How To Choose A Boarding Or Country Day School

istock_101659755_xlargeIf you’re looking to enroll your child into a country day or boarding school, you probably already know that creating a target list of schools is no small task. How do you make the perfect match, factoring in everything from academics to community culture? To help guide you through the process, heads of school, admissions directors, and program leaders from boarding and country day schools in the New York metro area sound off on key factors to keep in mind while you’re doing your research, tips for your school visits, and more.


“Connect with community members inside and outside of the school. School admission directors are a wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm, but they’re paid to be. Schools should be able to connect you with students, parents, and alumni who are willing to share their impressions honestly. Ask them about their own experiences, the highlights, the challenges, and everything in between. If a school can’t refer a parent or student, I might think twice.

Visit the schools and campuses you are most interested in. Choose a group of schools that attract you but may offer different programming or philosophies. Ask if your child can sit in on classes, sports, or school meetings. Meet with teachers, dorm parents, and administrators. Immersing yourself and your child in the school for a few hours is fun, and it will give you a sense of whether or not the school is the right fit.

It’s not all about you. Allow your child to be in the driver’s seat of this process. Give them responsibility for research and fact-finding. Urge them to call or email the admission offices at the school they are interested in to ask questions. Student ownership is a huge part of a life at a boarding school, so the application process should be as well. If your child is excited about their school and feels it was they who found this amazing place, the odds are good that they will hit the ground running and maximize the all of the awesome opportunities.” –Jason Warnick, Director of Admissions, Ross School

“We often find that the search for a new school is initiated by the student. They are looking for a learning environment that fits their learning style and is a place where they will feel secure as a person and find success. When visiting a prospective school, parents should encourage their daughter to see themselves in classes and among the students to make sure the student feels they will fit in. Ask about programs that enhance the academics and allow the student to develop life experiences, some schools call these signature programs. At Purnell, our Project Exploration is a three-week mini-term that gives students the opportunity to travel abroad or focus their studies on a specific interest—such programs have a positive lasting impact on the student and distinguish schools.” –Kate Davis, Purnell School, Associate Director of Admissions

“I travel to New Jersey, Colorado, and New York—and what I generally lead with is that a family should never rule out a school for being further from home. When you’re whittling down a list based on your child’s interest, whether they thrive in a larger or a smaller environment, or other important factors, to compromise fit for being closer to home is really going to compromise the child’s experience. The fit makes all the difference in the world.

From my 13 years of interviewing eighth graders, they’re all really concerned with how often they can go home and how often their parents and friends can visit. Through the process, these are all very important questions, but once they’re enrolled in the schools, it’s not an important question at all. Your experience, if you’re going to be at a boarding school, is seven days a week—and if you’re enjoying it, you’re going to want to be there seven days a week. A practical tip: Often schools will provide transportation on breaks, so if that part is hard on parents and their work, we provide buses to New York City, and I know that other schools are very accommodating as well.

The best thing to do is to visit a campus. Every school has a glossy brochure and a fancy website, and that’s informative in looking at the programs that a school has to offer, but I think to truly understand the culture of a community, it’s meeting the people that work there—not just the admissions people—and the students who go there. That tells you a lot, and you can’t ascertain that unless you’ve been on campus. I’d recommend a minimum of an hour and a half for a visit; that allows for a 45-minute tour and a 45-minute interview.” –Rebecca Brooks, Associate Director of Admissions, Pomfret School

[gravityform id=”13″ title=”false” description=”false” ajax=”true”]

“The Kildonan School is a specialized school for kids with language-based learning differences and dyslexia. In my opinion, the Academic program is the most important part of any school. In a world where so many people base opinions on the visual, it is important to know that fancy facilities do not make a school the best school. Happy children come from a strong program that supports their needs and leads them to discover passions. It teaches them to learn to love learning and reach their individual potential.

I always suggest that parent see students in the lunchroom to observe interactions with their peers and with faculty. Collaborative, constructivist teaching helps prepare kids for our world by developing critical thinking skills with hands-on experience and collaboration with peers.” –Mimi Babcock, Director of Advancement, The Kildonan School

“At The Masters School, we find that there are three common questions families need to keep in mind when assessing schools: ‘Will my child fit in and be happy? Will he/she be challenged? Will he/she be well-prepared to succeed in college, career, and life?’

Independent schools give parents the opportunity to choose a school with a teaching philosophy and a
learning environment that best fit their child. Also look for inclusive, diverse environments that attract students from a wide geographical area. At schools that have both day and boarding programs, such as Masters, students benefit from being part of an active, international student body.

Parents should also look for a school with high academic standards appropriate for their child. Consider schools with smaller class sizes—which typically provide more personalized attention—as well schools that have not only a skilled faculty, but also a significant percentage of faculty living on campus, which provides more accessibility and support. Moreover, look for an independent school that guides students to be just that: More independent and encouraged to follow their passions and discover new interests. Lastly, be sure to visit several schools and to keep the above three questions in mind.” –Keith Holton, Director of Enrollment and Financial Aid, The Masters School


“When you visit a school, look around. Were the teachers engaged and the students engaged and smiling during the tour? Were there different styles of learning happening during the tour?

In many cases, you are joining a community, not just a place to send your children to learn. Is this a community that you could see yourself fitting in?

If you’re moving to the area, try out the commute and talk to families that have also made the transition. You may also wish to try out some synagogues in towns you are considering moving to.” –Gail Shapiro, Director of Admissions and Outreach, Golda Och Academy

“Are there plenty of opportunities for children to utilize the entire campus—not just the buildings? One of the things that country day schools often pride themselves on is the use of their natural surroundings as an extension of the classroom. Ask how often children (at all ages) go outdoors in the course of a day and in what ways the school is using its campus to reinforce learning.

Are students—and teachers—engaged? When you go into a classroom look at faces. Are children alert? Do they appear to be engaged in the activity? Are they happy? Do they look bored? Do the teachers seem to be aware that their lesson is being understood? Are they passionate about the subject that they are teaching? Is the focus broad rather than narrow? Students at all levels should have the opportunity to explore many different areas. Not only a variety of academic disciplines, but also the arts, sports, leadership and community service have an equally important role to play in child development.” –Aaron
Cooper, Head of School, The Elisabeth Morrow School

“Choosing a boarding or day school is a very complex and personal choice for all families. When considering the learning environment that can offer the best fit for their child, families can benefit in their evaluation by learning
as much as they can about the mission, values, and visionary environment that a school provides. A talented and motivated faculty, a stellar program that is robust and challenging, and extensive and enriching co-curricular offerings—all are essential starting points.

Beyond this initial framework, the most exceptional schools are those dedicated to the process of learning. Through promoting growth-mindset educational opportunities both in and out of the classroom—and establishing assessment tools that comprehensively evaluate a child’s myriad strengths, attributes, and needs—schools will educate children for their future. As we cannot predict what knowledge our children will need for the future, it is most pertinent to focus on getting children intrinsically motivated to be lifelong learners, ready for anything!” –Dr. Rodney V. De Jarnett, Head of School, Dwight-Englewood School

“Spend time getting to know the people who work at the school: the teachers, the administrators, the support staff, etc. A student’s overall degree of happiness and success in school is much more likely to be shaped by her relationships with the adults whom she encounters each day than by the specifics of the curriculum or anything else that can be read in a booklet. Additionally, pre-enrollment conversations with school personnel can help engender confidence and a sense of personalized attention, both of which are crucial to family satisfaction with an independent school.

Keep in mind that your child is likely to demonstrate unexpected traits or develop new passions as she moves through school. Therefore, it is useful to understand the range of curricular and co-curricular options that a school offers, as well as the likelihood that there will be a cohort of students who demonstrate similar traits and passions. Should your child show signs of being gifted in math, in need of particular academic supports for reading, or interested in soccer, chess, or musical theater, will she have the opportunity to have these needs met and those passions nurtured? Is she likely to be the only one, or part of a group? Small class sizes are alluring, but a robust, diverse cohort of classmates can be very important.” –Michael A. Kay, Head of School, Solomon Schechter School of Westchester

“Does it feel like home? Oftentimes, when you step onto a school’s campus, you have an initial gut feeling; a feeling that you’re at home. Can you see your child there? Can you see your family spending time there? What is the community culture like, and does it match your family values? As an admissions director, there’s no better feeling than seeing the new families that I’ve worked with lingering after school to socialize with other parents while the kids play on the playground—it means they’ve found their community.

Go right to the source. The best people to speak to about a school are the people who are enrolled. We always know that the moment we introduce our current high school students at admissions events, all questions to the faculty cease! Our students are the best ones to convey what their educational experience has been like at our school, and their poise, confidence, and eloquence speak volumes. Likewise, I’m also always happy to connect a prospective parent to a current parent so that they can learn more from an inside perspective.

Take a sample class. At our school, we schedule several admissions events during the school day so that parents and students can sit in on classes. Does the school have a particular educational philosophy? What does that philosophy look like in action? Are the students engaged? There’s no better way to learn about a school than to experience what it’s like to be one of the students.” –Melissa McDonagh, Director of Admissions, Green Meadow Waldorf School