- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2001

Ali Brislin doesn't have any sisters at home in Arlington. There is only Will, her 13-year-old brother.

At St. Catherine's School in Richmond, though, "it's like having 30 sisters" during the academic year, she says.

"It's really fun," the 17-year-old says.

"There are 30 girls on our floor it's like camp. They say we're not supposed to tell the new girls it's like camp, but it is."

St. Catherine's is not camp. It's a boarding and day school one of nearly 300 such independent, accredited, nonprofit schools in the nation.

Once considered the domain of the moneyed elite, boarding schools boast world-class educations framed by top-flight instructors, rigorous curricula and steely codes of ethics and honor.

Like nearly anything, quality comes with a price tag: The average annual cost is $25,000. However, most of the schools say they can make good on the claim that research, effort and sacrifice can bring that educational experience within reach of most American families.

An alternative education

Most people don't know much about boarding schools, says Craig Thorn, who has taught English for 20 years at the coed Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., alma mater of President Bush and his father.

"A lot of people in our generation think of English boarding schools all-white, all-boy places where gentlemen are trained," says Mr. Thorn, also an editor of "Second Home: Life in a Boarding School," a collection of essays by boarding school students and faculty.

"The easy stereotype is to say a boarding school is a rich school filled with rich people, but that's not the case," he says.

He continues: "We do have plenty [of students] who come from wealthy and privileged backgrounds, undoubtedly. But we have over $1 million in financial aid, and an astonishing number of kids here are on it."

Actually, the need-based scholarship budget at Phillips Academy is $7.7 million, says James F. Ventre, director of financial aid and admissions operations. The school awards need-based scholarships to 39 percent of the student body of 1,070 students.

Boarding school was not part of the education plan for Ali, says her mother, Cheryl Brislin, a kindergarten assistant with Arlington County Public Schools. Although Ali's father, Ray, is a product of a British boarding school, the Brislins had sent their daughter almost exclusively to public schools.

When Ali entered the public system's ninth grade, says Mrs. Brislin, "her whole world just toppled." Formerly an A and B student, Ali began to get D's on her report cards and frequently failed to turn in her homework.

"We couldn't figure out why," her mother continues. "She said everyone is so different their values."

Finally, a private school educator proposed that the Brislins consider boarding schools for their daughter.

After an intense application process that included interviews, essays, recommendations and transcripts, Ali was accepted and marched off to St. Catherine's for her sophomore year. Two years later, her parents say all involved are very pleased with the outcome.

"The decision is not a condemnation of any local school, but [the public school system] just wasn't working for her," says Mr. Brislin, an independent video cameraman and producer. "So we decided this was a very good route for her."

Different reasons

More than 42,500 students are enrolled in boarding schools across the country, says Steve Ruzicka, executive director of the Association of Boarding Schools, and the routes there are varied.

"In some cases, it might be traditional for a child to attend boarding school," he says. "For the new families looking at boarding schools, it might be because the local school doesn't have a program that the child wants anything from a sports or arts program or a special academic course."

Safety and security are key ingredients parents seek in boarding schools, adds Christopher Tompkins, director of admission and financial aid and a member of the history department at the coed Mercersburg Academy in Mercersburg, Pa.

"In the last seven years, all prep schools have seen a dramatic increase in those inquiring and applying," he says. "I think it's because of a negative reason such as safety and also a positive reason: America is a wealthier country since the 1990s."

Mr. Tompkins cites a strong sense of mission as a big selling point, as well as the assurance that a school "holds to the rules," offering structure in a rigorous academic environment.

At Mercersburg Academy, Mr. Tompkins says, "in the classrooms, the primary responsibility is with the teachers. In the dormitories, it is with the dorm deans who live on each floor. Students' advisers are often called into play, and, ultimately, the dean of students and possibly the head of the school will speak to the children. However, we all try to help in every way that we can."

The size and scope of a school's Advanced Placement program also is a draw. Advanced Placement (AP) courses are designed to give students college-level course work, and many colleges grant credit to incoming students who scored at a certain level on standardized AP tests.

"It's definitely something parents look at how many AP courses are offered and what is the record of the scores that students receive," Mr. Tompkins says.

Mr. Thorn says he doesn't think there is hard data on the general subject of comparative performance in college and beyond. However, he says, "it is generally acknowledged that students from boarding schools are more likely to be able to 'place' out of freshmen courses at the college level, in part because many of those courses are taught at the boarding school level."

Students at a boarding school campus find other differences between their school and traditional day schools, Mr. Ruzicka says.

For one, he says, boarding school teachers are a presence in the lives of students virtually every minute of the day.

Mr. Tompkins explains: "In public school, when you go to English, that's your 40 minutes with me, but at boarding school, you're with me all day, all week.

"That can be a shock to a teen-ager's system, but after a few weeks, people get to understand each other on so many different levels. You really do not have an 'us vs. them' mentality at most boarding schools because, like in a small town, we all have to live here today."

In addition, students are not-so-gently encouraged to hone their study habits through mandated study halls averaging two hours a night.

"While this may sound daunting to a student, it's important to remember that everyone is doing it," Mr. Ruzicka says, "and even though it sounds like the schedule is pretty regimented, there is ample opportunity for social activities because you're with your friends all day long."

He offers a day-in-the-life snapshot of the boarding student.

As in any high school, boarding students attend classes all day; afternoons are spent participating in sports or extracurricular activities or meeting with teachers or advisers, following "the whole idea of keeping the day structured for the student," Mr. Ruzicka says.

Dinner may mean a "sit-down" meal, for which a coat and tie or a dress may be the required attire, or students may dine in a more informal fashion. "But no matter what the dress code, students sit with a teacher," he says. After study hour comes lights out, but the hour for that varies from school to school and grade to grade.

Weekends are pretty busy on a boarding school campus, Mr. Ruzicka says.

"They will have downtime, which is crucial for anyone, but there will be activities and programs set up for students some required, some optional." To exit the campus, he says, students must gain permission from the weekend adviser "as most students would have to get from their parents, anyway." Some schools restrict the number of weekends students can spend off campus and some do not, but all welcome parental visits during the week as well as on weekends.

Many boarding schools have expanded their curricula to include learning centers, where students who need special assistance can receive help. Some schools also have put in place something called the "residential curriculum," which addresses a variety of issues of health and communal and moral support.

"These are independent schools, which means they don't accept or rely on federal, state or local funds, and the rules and regulations that accompany those monies," Mr. Ruzicka says. "Administrators and teachers can focus on their students' needs, and they have flexibility in how they implement their academic and nonacademic programs."

Take the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

"We'll be talking about them in the classroom, but the residential-life class might discuss tolerance for different cultures," Mr. Ruzicka says. "Look at the student body. Most schools will be enrolling students from a variety of social and ethnic backgrounds. Especially at times like these, where you have Christian, Muslim and Jewish students sitting together in a classroom what a great opportunity for dialogue."

All kinds of students

Matthew Okoh is representative of the drive toward diversity to which Mr. Ruzicka refers.

A freshman at Mercersburg, Matthew is a first-generation American.

His mother, Rennie Okoh, an accountant at a research firm in Bethesda, emigrated to this country 25 years ago from Sierra Leone. She and Matthew's 19-year-old brother, Kevin, are keeping the home fires burning in Germantown, a 90-minute drive from the Mercersburg campus.

An A student in the gifted-and-talented program at a public middle school in Montgomery County, Matthew "was doing very good there," his mother says.

She wanted more for him, however. Ms. Okoh says her son has had his eye on a medical degree since he was in the fifth grade, and she intends to help him reach that goal.

Ms. Okoh says she intended to offer Matthew special help "when he was ready to get into high school because that's when you either lose them or they achieve something."

A friend suggested she look into private schools because "he would get a better education or become well-rounded by going to one of these schools," Ms. Okoh says.

Her search eventually led to Mercersburg, chartered in 1865 and home to about 425 students. She and Matthew wound their way through the paper mill of testing, applications and financial aid, and Matthew eventually landed a place at the academy.

For Ms. Okoh, as for all families of boarding school students, her son's education is an investment. The full cost for a Mercersburg boarding student for 2001-02 is $27,400. Although the Okoh family was awarded financial aid, they still must pony up about $7,000 this year for Matthew to attend.

"And it might be more next year because every year you have to reapply," Ms. Okoh says. "I have a mortgage all by myself. My car is 7 years old, and I cannot afford to buy a new one for the next four years because I don't want him to start going to that school and then have to get him out because I can't pay."

"Boarding school is a sacrifice," confirms Mr. Tompkins, speaking from his Mercersburg office. "For the family who would be paying full tuition, they, like any, are paying the same percentage of their income as someone paying nearly nothing."

Ali Brislin's parents, too, are digging deep into their pockets for their daughter's education, which costs $24,500 for the 2001-02 school year.

"We are middle class, and we're on financial aid at St. Catherine's," Mrs. Brislin says. "They want girls from different backgrounds they don't just want rich girls. We wouldn't have been able to afford it without their help. We don't go on vacations. Things go wrong in our house, and they're just sitting on hold unless they're major things."

Their daughter's achievements make the sacrifice worthwhile, the Brislins say.

"Going to boarding school has made Ali so independent," her mother says. "She is very self-assured. She knows what she wants, and she goes after it."

This determination is embodied in her daughter's solid academic record as well, Mrs. Brislin says. "She strives even harder for her grades" in classes that include an Honors class in Chinese and an Advanced Placement history course.

Still, Ali's accomplishments are made bittersweet by her absence from home.

"I really wanted her here until she was 18," Mr. Brislin says. "I wanted to grow up with her. It's very difficult for a father to lose his daughter at a young age. We see her a lot, but in my case, being a dad, I don't see her enough."

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