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Four Myths About Canadian Boarding Schools

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Overseas students are flocking to Canada to attend this country's boarding schools. Thousands arrive each year from places as distant as Turkey, Columbia and Uzbekistan (and as close as California or New York). They do so because they (or their parents) believe a Canadian high school education can be the ticket to an elite university, either in Canada, in the US, or elsewhere.

Recent surveys back up this belief. PrepReview, an independent service that rates schools based on their ability to place graduates at Ivy League schools, plus Stanford, MIT, Cambridge, Oxford, McGill and the University of Toronto, in 2013 ranks five Canadian boarding schools as among the most successful.

One can argue about the wisdom of parents seeking out these so-called elite universities -- many educators argue that the best educational "fit" should trump the bragging rights of heading off to a Harvard, Oxford or McGill -- but the fact is, overseas parents are eager to provide their children with such opportunities.

The benefit to the Canadian economy of this is not insignificant -- a Department of Foreign Affairs study released last fall estimated the total annual economic impact derived from international students attending Canadian secondary schools to be approximately $800 million (and the economic impact of all foreign students in Canada in excess of $8 billion.)

The question isn't why overseas students are clamouring to gain access to Canadian boarding schools. The real mystery is why Canadian students, by and large, are not.

Some of the answer can be found in a survey released by the Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS), which represents most of Canada's top not-for-profit independent schools.

The online survey, carried out by an independent firm, Innovative Research Group Inc., targeted a representative cross-section of 767 Canadians with at least one child under the age of 18.

What CAIS says it was trying to understand -- on behalf of its 28 member schools that offer a residential option -- was a sense of Canadian's attitude towards boarding in general.

What they learned was instructive.

First of all, 95 per cent surveyed said that they had not -- and probably would not -- consider a boarding school for their child.

The primary reason? The majority -- fully 68 per cent -- expressed a belief that boarding is only "for the rich and an elite few". However, if told that money was not a factor, five times as many parents -- 25 per cent vs. 5 per cent -- said they would consider boarding as an option.

Another issue raised by parents was a desire to "keep their children at home" -- 17 per cent of those surveyed cited this as the primary reason they would not consider boarding.

There were other reasons given as well -- including "I just don't like the idea."

Full disclosure -- I attended an all-boys boarding school myself 35 years ago. I ended up running away to Montreal to become the next Leonard Cohen. That didn't exactly work out as planned, but I certainly understand parental misgivings regarding boarding schools. So I decided to ask Anne-Marie Kee, Executive Director of CAIS, to explain what, if anything, is different today.

Kee says the real problem is boarding schools in Canada are "subject to unfair stereotypes, misconceptions and myths."

"The first myth is that boarding schools are dark, dank, somber institutions out of a Charles Dickens novel. Boarding schools may have been Victorian in the days of Queen Victoria, but those days are long gone," Ms. Kee asserted.

"Walk into any boarding school today and you'll find a vibrant, highly energized student body, housed in first-rate surroundings and engaged in more activities than you can imagine. St. George's School in Vancouver is a great example. At various times boarders can go on a whale-watching expedition; take a cooking class; attend a CFL game; or go night-skiing at nearby Cypress Mountain," she added.

This definitely sounded better than my experience. Our only expeditions were to attend mandatory chapel services across campus, reached in minus 30 degree temperatures.

According to Ms. Kee, Myth # 2 is that boarding schools are only for the wealthy.

"Yes, it is true, the sticker price can be high, anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000", Ms. Kee admits. "But we know from surveys of current parents that a significant number of families -- 20 per cent -- are firmly middle class, making less than $100,000 in combined household income.

It is important to keep in mind that virtually all boarding schools offer need and merit-based financial aid or entrance scholarships, CAIS schools an aggregate amount of more than $14 million annually."

Myth #3, according to Ms. Kee, is that "you have to be a member of Canada's WASP elite" to attend boarding school.

"Again," she says, "the best way to explode this myth is to visit a boarding school. As with Canada itself, the faces you will see represent every kind of ethnic and racial diversity. Layer upon that the significant number of overseas students at most schools and you truly have a unique community of learners."

Myth #4, Ms Kee says, is that "parents send their kids to boarding schools because they don't want them around."

This one hit a little close to home. "Explain that one to me," I said.

"The truth here is that the overwhelming majority of parents loan their children to boarding schools, often reluctantly at first, because they believe they will acquire powerful learning skills. Things like initiative; collaboration; independence; resilience- skills that will ultimately allow them to be more successful at university -- and in life."

"Never before has there been as stronger link between the skills needed in the 21st Century and the boarding experience," Ms. Kee added. "Independence is especially important. We hear a lot about smothering helicopter parents and tiger mothers and of children who can't seem to ever leave Mom and Dad- and Mom and Dad's home- behind. Boarding school can actually serve as an invaluable social and emotional bridge, not just to university, but to a life of emotional independence."

Clearly the boarding school experience (and just about everything else) has changed from my day. International parents and students seem to have discovered this; perhaps it is time for more Canadians to give these schools a second look.

(Despite running away, Robert Waite eventually served 12 years on his school's board of trustees. He later learned that Leonard Cohen had not been in Montreal at all, but had fled to Los Angeles.)