what makes each student unique and what type of educational environment will suit them best. Perhaps a small boarding school is the perfect place for your child to thrive.

Audrey Ludemann is a principal of The Bertram Group, an educational consulting company. Ludemann’s experience includes more than 15 years in the classroom, plus a decade as an educational advisor. 

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