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Students hang out in their dormitory room at Ashbury College in Ottawa. Many students transition to boarding in the later grades in preparation for university.Handout

When Andrew Nichols’s son AJ was accepted into St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ont., he and his wife Kristen had not initially considered boarding him. “We had intentionally moved from Markham to Aurora when he was accepted, and moved to a house that allowed him to walk to the school,” Nichols explains.

Nichols attended the Ottawa-based private school Ashbury College himself from 1985 to 1991, first as a day student and then as a border for Grades 11 to 13. “The benefit of being a day student can be that no matter how intense a day or week may become, you are still sleeping in your own bed, eating meals with your family and having that support.”

AJ started at the all-boys private school in 2013, when he was in Grade 5. Over the years, AJ took advantage of St. Andrew’s College’s extracurriculars, like sports teams and drumming. As he approached Grade 12, in 2020, his parents considered placing him into boarding for his final year. They thought living away from home would ease the transition to university.

“I think that boarding can act as a safe environment to learn independence,” says Nichols. “Boarding offers students small glimpses into what it takes to be independent. For instance, doing your own laundry, buying your own toiletries or organizing your own transportation.”

In the end, the Nichols decided to keep their son in day school for his final year at St. Andrew’s College. They felt that COVID-19 restrictions meant he wouldn’t benefit from boarding in the way that they hoped.

Bruce Mutch, executive director of enrolment and advancement at Ashbury College in Ottawa, says that most families have a pretty good sense of which program they want their children to enter. “A lot has to do with location, if they’re in the city, and they’re easily accessible,” Mutch explains.

Some parents, who are diplomats working for the federal government, might get posted out internationally and will place their children in boarding “so they have some continuity in the Canadian education program.”

Finances are another determining factor for many families. At Ashbury, for example, 2021-22 tuition fees for boarding students are more than double that of day students — $71,720 compared to $30,585 for day school. But at Ashbury, and at many other private schools, there is financial assistance available for students interested in boarding. “We don’t want that to be a roadblock,” Mutch explains.

Day school or boarding doesn’t necessarily have to be an all-or-nothing decision. Mutch says it’s common for families to put their children into a day school at first, then consider boarding in Grade 11 or Grade 12.

For parents who are concerned about finances, waiting until the final years of high school can be a worthwhile compromise. This still allows students to benefit from the boarding experience prior to university, which can be valuable, explains Clayton Johnston, director of admissions at Brentwood College School in Mill Bay, B.C.

“A lot of kids are not prepared to just walk out of their parents’ home and have independence,” he says. “They crash and burn. They haven’t learned that you work before you play.”

Mutch says that there is a shift in mindset required to be a successful boarding student. “They have to feel comfortable being away from family and friends,” he says. “It’s going to be a different social network that they’re going to be coming into. They have to be ready for some significant change.”

Touring a private school’s campus and boarding houses can be helpful in making the decision. But, despite a parent’s wishes or best intentions, Johnston says the student’s own desires should be factored in. “It has to be the students’ choice to be here,” he explains. “Nobody is sent to our school. I won’t accept them.”

Boarding programs are appealing for many reasons. Unlike living alone at university, boarding students have the benefit of guidance from teachers and staff, many of whom also live at the school. At Brentwood College, for example, about 60 per cent of the teachers live on campus.

“It’s access to support and understanding each student and what their needs might be,” Johnston says. “The relationship is more like an aunt or uncle. It’s like a community. It’s like a little village.”

Mutch agrees: “[Boarding] is a full, holistic experience,” he says. “It’s really going to prepare them so well for university because it’s a structured program, [where] they’re living independently for the first time, in most cases.”

Looking for more stories about private school education? Get the latest on curriculum trends, financial assistance and the pandemic’s impact here.