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Why my "poor" kid went to boarding school

Updated on April 3, 2011

Why and how my kid went to Boarding School - and 10 things you might want to know.

My son is now off to college - a private college and we're still poor. I have to credit that partly to his smarts, and largely to his going to a college prep boarding school instead of the public high school in our town, a public high school that many claim is exceptional. Unfortunately, he was one of the kids who fell through the cracks.

This lens was originally written while he was still in boarding school.


I almost choke when I say it to people who ask where my youngest son is.

"Boarding school", I say. I can seen the look on their faces change, most times a subtle raising of the eyebrows.

No, I can't read minds but guaranteed, a few thoughts are flashing through theirs as they stare at me, somewhat silenced themselves.

1) He must have done something awful.

2) You must have a lot of money

3) I could never do that to my child.

From the feedback I've gotten from others who have told me what so and so said to them after I smiled politely and edged myself out of the room, those seem to be the top thoughts that come to mind when someone hears the words "boarding school".

In answer to those three - though I've never, I think, had the opportunity to answer anyone ..

1) He didn't do anything awful

2) I don't have a lot of money - and now I have even less

3) You would if the situation was the same and you loved your child -- it's something you do for your child.

and I'd have to add -- sometimes it feels more like something you do to yourself.

This is a short tale about why my kid goes to Boarding school. What caused me to send my own child away to boarding school - or rather, if you listen to him, how he decided to go. By sharing it, I hope it might make it easier for others - particularly single parents without a lot of money - who are thinking about boarding school to make their decision.

So, here's why and how my poor kid goes to boarding school. And 10 things I wish I'd known about what this was going to mean to us -- although knowing them might have scared me a little, I think they are good to know ahead of time.

Boarding school is probably not what I think, either...

After all, I don't live there...

But it seems to be what we needed, when we needed it.

I homeschooled my son during his second year of middle school because I hadn't like where I saw the first year going. In a small town, if you start out with one group of kids and then want to change - and they don't want you to - it can be difficult. Think "bullies". My son doesn't agree with my picture, and he's probably right. And I'm probably right.

In any case, homeschooling seemed like a possibility but it's a tough job for a single parent and a lone kid who is a social being. We braved it out for a year - he tested really well at the end of 8th grade, but he wasn't happy. He didn't want to go back into our public school system; I couldn't move. Living with his father was not an option that would work, either.

We were fairly frantic and resigned to having to do another year of homeschooling when a friend suggested checking into boarding school, most specifically one that was affiliated with our religion (Quaker) and had some ties to our monthly meeting (i.e., our 'church').

That seemed feasible although it was halfway through the summer - I pictured a Quaker boarding school as a rustic little one room schoolhouse, with a small number of rooms somewhere, and since Quakers are known for our frugality, figured it had to be under 10,000 a year. With a scholarship, it might be doable.

Boarding school was not what I thought.

I decided it was hopeless when I saw the price -- like most other boarding schools, the price was 'up there'. You can look for yourself, but consider that there are teachers to be paid, boarding costs, food, buildings to maintain and education. Boarding school, even Quaker boarding school, is not for the weak of pocket book.

And I was the weak of pocket book. With an income below 30,000 a year... way below seemed ridiculous to even consider it.

I did some research on financial aid for elementary education. Still, my friend urged me to look into it. Go visit. Ask about scholarship.

I checked with my son to see what he thought. His words were memorable.

"When hell freezes over," he said, "I'll go to a boarding school."

But he agreed to come with me to take a look at it - a 3 hour drive would make an interesting day trip anyway.

Whirlwind touring the school

We drove there about a week before school started and did a whirlwind tour of the school - I'd advise anyone to do a tour if possible, even if there's a virtual tour ... real ones say a lot.

That wasn't giving ourselves much time to decide, but at that point, I figured there was no hope for that year. Surely all the positions were filled and if there were any scholarships, they'd be long gone. I was thinking about mid-year (not knowing they didn't do mid-year entries) or next year.

My son, of course, was still thinking the frozen hell time.

When we got on campus -- I fell in love and wanted to go there myself. The buildings for the most part were old, but the people were really nice, there were acres of land in hilly farm country - idyllic in a lot of ways.

We did the tour, he interviewed, I gazed longingly out over a pond and tried to center myself in a prayerful openness and hope that things would go as they should. The weather was gorgeous, even for August.

And whatever magic there was, my son came out and told me he thought he'd be willing to 'give it a try'. And the admissions counsellor told me there was scholarship money he could apply for and she thought he might be accepted.


This isn't a school that is desperate for students who need scholarships -- I think the gods were just on our side that day, everything was aligned and things just fell into place.

What was next

We still had a few more things to do -- my son had to agree that it was more than "giving it a try". He had to agree to give it a try for the whole school year since if he was accepted, I would have to pay my share of the tuition for the whole school year, even if he dropped out or was kicked out.

He had to fill out an application complete with an essay about why he wanted to attend.

I had financial aid information to fill out, doctor's appointments to make, and his father to inform (I have sole custody, so this did not have to be a joint decision).

About 10 days later when we drove the 3 hours back, we were somewhat in shock.

There were 6 in his freshman class that year.

He's now entering into his senior year - there are 20 in his class, and that seems large to him. For the most part, he's very happy with his high school years -- there are the usual complaints about teachers and homework, classmates personalities and the food that's served. But when asked if he would rather spend his senior year somewhere else, he just looked at me... and that look said, "When hell freezes over."

10 Things I've learned


If you are considering boarding school for your child - especially if you are a low income person or family -- let me share some of my thoughts and experience with you. These are from my experience - things may be very different for you! These are things I wasn't really prepared for ... though maybe I'm glad I didn't think much as this has been a very good experience.

These are 10 things I wish I'd realized ahead of time, although maybe if I had, I wouldn't have gone ahead into this. I think boarding school has been a great decision for my son - and although he was the one who made it, I had a key part in it too! (don't tell him that, he'll figure it out someday!)

1. There is not financial aid for secondary school like there is for college.

But there are ways to pay for it. Your first approach is to see if the school offers scholarships.

If you are single, the school may expect your ex spouse to contribute. Even if the ex spouse doesn't want to or won't.

You have to fill out financial aid forms very similar to what you'd be filling out for college financial aid -- and like those, you will be asked for information on the child's other parent's income. Which, of course, you pass on to the other parent.

Unless the two of your have agreed on boarding school for your child, trying to force an ex to pay child support can re-open conflict between the two of you. Some schools will refuse financial aid if the two parents do not agree to both pay something. If your case is not a clear and easy one, talk to the school administration about this policy. In my case, my son's father and I were never married - I had sole custody which meant his father has no say in his schooling decisions. There was no way legally or morally he could be forced to pay more for private school.

More on financial aid for secondary school can be found here - as well as in searches on the internet.

2. Even with financial aid and scholarships, you'll be in debt .

I'm in debt. Very deep in debt. When I watch my son preparing for college, wondering which $49,000 a year schools he wants to apply to will accept him, my heart sinks into my stomach.

This is the son who has changed from a 7th grader who belonged to a group whose motto was (and still is, except he's not part of the group anymore) "School's for fools" to someone who expects to go to college.

The catch-22 of course is, if I'd saved the money I've spent on boarding school and invested it toward college, I don't believe he would have this attitude toward going to college. (I also don't think it would have been enough money anyway!)

I tell myself that as I wonder if he will get enough financial aid to get him into the college he wants to attend -- boarding school, in his case, was the better investment. He's got the grades, the PSAT scores and will no doubt have the SAT and ACT scores to make him interesting to the top colleges. We still have the income to make us need financial aid and scholarships.

He's going to have to work - and that's not a bad thing.

3. You will be judged.

As a parent, you are going to be judged for sending your child away. The judgement may be that you are rich or that you are an uncaring parent. Trust me, you will be judged.

The best thing to do is not worry about it. Don't argue, don't give a lot of weight to what people think or assume about you.

They don't know -- hang out with your friends and family, who do.

4. You will be separate from the people you shared parenting stories with all those years!

This was a shock to me but it's true! It isn't a shunning thing - it's because any friends you have whose children went to school with yours are having different experiences now.

It's hard to compare notes with others about the school play, teachers, report cards, dating, sports -- if your child is no longer living with you. You are no longer part of that parenting circle and your child is no longer part of that particular crowd. It's kind of lonely out here. (If possible, it's good to still attend games and plays, fund-raisers. Volunteer at the school your child would be attending. It will keep you connected, and will help keep your child's connections open, too.)

The parents of your child's classmates now do not live near you -- you may see them once or twice a year. It isn't the same.

5. It's like the empty nest comes sooner.

If you do not have any other children at home, this can feel like the nest is suddenly empty.

That's an odd feeling, when your child is only in 9th grade -- you will go for a few months without knowing a lot about your child's every day, after school life.

Yes, you can keep in touch. There's the phone, the internet, mail and gifts.

It isn't the same. Really. It isn't.

If you are unprepared, if you don't work outside the home, if there are no other children in the house, missing your child can put you into a depression that is not uncommon for empty nesters.

That happened to me - it felt like a death of sorts and though I struggle with depression and am familiar with it, the first year I wasn't prepared. I gained a lot of weight and retreated away from friends, not the best way to handle depression.

To battle that, I now make sure I have something special planned after dropping him off for school - a trip to visit someone, a workshop, a project.

The fear of judgment by others can stop you from enjoying any of this time -- you "should" be with your child. You "shouldn't" be moving on with your life. But you must! And don't worry - for in fact, you can't really move on with your life, leaving your boarding school child behind, because this is temporary - there's Thanksgiving, Christmas, Spring break and then the summer, when suddenly, you're a full time parent again.

6. You will have to adjust to being a parent again.

You may have gotten used to being on your own and made some changes in your own life style -- staying out late, not making big meals, maybe traveling. Or maybe you lay around watching t.v. and eating, because you don't quite know what to do with yourself.

It's temporary!

Suddenly your child returns and you're a parent again.

You may feel resentful, or you may be overly happy and overdo the parenting.

It's sort of like being a yo-yo -- but eventually you will balance out.

7. Your child will become independent from you a lot sooner.

Following that empty nest feeling comes the reality -- your child is learning how to live apart from you a lot sooner than many other teens are.

On the bright side, they are doihg so without having to go through a lot of the conflict teens go through with their parents. They now have teachers and other school officials who step in to fill that role during the school year.

8. Your child will have some difficulties if he or she is on scholarship .

Your child has to be aware that they won't be on a financial level with other kids in the school. It can be difficult when your friends at school have a lot of money to spend for pizza and ipods, and your family has just about enough to left over after tuition to splurge on Ramon noodles (a staple of boarding school life, I came to find out). How the school and their peers handle that will make a difference in how much they may like school.

This can, of course, be a positive thing. My son has become aware of the value of money and 'things'. He's had to explain patiently to his girlfriend why when she texts him incessantly on his cheap-o cell phone, she uses up his entire month's usage in a couple of days. On the dark side, he's told me he sometimes feels guilty because without him, I'd have a lot more money. (I tell him, without him, whatever money I have would mean nothing!).

9. Your child may have difficulty finding summer work

When your child comes home for the summer, it may happen that all of the good summer jobs - and if the economy is really bad, all of the summer jobs - are taken by kids who live in the area who have been working during the school year.

Just means your child needs to be more creative in their job hunt - or that you might have to help with the job hunt earlier, going through friends and acquaintances.

10. Once you start your child in a boarding school setting, it may be difficult to stop.

If your child likes the school, and does well, it will be as difficult to stop this as it would be if you moved. Your child is making friends and being comfortable in this setting.

So think a lot before you start. Are you in it for the long haul?

Are you willing to make sacrifices in your personal life to fund this if necessary (and without the expectation that your child will appreciate any time soon what you are doing!).

The Truth About Boarding School

This is an interesting article from Peterson's about myths of boarding schools debunked.

The Truth About Boarding Schools

Boarding schools used to be considered an East Coast creature, a bastion for the rich and famous where anyone not conforming to the mold was outcast. At least that's what people thought, and unless you actually went to a boarding school, you had no means of distinguishing myth from reality. So, how can you make a decision about sending your child to a private school away from home when facts about boarding school life are hard to come by? It's not as hard as it used to be!

In today's culture, boarding schools have evolved from the secretive, elite clubs they were once considered and are gaining popularity among all walks of life. Many of the perceptions which steered people away are no longer true and almost anyone can find a boarding school that's right for them - as long as they have the academic chops to get past the screening committee.

They aren't dangerous

Worried about hazing or bullying? The chances of that happening may be less than they would be in a public school. The reality is that every school, public or private, has its own culture of cliques and social groups. However, in a residential school the boundaries between such groups may blur, due largely to the intimate environment; the inability for peers to separate completely due to the living arrangements; the increased structure, supervision, and adult oversight; and the strong emphasis on character building that many private schools encourage.

In addition, private schools are not bound by the same laws as public schools, so inappropriate behavior can be dealt with much more swiftly - and in many cases, more effectively. Your child may actually be better protected from harsh words or actions from peers in a structured environment with its own rules for what will and won't be tolerated. Public schools are often more limited in how they can intervene.

The kids aren't all snobs

Private boarding schools have routinely been thought of as havens for the rich, places where the wealthy send their children to be educated, disciplined, and molded into pillars of society. While this may still be true in some cases, the reality is that at many schools students come from a variety of different backgrounds, and they're all seeking the same thing: an excellent education.

It's true that these schools can pick and choose whoever they want for their student body without having to explain their actions, and it's equally true that during much of the 20th century, privately funded schools were filled with the offspring of the American upper-crust. However, these days many schools strive to create diverse student bodies. Pedigree matters far less than independence and the desire to achieve, and the only kind of elitism you can be sure to encounter is that of academic excellence.

As schools diversify more and more, it can be difficult to gauge who will get in where, and private schools aren't as apt to release detailed information about their admission demographics. You'll have to dig a little deeper to get the scoop, perhaps hooking up with parent or student networks online and getting other's perspectives (and biases) on schools they've visited or attended.

You don't need a trust fund to pay for it

There are tens of thousands of private schools in the United States, many of which offer financial aid backed by large endowments. With the number of private schools on the rise, and the number of enrolled students up as well, there are more financial aid opportunities than ever. There are also loan institutions that specialize in providing funding for private schools and of course, there's the old-fashioned way of doing things - scrimping, saving, and hard work. There are more people in private schools than ever and you can bet that most of them don't have trust funds!

The waitlists aren't a mile long

If you live in a large East Coast city and you're considering a private day school, then there's a good chance that you'll have to take your chances with a waitlist. The good news is that there is that much less competition for the boarding schools. The trend to keep kids at home and send them to day school hasn't actually decreased the amount of kids attending residential schools, but it can affect who is applying, how many are applying, and whether or not there's an opening for you. While some of the top schools are still quite competitive, you shouldn't rule boarding school out just because you think it's impossible to get in.

They aren't dark and dreary

Quite the contrary! The social, athletic, and cultural activities provided by most private boarding schools are comparable to those found in many public schools. Lifelong friendships are formed and independence is fostered in the halls of schools all over the world. Dreariness? Forget it! Private schools have as much spirit and culture wafting through the air as any public school - and in some cases, maybe even more because of the history they carry with them.

If you've been hesitating to look into private boarding schools because of the myths that still abound, think again. With so many schools to choose from, you're bound to find at least one that offers everything you're looking for and then some!

Some Quaker Boarding Schools

Here are some Quaker boarding schools. Most seem to be on the east coast, probably because there are more Friends there and because Pennsylvania was the home of where Quakers started (William Penn was a Quaker).

Two are in the mid-West -- Olney and Scattergood.

Prices for all start around $28,000 a year (only slightly less than what I make a year), including room and board, but don't despair!

With scholarship, I am paying about 1/3 of my income (less if I count in child support as part of income) - but it is worth it...

Quaker Education: What's Different?

Quaker Education: What’s Different about a Friends School?

Published April 17, 2008

By Lynette Assarsson - Westtown School

While each Friends school has its own unique style and personality, they all have a common purpose: not only to provide a rich and challenging education but also to foster the ideals of community, spirituality, responsibility and stewardship. A hallmark of the Quaker school experience is the basic beliefs that we are all teachers and learners and that each child has unique gifts and talents. Students are called upon to discover their own voices and interests within the framework of rigorous, college-preparatory academics. The foundation of the educational experience is built upon the ideal that students’ quality of character – what kind of people they are becoming – is as important to their lives and to the world as their intellectual growth and exploration.

Because a Quaker education endeavors to be a socially responsible one, Friends schools’ curricula emphasize service, social action and experiential learning. Can an education be socially responsible and academically rigorous at the same time? Educators in Friends schools believe that one is not developed at the expense of the other; instead, they work in tandem to prepare students for college and for life.

How do students learn community, responsibility and stewardship? By living it! The Quaker belief of the “Inner Light” or that of God in each of us creates an atmosphere of tolerance and openness. Students are led by example not only to respect the perspectives and talents of others in the community, but also to learn from them. Friends schools campuses are culturally, religiously, racially and socio-economically diverse and are deeply enriched by this diversity. A Friends school education is not limited to campus life, but is enhanced by getting out into the local community for service projects or traveling to far-off places like China or Peru to learn a language or build a school. This focus on preparing students to be citizens of the world is a unique feature of all Friends schools and reflects the heart of Quaker principles. Friends schools have a deep commitment to environmental sustainability and you will find eco-friendly policies being put into practice, not just talked about.

The best way to understand why Quaker education is unique, is to understand the basic principles of the faith itself – the ones from which all Friends schools receive their inspiration and guidance. You have to ask this question:

What is Quakerism anyway?

(this article is from here - go here to find the rest

Feel free to add your comments!

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    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Thanks for this info. Are you at liberty to say what school your son went to?

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Thanks for the article. This is my youngest daughters first semester at boarding school. I too am a single mom, now working with not many days off to pay for school! I do get the comments, but I don't care, this is the happiest I've seen my creative daughter in over 5 years since we left the city and moved to a small minded town, where being different is very much criticized. We are 10 hours apart so it makes traveling hard and now with the extra work I can't take off to go see her so that's hard. Just finally hearing her happy voice and hearing her say she loves me, and no plans for dropping out of school anymore is worth it. I don't know if I'll be saying the same thing when I'm 85 and still unable to afford to retire though, haha.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I really appreciate this article. I too, as a single parent, sent my youngest child to a boarding school (Adventist) and experienced many of the same experiences you mentioned. The only difference was that my daughter's school was 7 hours away. That was really tough as it made going to see her, or her coming home to visit, difficult. The school is in a rural section and 2 hours away from any major transportation hub. If I could redo, I would not have chosen a school so far away - but the school actually had quite a number of students from Korea and Brazil, who I imagined had it harder in terms of being separated from their families for longer lengths of time. Like the Friends school, she has done local community service projects and is just wrapping up a 12 day humanitarian trip to Panama as part of her spring break. I am hoping that in the long term it will pay off and also have seen someone who was more interested in 'fitting in' now become someone who strives to do well and has clear plans for college. The readjustment when she comes home is tough and the times when she is home just don't seem long enough. That is perhaps the worst trade off - that I feel I'm missing important milestones in her life. But intellectually and spiritually, I know she is in the better place. Thanks for sharing your lens.

    • Blonde Blythe profile image

      Blonde Blythe 

      7 years ago from U.S.A.

      "The Quaker belief of the "Inner Light" or that of God in each of us creates an atmosphere of tolerance and openness. Students are led by example not only to respect the perspectives and talents of others in the community, but also to learn from them."

      I also want to say that it would be a much, much better world if everyone would follow this example.

    • Blonde Blythe profile image

      Blonde Blythe 

      7 years ago from U.S.A.

      Wonderful lens! I really enjoyed your story. I'm so glad it all worked out so beautifully for you and your son! :)

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I like your story. Glad you found the right school for your child.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Nice piece.

      There are quaker boarding schools in the U.S. but there are also reputable one and assures full responsibility to your child.

      You can find more information regarding reputable boarding schools here.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      This interesting piece of info on homeschooling

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Interesting piece, DAnnieB. We're the homeschoolers on whose lens you left a lovely comment. My partner spent his highschool years in boarding school, first in the UK, then in New Zealand. He was terribly homesick and tried to run away twice.

      I suppose homeschooling is just about as diametrically opposed to boarding school that you can get. Having the kids around all day sometimes feels overwhelming but the thought of them not being around for weeks also feels overwhelming. I salute your bravery, both in the choice you and your son made and in being so honest when writing about the experience.

      Hats off to you.


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