Monday, September 26, 2005

The Magic of Boarding Schools

I have a column in Monday's USA Today about boarding education for gifted students. It is available online at:

Welcome to those who saw the URL for this blog in the column!

The gist of the piece is that despite America's love of Harry Potter and Hogwarts, his boarding school, we're not sending our own children to boarding school. There's a wizard's brew of factors at play, including high tuition, and a general lack of awareness. But also, today, more parents who might see boarding education as an option are interested in keeping their kids home and becoming closer to them during their late teen years.

I say this is too bad, because boarding education, done right, can concentrate the brightest kids from a broad geographic area, and create an environment that values learning. This is what I experienced at the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and Humanities. To do boarding education right, schools need to provide more scholarships, states need to build more public residential schools for the gifted, and policy makers can recognize that when gifted kids' needs can't be locally met, they may still be entitled to a free and appropriate education elsewhere (governments pay tuition for 17,111 disabled students at private residential schools or facilities around the country when their needs can't be met locally).

But obviously others disagree -- maybe parents can provide the best environment for gifted students. Maybe 15 or 16 is too young to live away from home, even if the educational environment is better. I'm curious to hear what people think- Laura


Erica said...

Just came over after reading the article. I was identified as 'gifted' at a young age and it wasn't until grade 13 (old Ontario school system) that I was finally able to attend a boarding school. It was definitely the best school year of my life. Finally school was interesting! Not to mention I made some of my best life-long friends.

Mark Klein, M.D. said...

In these times boarding school for girls may be very emotionally distructive. A poor environment to learn the emotional skills necessary to be an effective wife and mother.

Be another story were we Emperor penguins whose parental responsibilities are feeding and sheltering offspring from the Antartic cold.

Laura Vanderkam said...

Erica- glad to hear you enjoyed the experience. My years at boarding school were certainly good for stretching my brain and, despite what our other poster says, my husband seems to think that I'm doing just fine in the "emotional skills to be an effective wife" department. - Laura

dee said...

I tend to agree with mark. I had three years experience in a Tasmanian boarding school and then one year as a house mistress in an all girls boarding school in Melbourne. If the house mistresses are not emotionally or physically available for the girls, Issues that are discussed on a day to day basis with a caring parent can develop into major health problems such as attempted suicides, eating disorders to name a few. Not much academic work is accomplished when you are unable to focus on the task at hand because of these issues.

Roxanne said...

Our 18 year old, only daughter just graduated with honors and the most wonderful education she could have had from the all girls Miss Porter's School in Farmington, CT. We live in rural North Carolina, USA and she and we all three cried making the decision to let our then 14 year old 9th grader attend high school 13 hours from home. But in time we learned a lesson about accepting and giving gifts. Miss Porters not only gifted us with a scholarship but with loving attention and challenges for our intellectually gifted daughter. She was lovingly tended there as she grew in good health in all arenas; intellectual, social, physical and personal awareness. The financial assistance the school granted us allowed us to bring her home or travel to see her often. She gifted them as well with a humble and gentle heart. Now she is the most lovely indedpendent young woman enjoying male and female friends at a state univeristy studying architecture! I have no doubts she will make a wonderful wife and mother should that be her choice; surely her husband will need to be equally capable of intimate relationship.

Mantrasong said...

I am a current student at the Indana Academy, and I can definately agree with this artical. I was a student at a reasonably good suburban school before I cam here, but the Academy has challenged me in ways my home school never chould have.
The Academy also provides an environment where gifted students have the chance to learn the social skills they otherwise couldn't have, because they were either shunned or worshiped at their home schools. I cannot speak of other boarding schools, but the Academy is set up in such a way as to provide emotional support when it is needed. Especially for girls, the academy teaches needed emotional skills, rather than destroying them.

Nicole said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nicole said...

Thank you for writing this article! I have never thought about sending my daughter to a boarding school. I always thought they were for heartless, well-off parents- not me!
Now you have me thinking. I consider my daughter "slightly" gifted. She was identified by a school in VA in 4th grade. Now she's in 7th grade, in Il. We just moved here from CA (military family). She's content not to make friends but I wonder if its just the environment. She's not struggling but I know she needs more than what she gets from her school. She's bored. How do I know if this would be a good thing?
And my biggest question- can I let go?

Samantha said...

I am currently a senior at the Indiana Academy and I just wanted to say that I have always sort of equated Harry Potter to this place. I am glad to have someone else on the same page, as I felt sort of nerdy (even at the nerd school) for thinking that we live at a Hogwarts for gifted Americans.

Stormia said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Stormia said...

Just read the article... I'm an academy senior. I came from a decent high school, but the academy has still given me things that my home school never could have. On the other hand.... everything that this place does to people... its not always good. The stress and the craziness and bad grades sometimes for the first time in our lives---thats all worth it to some people, including me. But I don't think anyone who comes here really knows what they're getting into---and its really horrible what coming here can do to the lives of people who weren't really up for this for one reason or another---whether they go home or stay. Also, we are here to learn, but many of us are still being pushed to get the kinds of grades that we used to---to get into college, to get scholarships---and that isn't always possible here. Grade-focused learning isn't just a problem here---its a problem at most schools now I think, to some extent---- but it is expecially obvious at a school that was created specifically to be DIFFERENT from that.

I love it here... but theres more to this place than all its good qualities.

Laura H. said...

Hi Laura V - This is Laura H, fellow "Common Ground" staff member. Remember me? Anyway, great article. I am a bit thrown off by this "wife and mother skills" thread. I suppose the typical 'boarding school' image is that of strictness and censorship. We were quite fortunate to be at a coed school with no dress code, no censorship, and every club from GLBT to the Anti-Gravity (juggling) Society. I guess I'm just trying to say that social skills and academics are not mutually exclusive. I know the Academy gave me the chance to step away from the cliques and norms of my old high school and celebrate (as much as a teenager can) being an individual.
Congratulations on your continued journalistic success, Laura!

Laura Vanderkam said...

Nicole- it's hard to know if it's the right thing for any given child or family -- that's something you and your daughter will have to figure out together. One thing you can do is visit boarding schools to see if it's the kind of thing she would like. If you're in Illinois, the Illinois Math and Science Academy is a great option for high school.
She should also participate in the Midwest Talent Search this year, and take the SAT. If she does well enough, she can go to summer programs at Northwestern for gifted students -- the three weeks taking classes there resemble boarding school quite closely! If she likes it a lot -- well, then you know.
Letting go is, as you say, the toughest part. It helps to remember, if your family chooses boarding school, that you'll have to let go eventually when she goes to college or moves out on her own. And second, you can visit and keep in touch! Think phone cards. Lots of phone cards. Keep me updated- Laura

Laura Vanderkam said...

I'm glad to see some current Academy students posting on here!

Yes, it was a difficult experience, academically, at times. However, I feel the Indiana Academy taught me how to work hard and stick with something that was difficult -- something I never learned before -- and has taught me time management skills that I use every day. My first semester there, my grades were atrocious. I came home with a C for the first time in my life! But then I learned how to earn A's. That's a much better feeling than just "getting" A's.
Stormia- I understand what you mean about stress, the rules, the late hours, bad food, workload. If you want to commiserate privately with an alum, my email is

Laura Vanderkam said...

Thank you, Laura H. That's very sweet -- I have fond memories of Common Ground, though USA Today and Reader's Digest have beat any wordiness tendencies out of me! I hope all is well for you these days- Laura

Laura H. said...

Laura V- All is well with me. Getting married next summer, which is surprising given that I missed out on all those critical wife and mother skills lessons while at the Academy. Actually, if you get a second, drop me an email at so we can exchange contact info.

t.lo said...

Just found this site after reading your article, and being a recent Academy alum ('04) I can completely agree with your arguements. Looking back at my experience at the Academy, I can make direct correlations between my success in college and my success in high school. The Academy taught me to be responsible for myself and my actions, while still giving me the structure and guidance that I needed at 16. With understanding authority figures from many different backgrounds, I recieved a cultural experience I would have never had in my rural home town while being able to retain my "down home" values.

In addition to the "culture shock", I also recieved a classroom education beyond my wildest dreams. Classes ranged from mixing acids in AP Chemisty to taking walks in Christy Woods for Botany to sitting outside reading poetry on the lawn. The teachers knew how to push students to the limits of their young minds then slowly push them a little farther until they finally learned something. The teachers at the Academy were also considerably more approachable than the teachers at any other school I had attended. Teaching wasn't just a job they did from 8:00-3:00, but a career they truly enjoyed. They can talk to students on a personal level because they know everyone's name, who their friends are, where they came from, and where they want to go.

As for being emotionally distroyed by living away from my parents, I think the Academy did exactly the opposite. Living with so many different people gave me a chance to decide what I really cared about and experience situations that normally my parents would have hid me from. This made me emotionally stronger and more aware. I also learned the true meaning of being a friend. When all you have are your friends to lean on you learn very quickly what it is to be sensitive, caring, and nurturing.

I'm not going to lie and say that my Academy experience was some sort of heaven because it was far from it. There was pressure to maintain grades, excell at the sports I loved, make friends, and still sleep. Yes, there were many many nights spent either teary-eyed or sleepless missing my family and worrying about grades, but without those the Academy wouldn't have half the effect on its students. Two years at the Academy teaches young people how to fight through life's bumps instead of turning and running.

Overall, the Academy was an experience I would not trade for the world. I strongly believe that I would not be the same person today if not for my time at the Academy.

Tiffany Clark said...

I found your post, and I have been looking into what options would be the best for schooling for my nine-year old son. My son has been having trouble fitting into his current school, and after the testing revealed his IQ (it stated that he was in the top 1%, and I am thinking his IQ might actually be higher), I thought that maybe he needs a more challenging program. Although my financial situation is tough, I was thinking about boarding schools, summer programs, or even private schools. However, while looking online, I found an article stating that private schools may not be offering a better education than public schools.
( In addition, I work full-time so homeschooling is not an option, and so I am not sure I could send my son to a boarding school that was so far away. Please let me know if anyone has any advice or information that could be helpful, or if I should look further into boarding schools (although I am nervous about my son having trouble fitting in.


I wonder if the resistance to boarding school might be tied to the modern and (IMO) bizarre concept of the "teenager."

It is my understanding that for most of history and in most cultures there has been a fairly clear demarcation between children and adults. Children are not burdened with the full responsibilities of adults but in turn their freedoms are constrained.

In many cultures there is a definite and irreversable right of passage (often at or around 13) when one transitions from the childhood state to an adult state.

Our culture, however, has done away with this abrupt transition and replaced it with the supposedly idyllic state of "teenager." Rather than a specific age range, I would describe this as the state of having many of the personal freedoms of an adult but being allowed the lack of responsibility of a child.

By this definition, I would argue the state of being a "teenager" is starting far earlier (7 and 8 year olds?) and is being preserved by some well into their 30's.

This concept of being a teenager, enshrined in our popular culture, would seem to be the antithesis of a boarding school environment. Although I never attended one, I assume such schools require a level of adult-like responsibility and yet tolerate less abuse of personal freedoms.

Perhaps gifted children are better candidates for a boarding school because the state of being a full adult is more appealing than this "teenage" state.

Victoria said...

I am thinking about going to a gifted boarding school. But I currently go to a very large high school with a very large population. Like 800 people per grade. Which is 9-12. And I like it with so many people cause there is so much interaction & possibilities. I don't know how I would feel if I just started going to a campus with less than a 1000 people total. So I were wondering were all gifted boarding schools small. And what is it like going to a small one. Has anyone gone to one with more than a thousand people.

Laura Vanderkam said...

Certainly the Indiana Academy, where I went, was pretty small (300 students total). However, it was on the campus of Ball State University, which was huge. You could audit arts/sports/music classes at Ball State, and so get to know students there. We also had classes in the same building as Burris High School, which was a local laboratory school for Ball State's teachers' college. So that added more people in our age group. You might try looking for a boarding school that's in a big city, or on a college campus, in order to ease the transition to a smaller school.

Laura Vanderkam said...

Tanstaafl: You may be on to something with gifted teens preferring to be treated more like adults, since mentally, that's where they are. I'm always a little sad when people say high school was the best time of their lives!

Mantrasong said...

Victoria: I did have a similar experience, going from a high school of around 3000 to a school a tenth the size. I cannot speak for you, but personally, I found it refreshing to be able to get to know everyone at the school, rather than being one face among many. If you like the large school environment, then you should follow Laura V's advice, but if you're like me, and don't actually get that close to many people, a smaller boarding school will be just fine.

ET said...

Thank you for your site.I found your site thru The Davidson Institute. We live at Tahoe and have a gifted learner. He kept saying he just wanted to be with kids that want to learn.We finally had to listen. We made a decision(not an easy one!)to have our son start as a freshman at a school 5 hours away (he is in 10th grade now) where he can excel and his passion for learning is being nurtured. The adults that are involved with the kids are hands on! It has been a very positive experience all around.I would like to see more funds available for children to attend these instituitions as they are cost prohibitive. Financial aid is usually need based not merit based. We are in the middle financially and remortgaged our home to have our son go off. We anticipate his grades will stay high and be fortunate to get scholarships for college. Sometimes you have to let go at different times with different kids. It is a big leap of faith but if children quest for greater learning power by all means explore your options.

Diane said...

How does one go about finding public boarding schools? I'm in Connecticut and would like nothing better (even if it means saying goodbye) than having my son get a truly interesting and challenging education without being elitist.

Alicia G. said...

My sister and I both have daughters, both aged seven, both Mother's WORST NIGHTMARE. They are out of control! Everything from not listening to lying and stealing. We do not believe in being physical in our form of punishments. But considering the alternatives do not work we have to seek help. To our astonishment- there is no one that will help. Our last resort would be a reform. boarding school. All of the boarding schools in North America do not accept children that young. So we are seriously considering sending them to a boarding school in England. If thats the case, I will probably end up moving there. And I know there are a lot of judgmental parents out there... you can keep it to yourselves. I for one ( my sister for two) agree that there is a problem when a seven year old thinks they are in control and a parent tries to regain that control. I need help and its sad that no one will help me in my own country and I have to resort to this.

Davidson Institute said...

It sounds like you and your sister have experienced significant challenges with your daughters. We understand your concerns!

Before taking extreme measures like moving to another country, we encourage you to consider seeking the assistance of a local mental health professional. You may be interested in an informational pamphlet published by SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted), titled Selecting a Mental Health Professional for your Gifted Child ( You can find a list of psychologists familiar with testing gifted students on Hoagies Gifted Page. Although this information relates to testing, the psychologists listed may also offer therapeutic services or would be able to recommend a therapist in your area.

Oftentimes it can be helpful to ask family and friends for recommendations for mental health professionals. This may be a bit uncomfortable, but might be fruitful in turning up good leads. You may also want to check with these websites:

* National Register of Psychologists

* American Psychological Association

As you may know, there are numerous books available for parents raising difficult children. Here are a few we’ve suggested to parents in the past:

* The Difficult Child

* The Explosive Child

* The Out-of-Sync Child

* in Charge: Setting Healthy, Loving Boundaries for You and Your Child

* Children: The Challenge : The Classic Work on Improving Parent-Child Relations--Intelligent, Humane & Eminently Practical Children

* Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, Energetic

* The Challenging Child: Understanding, Raising, and Enjoying the Five "Difficult" Types of Children

Additionally, there are a few noted publishers that offer books to assist in addressing the needs of exceptionally bright young people. You may wish to explore their websites:

* Great Potential Press (we highly recommend Guiding the Gifted Child)

* Free Spirit Publishing (publisher of Bringing Out the Best: A Guide for Parents of Young Gifted Children)

* Prufrock Press (we also recommend Parenting Gifted Kids: Tips for Raising Happy and Successful Children)

We hope this is helpful and wish you the best!

Boarding Schools for Special Children said...

There are many good boarding schools for gifted students. These schools have their own unique teaching and treatment method which is very beneficial for these students.

Michelle said...

I am the mother of a 15-going-on-50-year-old girl, currently going into grade 11 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Last year, she completed her first year in IB (International Baccalaureate) with a mid-high 80's average, didn't try, and was really bored. They recommended a WISC, at which she came out with a 158 score in all 9 testing areas. Then, in order to provide her with enrichment, they let her challenge the grade 11 honours Biology class, completely self-directed, to which she produced an 88%. After exhaustive research, I have come to the conclusion that there are no programs in Western Canada for someone with her abilities, at her age. She loves philosophy, environmental stewardship, sociology, and practically anything that her peers do not relate to.

Does anyone know of any U.S. programs that my daughter may be eligible to enroll in?

Please help,
Desperate in Canada

Davidson Institute Staff said...

Hello Michelle,

Thank you for posting.

One option for profoundly gifted students is The Davidson Academy of Nevada ( Applications for the 2010-2011 school year will be posted to the Academy website on Sept. 1, 2009. To attend the Academy, applicants must provide transcripts, grade reports and/or homeschooling records; submit three letters of recommendation, and become a Nevada resident before attending. Please also see the website for public tour dates and more.

Also, you may want to search the Davidson Gifted Database ( filled with resources and articles for and about gifted students.

Thanks again,

Davidson Institute staff

nicoleandmaggie said...

Just wanted to point out, that for many of these poor unfortunate gifted girls, they may never have the opportunity to become a wife (though medical science can assist with the motherhood) without going to boarding school. What better place for a super-intelligent young woman to entrap a mate? If she marries her high school sweet-heart then she will not remain an old maid.

Also, in this day and age, so few children learn the necessary chore skills at home. Boarding school forces skills such as laundry.

No no, just as it was imperative for 19th century women to get an education that they might educate their own small sons, intelligent girls *should* go to boarding school so that they can provide eventual fathers for their boys rather than going it alone.

(Yes, I know this was posted 7 years ago, but in case someone wanders on the thread, people need to know! ;) )