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Boarding Schools Attract New Families

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Both the number of students who choose on their own initiative to attend private boarding schools and the number of families becoming associated with such schools for the first time have increased significantly since 1976.

Those are the major findings of a national survey by the National Association of Independent Schools (nais) released last week. The survey of 3,000 first-year students was conducted last spring at 40 "representative" boarding schools.

Some 255 boarding schools nationwide enroll about 43,650 students, according to nais figures for 1981-82.

Forty-five percent of the students surveyed said they personally had initiated the switch from a public school to a private boarding school. A survey taken in 1976 showed that 27 percent had pursued the idea of an education at a boarding school.

Most of the other students surveyed said their parents had urged the move.

Other data from the survey indicate that boarding schools are enrolling students from more diverse backgrounds than used to be the case, said Marjo Talbott, the director of boarding schools for the nais

For example, Ms. Talbott noted, 43 percent of the students surveyed were the first in their families to attend a boarding school. And the number of students with working mothers--a group that is generally assumed to come from less wealthy fam-ilies--jumped from 33 percent in the 1976 survey to 47 percent in the current one.

Boarding schools attracted new families largely through "concerted efforts to reach new markets" in the face of higher tuition rates and an image of elitism, according to Ms. Talbott. A major part of the more "open" approach of many boarding schools, she said, is an emphasis on summer sessions and stronger and better-publicized financial-aid packages.

"It is now in vogue [for boarding-school admission officers] to be out on the road recruiting," said Virginia M. de Veer, director of admissions at the Northfield Mount Hermon School. "The baby boom is over, and schools have to get the students."

Increase in Requests

Anne Rosenfeld, director of public information for nais, said that although increases in financial aid have only been keeping pace with tuition increases, school scholarship services have been receiving many more requests for financial aid.

"We know that we're getting many more applications from all kinds of people--minorities, middle-class people, middle-lower-class people," Ms. Rosenfeld said.

The results of the survey suggest that a key appeal of such schools for parents and students alike continues to be the perception that their academic programs are superior to those offered by public schools. Sixty-eight percent of the first-year students surveyed said that "greater academic challenge" was a very important reason for their choice to attend a boarding school, and 64 percent cited improved college-admissions prospects.

"What we are seeing nationally is that parents and children are dissatisfied with public education--especially at the middle-school level," said Agnes C. Underwood, headmistress of the Garrison Forest School in Garrison, Md.

On one score, however, the students surveyed appeared to find that the reality of boarding-school life did not quite match their expectations. Before entering the independent school, 58 percent reported that they had expected their classmates to be "very bright." Only 49 percent said that after a year at their new school, they continued to regard their peers that way.

The survey also found that:

Eighty-one percent of the students believe they have improved academically since enrolling at a boarding school.

Sixty-seven percent said they were "very pleased" that they had switched schools. Eight percent said they were either "displeased" or "very displeased."

Only 7 percent said that religious affiliation was very important in moving to an independent boarding school.

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