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A family education, 2,000 miles from home

When Christina and Kelly Dal Pozzo want to get together with friends, work in the school photography lab after-hours or sign up for a new sport, they don't ask their mum and dad. The two teenagers and their parents, Sandy and Jim Dal Pozzo, live 2,000 kilometres apart.

Christina, 15, and Kelly, 14, are entering their second year at Shawnigan Lake School on Vancouver Island, while home is in Santa Clarita, a suburb north of Los Angeles. For the Dal Pozzos, boarding at Shawnigan is a family affair – and a positive one, from the independence it fosters to the grounding in arts, sports and academics it offers.

"It's a wonderful life experience – and you get to make your our choices," says Christina, a Grade 11 student who wants to become a psychologist and is also interested in photography. Grade 10 student Kelly, who loves dance, design and languages, says at Shawnigan "there's lots of opportunities, but you have to open your own doors."

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The Dal Pozzo family opted for boarding school nine years ago for their first child, Andrew, now 23, because of extreme overcrowding in their local public schools. With L.A.'s congestion, a private day school would have required a commute of 90 minutes each way, and there were few boarding schools in California, Mrs. Dal Pozzo explains. They considered sending Andrew to a boarding school in the Eastern U.S., but following Sept. 11, 2001, they worried about the distance, and focused on the West Coast.

When an educational consultant suggested trying Canada – where no one in the family had even been – they found Shawnigan, a co-ed boarding school with 450 students and a warm family atmosphere established in 1916 in a village 40 minutes north of Victoria. Andrew "fell in love with it," says Mrs. Dal Pozzo, as did his sister Courtney, 22, and now Christina and Kelly.

"It has been a wonderful fit for us," says Mrs. Dal Pozzo, although friends didn't understand the decision to send Andrew to boarding school. "People would ask me, 'What did he do?'" she recalls. "They said, 'Boarding school is where they send kids who are bad.'"

Far from stereotypical refuges for troubled teens, or elitist havens for privileged children, boarding schools today say they are actually chosen by a diverse and even international mix of kids. Many end up ranking in the top standings academically, while students also learn autonomy and the value of family.

"Boarding schools today are for everybody," says Michael Wolfe, headmaster of Stanstead College, a co-ed school with 200 students in Grades 7 to 12, three-quarters of them attending as boarders. Established in 1872, the school is set on 600 acres in Stanstead, Que.

Nevertheless, he says, it's important to recognize that these are highly structured environments that require conformity. Kids live far away from family and friends, and schools can be limited in terms of the specialized programming they offer.

At the same time, he says, children at boarding school are more confident, respectful and apt to lead. They form lifelong bonds with friends and adults on campus: "It's a pretty intense experience."

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They also establish good routines and learn to work on their own, which is good preparation for further study – 100 per cent of Stanstead's students go on to university. Half are Canadian, 15 per cent are from the U.S. and the rest come from 21 different countries, Mr. Wolfe says, a typical mix in boarding schools that helps in the transition to adult life. "These kids are going to be living in a global community."

Fees are high, with boarding tuitions ranging from $40,000 to $50,000 a year, plus extras and travel. Mr. Wolfe says requests for financial assistance have "skyrocketed"; Stanstead sets aside one-eighth of its budget for bursaries and scholarships.

Not all boarding schools are equal. Schools may feature niche programs or specific sports. Some have isolated, sprawling campuses, while others are in cities. The most marked difference is whether they are primarily private day schools that offer some boarding, or boarding schools with a day school component.

"There are schools with boarding and then there are boarding schools," says Clayton Johnston, director of admissions at Brentwood College School in British Columbia. Brentwood has one of the largest groups of boarding students in Canada, with 374 boarders and 72 day students in Grades 9 to 12. Its campus is on the ocean north of Victoria, and it has a strong focus on rowing, producing 23 Olympians in its 88-year history.

Mr. Johnston says that children today "drive the decision" to go boarding school. Indeed, he won't accept students who are pushed by their parents to attend Brentwood. "Every student who's here wants to be here."

Brentwood's head prefect, Ian MacDonald, 16, like many boarding-school students, is following in the footsteps of family members; his father, uncles and two sisters attended the school.

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After four years, he's come to appreciate Brentwood's eclectic and knowledgeable teachers, as well as outdoor pursuits such as sea kayaking and rock climbing. He plans to study medicine and environmental science at a university in England or France.

The one thing boarding school does not prepare students for, he says, is the partying and social life they will face at university. Open houses and parties at Brentwood or in the homes of day students "are quite a bit more supervised," he says, than parties at public high schools.

David Robertson, the headmaster of Shawnigan Lake School, says students are encouraged to be socially responsible – working in soup kitchens, with the elderly, and with disabled children – as well as getting involved in overseas development projects.

"The message is that with privilege comes opportunity – and responsibility," he says.

At Shawnigan, cell phones and computers are not allowed in class, unless needed for school work. There are times during mandatory nightly study periods, called "prep", when the Internet is turned off, Kelly Dal Pozzo says, "so people aren't super-distracted." After studies are completed, there's time to socialize at the Ritz, the student activity centre on campus. While she stays in touch with friends at home, Kelly says, "Here you have friends all around you."

Her sister Christina says that being far from home can be difficult, such as last year when two of the family's dogs died. "It was really tough on us." But for the most part there isn't time to miss family, given a schedule packed with studies, arts and sport. "They keep you so busy that you're never really homesick," she explains. "It's gratifying when you finish the day off."

Mrs. Dal Pozzo says her children have been challenged academically at the boarding school and had the chance to pursue arts, sports and studies that wouldn't have been offered at home. And Christina sums up an added bonus: "Here it's really cool to be smart."

Special to The Globe and Mail


Boarding school advantages

Students at boarding schools use their time more productively, participate in more extracurricular activities, develop desirable values, learn to live and study independently and advance more quickly in careers after graduation than those at private day and public schools, according to the Association of Boarding Schools.

The non-profit organization, which represents 300 schools in the U.S., Canada and abroad, commissioned a survey of students and alumni from boarding, public and private day schools. The findings, published in a booklet called The Truth about Boarding Schools, include the following:

• 91% of boarding school students report that their schools are academically challenging, compared with 70% of private day and 50% of public school students.

• Boarding school students spend about 17 hours a week on homework, compared with 9 hours for private day students and 8 hours for public school students.

• 75% of boarding school students report being surrounded by motivated peers, compared with 71% of private day and 49% of public school students.

• 77% of boarding school students say their schools provide opportunities for leadership, compared with 60% of private day and 52% of public school students.

• 70% of boarding school students say there is little or no cheating in class, compared with 31% of private day and 26% of public school students.

• 87% of boarding school graduates report being very well prepared academically for college, compared with 71% of private day and 39% of public school alumni.

• By late-career, 52% of former boarding school students achieve positions in top management, compared with 39% of private day and 27% of public school graduates.

For the full report go to

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