Before Amelia Hadfield entered Grade 10, the resident never considered spending her high school years away from home at boarding school. That changed, however, when a debating coach from Vancouver Island’s Brentwood College School saw her compete at a local event.
Impressed by her skill, he suggested she consider the secondary institution, which has a strong debate program. Now in Grade 12, Hadfield says it didn’t take long to feel at home at the waterfront school in Mill Bay, where she lives in a double dorm room and goes to class six days a week, with academics in the mornings and sports or arts programs in the afternoons.
“I’m really close with my parents, so it was a bit of a struggle at first to be able to say, ‘Okay, let’s look at boarding school,’” says 16 year-old Hadfield, who won the National Debate Championships in Halifax earlier this year with a fellow Brentwood student. “But it just seemed so special. I couldn’t give it up.
“Boarding school isn’t for everybody, but I really like it,” Hadfield says. “I really love to be busy and to be focused. You forget you’re away from home, because you just get so caught up in the glory of it all.”
Hadfield is one of thousands of students across Canada reaping the benefits of boarding school at the high-school level. Being away from home at a young age eases the transition to university and, perhaps more significantly, instills in youth the value of community.
The Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS) association has 94 members, 27 of which offer boarding in addition to day programming, according to director of outreach Fiona Parke. Twenty-seven schools served as a home-away-from-home for 4,623 students in total during the 2018-19 academic year. Of them, 36 per cent (1,686) were from Canada; the rest came from a total of 100 different countries.
Boarding programs across the country range in size from approximately 30 students to 400, according to CAIS.
Parents who opt to send their kids away for secondary school – spending anywhere from $15,000 annually at Saskatchewan’s Rosthern Junior College to nearly $67,000 at Ottawa’s Ashbury College – might be motivated to provide their children with what they perceive to be the best education possible. Boarding school also offers their kids a chance to experience activities that most conventional high schools don’t offer on-site (like climbing or varsity rowing, which Brentwood offers).
For teens like Hadfield, however, what seems to distinguish boarding school from standard secondary school is the sense of belonging it provides.
“You’re with these people 24/7,” Hadfield says. “You’re doing everything on campus, and you interact with everyone all the time. People know what you’re genuinely like. You’re not faking it for six hours then going home. People are really there for each other.”
Fiona Parke, CAIS boarding schools’ director of outreach, says that finding that sense of community is dependent on finding a school with the right fit, something that’s part of her job in consulting with families from Canada and abroad.
“We get to know the student and if they’d like a big-city feel or a more rural environment,” Parke says. “Are they really into the outdoors, or do they love being in the classroom and in the science lab? Defining what they’re looking for for their children helps give that well-rounded experience.”
“Really, when you set foot on campus, you step into a new home,” Parke says. “We want students to feel ‘I’m meant to be here.’”
Louise Paoli di Prisco, director of boarding at Ottawa’s Ashbury College, an International Baccalaureate school which offers day and boarding programs, says boarding schools provide students an opportunity to meet like-minded thinkers from across the globe. Of its 109 boarding students, 20 are from Canada and the remaining 89 come from 40 different countries, according to Paoli di Prisco.
“Especially nowadays, that is an absolute gift to give to your child at this developmental age: the opportunity to become friends, classmates and teammates with students from different languages, backgrounds, cultural groups, ethnicities and religions,” Paoli di Prisco says.
“Schools all talk about providing a global perspective, raising global citizens. It’s a genuine desire, but the work often comes primarily from the teachers. Here, it’s a celebration and promotion of pluralism,” Paoli di Prisco says. “Pluralism is those students from 40 countries living and working together and learning about one another and respecting one another.”
Advocates of high-school boarding also say it uniquely prepares students for university. A stepping-stone between their childhood home and post-secondary studies, boarding helps young people develop independence, resilience, time-management and communication skills – in addition to life skills that will stick with them forever, like the ability to do their own laundry.
Rick Rodrigues, a physics instructor and director of university counselling at Brentwood – who lives in a suite attached to one of the boarding houses with his family – says enhanced extracurricular activities and an additional focus on life skills are two main benefits of boarding.
Rodrigues, who witnesses firsthand what happens when students live among each other away from home, says boarding school is a unique environment with intangible outcomes.
“The success of education is based completely and fully on relationships, and relationships from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. are difficult to foster,” Rodrigues says. “When it’s 24/7, it’s a different ball game altogether.
“It’s a family-like community,” he adds. “People who come and visit sense that immediately, that sense of belonging. You can’t put that on the website and you can’t put that on a pamphlet – connecting with people on that level.”