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The Right Road

Is a Small Boarding School Right for Your Child?

Schools with a student body of 200 or less are a distinct and vibrant subset in the boarding school world. When first hearing of this niche, some parents may initially wonder if the size of enrollment would feel limiting to teens. Instead, many discover that the small scale of this environment translates into big opportunities for students.

The years spent in secondary school are all about helping children develop their personal identities and build an understanding of themselves as unique, valued members of a community. As defined by their mission statements and campus cultures, schools use different strategies and philosophies to help students in reaching these goals. The intentionally close-knit community of a small boarding school offers a balance between connection and independence that helps many young people blossom.

In a small school, students may make personal connections at a deep level, prompting friendships to bloom based on common interests and personality rather than grade level. At one small school for example, students from different years often choose to room together. At this same institution, students choose new roommates and switch rooms a couple of times a year in a much-loved and highly anticipated school-wide moving day. The strong social connections from such traditions give small schools the ambiance of being a very large family.

The size of an institution can also affect the student-teacher relationship. Many boarding schools are large enough that it is not possible for each individual teacher to know each individual student. In those environments, students usually develop a rapport and closer bond with several key faculty members each year. At a small school, all teachers know all students. There is a higher likelihood that a student’s dorm master may also be his or her coach and one of his or her teachers, so the community itself is more intrinsically connected. 

This support structure and tight community, combined with the chance to be active in any interest, make small boarding schools empowering environments. “Everybody is a big fish in a small pond, integral to the life of the school athletically, academically, socially,” says Joanne Carruthers, president of the Small Boarding Schools Association. I caught up with Joanne recently at the SBSA annual conference, which is an event that we at The Bertram Group particularly look forward to each year. The conference is held during spring break season, on the campus of a different small boarding school annually so that participants can examine various campuses up-close. “In these really formative years,” Joanne says, “students learn to understand the impact they have on their world.” They then carry the knowledge that they are valued and effective community members with them when they graduate.

As always, the most important aspect of school selection is valuing what makes each student unique and what type of educational environment will suit them best. Perhaps a small boarding school is the perfect place for your child to thrive.

Audrey Noyes Ludemann helps families seek independent school education, ranging from day schools to boarding schools and from elementary to secondary grades. She also is an invaluable resource for planning across different learning styles—serving families whose students are gifted and/or have moderate learning differences. She can be reached at