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Independent Boarding Schools Seeking 'All Kinds Of Kids' as Enrollments Drop

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By Mark Walsh

Independent boarding schools--from the "preppy" New England academies to the sun-baked ranch schools of the West--are reaching out for new kinds of students, attempting to stem through diversity enrollment declines that have deepened as enrollments at other private schools have grown.

After holding fairly steady through most of the 1980's, enrollment at boarding schools took a sharp 3.5 percent drop from 1988 to 1989, according to data from the National Association of Independent Schools. The 41,500 boarders now at U.S. independent schools represents a 5.4 percent decline since 1981. Over that same period, enrollment at independent day schools was increasing by 11.4 percent.

"Even the most prestigious schools are not filling up with students from traditional families," said Heather Hoerle, assistant director of Boarding Schools, a marketing consortium sponsored by the nais and the Secondary School Admissions Test Board. "There is more outreach to nontraditional markets."

Boarding schools serve a small portion of the U.S. high-school population--less than 1 percent. But their numbers have traditionally included some of the "best and the brightest"--intellectually promising youths, mostly from the country's wealthiest families.

While the leading preparatory boarding schools remain highly selective, many others are having to work hard and spend money to fill dormitory rooms. They are going coeducational, letting more local residents in as day students, pursuing international students, and hiring marketers to tap new niches in this country. And the buzzword everywhere is ''diversity," as virtually every school scrambles to attract more members of minority groups.

"The people who run the world have changed, so the students who go to our schools have changed," said Kendra O'Donnell, principal of Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., one of the nation's oldest boarding schools. "We have to educate all kinds of kids now."

Rigor and Elitism

The traditional boarding school holds a unique place in the American educational landscape, fueled by the enduring images of prep-school life exhibited in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, John Knowles's A Separate Peace, and more recent4ly, the hit film "Dead Poets Society."

Their hallmark has always been academic rigor coupled with a solid moral underpinning. They have appealed to parents dissatisfied with public education and unimpressed by nearby private day schools, and they have served foreign students and children of U.S. citizens working abroad.

In a major study of American boarding schools published in 1985, the authors Peter W. Cookson Jr. and Caroline Hodges Persell maintained that the leading prep boarding schools exist largely to help "transmit power and privilege."

"Elite families use the schools to maintain their social class," argued Mr. Cookson, now a professor of education at Adelphi University, and Ms. Persell, a professor of sociology at New York University.

Their controversial book, Preparing for Power: America's Elite Boarding Schools, also suggests that such schools can be intense pressure cookers for students, where the prevailing "peer culture" can stifle individual creativity.

Most of these elite schools were once all-male enclaves modeled on the upper-rung British "public" schools, private institutions such as Eton and Harrow. During the 1960's, when U.S. boarding schools were falling on hard times, they began to switch to coeducation.

At the highly selective Lawrenceville School near Princeton, N.J., a switch to coeducation three years ago has helped attract not only 292 girls, but many boys the school was losing to other boarding schools that had gone coed long before.

"There was a feeling that if we are supposed to be educating the future leaders of our country, by God, we better be educating girls," said Phillip G. Pratt, the admissions director.

Lawrenceville is noted for its "house" dormitory system, which gives students the opportunity to spend several years in one dorm, building group identity, and for its use of oval tables in the classroom to spur discussion. With a robust enrollment of 761, including 560 boarders, officials there have not been overtaken by marketing strategies.

"We rely almost entirely on our reputation and on our alumni" to attract students, Mr. Pratt said.

But Lawrenceville has joined with other selective boarding schools in seeking more collaboration in the area of admissions. About 15 of the top schools in the nation, mainly in New England, have formed a loose coalition to research the admissions marketplace and determine how best to use recruiting resources.

"We are trying to focus more intelligently the recruiting efforts our schools undertake," said Diane Proctor, admission director of Milton Academy in Milton, Mass. "The key to our success will be to step outside the exclusive, narrowly-defined boarding school world and attract more interesting children from public schools. There are a lot of families who don't know about this option."

Other schools in the group include Deerfield, Exeter, the Phillips Academy, the Hotchkiss School, St. Paul's School, the Taft School, Choate Rosemary Hall, St. Andrew's School of Barrington, R.I., the Hill School, the Loomis Chaffee School, and Northfield Mount Hermon School. Two California schools, Cate School and the Thatcher School, are also members.

All-Girls Schools

Many of these exclusive schools were formerly all-boys institutions. But at many traditional girls' schools, the push is on to save single-sex education. Thirty-one schools have joined forces in the Coalition of Girls' Boarding Schools, a marketing consortium.

"There is a declining number of qualified applicants who will look at a girls' boarding school," explained Trudy Hanmer, acting principal of the Emma Willard School in Troy, N.Y. "A girls' boarding-school education is absolutely the best education a girl can get. But that message is not widely known in the marketplace."

Enrollment at Emma Willard has declined from 360 a decade ago to 238 this year. But nationwide, applications are up. And after several years of decline at girls schools as a group, 1989 saw a 2.5 percent increase in enrollment.

Collaborative marketing is also gaining popularity in the Western United States, where boarding schools are less tradition-bound and less competitive than in the East.

The Western Boarding Schools Association now represents 32 schools in eight states, according to Allan D. Hamilton, admissions director at the Judson School in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"It isn't easy for any schools in the West to fill up," he said. "We've been successful placing ads in magazines to get people to sign up for a directory."

Losing Isolated Environment

One factor affecting boarding-school admissions is population growth in the areas surrounding the schools. Many were built in rural or semirural settings, where isolation from large cities and their suburbs contributed to the total learning enel10lvironment. Now, many of these ''exurban" areas are booming.

"As they become less remote, there is a lot more pressure from the local communities for boarding schools to take day students," said Ms. Persell, the New York University sociologist.

At the George School, a Quaker boarding school in Newtown, Pa., there were only 50 day students in a student body of 450 in 1970. Today, day students account for about half of the school's total enrollment of 514.

"There's a burgeoning population in Bucks County," said Karen Hallowell, the George School's admissions director, of the suburban region near Philadelphia where the school is located. "When the New England schools went coed, we had to respond by letting in more day students. Our long-range goal is to get back to [a ratio of] 60 percent boarding to 40 percent day students."

Chief concerns officials raise about about having too many day students are that they pay less in tuition ($8,600 this year at the George School, versus $13,500 for boarding students), that they tend not to be as academically motivated as boarders, and that their access to the outside community can make it easier to bring drugs and other contraband back onto campus. Many add that they feel an institution designed as a boarding school works best serving predominantly boarding students.

A 'Wasp-ish' Institution?

The George School is, however, doing well in an area targeted by most independent schools: attracting more minority students. Eleven percent of its students are black, 8 percent Asian-American, and 3 percent Hispanic.

According to nais figures, 12.3 percent of enrollment last year at its member boarding and boarding-day schools was minority, with 5.8 percent black.

The boarding schools have a major push on to attract a more diverse student enrollment. The nais's boarding-schools department has established a "diversity marketing network," a support system to help schools attract minority students. And outreach efforts like the "A Better Chance" program are helping identify inner-city youths who can enroll at participating schools with aid.

"There is a much greater interest among boarding schools in becoming multicultural communities," asserts John C. Esty, the nais's president and the former headmaster at Taft.

Many schools, he and others note, are more diverse racially than the typical wealthy suburban high school. But class, some critics charge, is another matter. Even students who enter boarding schools through special programs or come from the middle class will leave having adopted the upper-class mores embraced by the school, they say.

"Talking about diversity is a way of deflecting criticism that they are still 'Wasp-ish,' elitist institutions," said Mr. Cookson, the Adelphi University coauthor of Preparing for Power.

"I think they are sincere about it," he adds, "but there are certain constraints on how much diversity they can really muster because of price, culture, and tradition. Evaluating the success of that is in the eye of the beholder."

Toils and Payoffs

On boarding-school campuses, meanwhile, students complain of being overwhelmed by classes, mandatory athletic activities, and requirements for community service.

"There is a lot of stress because there are so many things to do," said Heather Elliott, a 16-year-old student at Lawrenceville. A new "lights out" policy at her house designed to make sure students get proper rest, she said, is only adding pressure to get her homework done earlier.

Students and officials interviewed at both the George School and Lawrenceville noted the availability of illegal drugs, but said alcohol appeared to be the drug of choice.

In the mid-1980's, boarding schools went through some well-publicized drug arrests and unwanted public discussion on the easy availability of drugs like cocaine on their campuses. Most schools now have formal drug-education programs in place, with systems for counseling offenders.

Most boarding-school students say they are more concerned about getting into a top college, which has always been seen as a key advantage to attending the top boarding schools.

"Until about 1960, about 50 to 70 students a year went to Princeton'' University from Lawrenceville, said its headmaster, Josiah Bunting III.

Nineteen went to Princeton from the class of 1988, and only nine from the class of 1989. Another 32 went to other Ivy League institutions.

"Today, you still see impressive numbers of kids going to Ivy League schools from boarding schools," said Chester E. Finn Jr., the former federal education official who now heads the Educational Excellence Network. But, concedes the father of two boarding-school students, "you see more going to second- and third-status colleges."

Ms. Persell claimed that the schools "don't have the payoff for college admission they did in the past."

"They would say their primary goal is not to get students into a college," she added. But parents, who are paying in the neighborhood of $14,000 in tuition, she said, "want that as a payoff."

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