A prep rally in California

Times Staff Writer

As a young woman living in Southern California, Kelly Boss never thought much about boarding schools. They were a mystery or at most a cinematic fancy embodied by Brookfield of “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” or the Welton Academy of “Dead Poets Society.”

That changed when her daughter Mackenzie learned about the Thacher School in Ojai and its horse and outdoor program. Although she would never have imagined her daughter there, the Bosses came to view it as the perfect fit.

But Kelly Boss understood the reactions of other parents who appeared aghast at the idea.

“Other mothers look at you like how can you possibly send your daughter away, and I’ve had parents say, you two don’t look like you don’t get along,” said Boss, a Santa Barbara resident.


Although boarding schools have a long tradition in Europe and the Northeast, Californians are still apt to equate them with troubled youths or disinterested parents.

“I think the further west you go, the greater the misunderstanding and misconceptions about boarding schools,” said Benjamin D. Williams IV, who was born at an East Coast boarding school where his parents were on staff and now heads the Cate School in Carpinteria.

Longtime Bay Area educational consultant Alice Jackson said Californians “looked down their noses” at boarding schools, which were viewed as enclaves of the white upper crust, turning out snobbish elites primed to elbow their way into the best Ivy League schools -- in other words, relics of staid East Coast tradition that many had sought to escape by moving west.

But that mind set is evolving, and the number of boarding students at California schools has risen nearly 8% over the last decade, according to the National Assn. of Independent Schools.


The Assn. of Boarding Schools tallied 3,195 students at 25 member schools in the West in 2007. That number is dwarfed by the 19,722 boarders at 96 schools in New England. West Coast schools still do not have the cachet of institutions such as New Hampshire’s Phillips Exeter, founded in 1781, or Groton in Massachusetts, which dates to 1884.

Still, campuses like Cate, Thacher (founded in 1889), the Webb Schools in Claremont and Stevenson School on the Monterey Peninsula attract students from around the world and consistently rank among the nation’s top prep schools in selectivity and test scores.

Reasons for boarding schools’ growing popularity are varied: Dissatisfaction with public schools has encouraged families to look for alternatives, and financial aid is helping attract more mid- and low-income students, said Peter Upham, executive director of the boarding schools association. And migration of people with means from east to west has brought a familiarity with boarding school traditions.

Some families may even be influenced by the Harry Potter books and films and the magical Hogwarts, which lured Kate Sim, 16, of Walnut to enroll in the Webb schools, where she is a junior. Her experience is more like college than high school, with a new roommate, 24-hour school community and level of self-sufficiency that would tax many teenagers.


“No class bell rings in my dorm room, so I really have to be on top of my schedule,” said Kate. “It’s different to be with your friends 24/7 and even faculty. My advisor lives right under my dorm room. . . . It really becomes your second home.”

That feeling is not unusual, said Leo G. Marshall, director of admissions and financial aid at Webb, who added, “It sounds like a cliche, but this is a large family, and in a large family there is a lot of responsibility to trust and help each other.”

But boarding schools are not for everyone. Nationally, the attrition rate -- or number of students who do not re-enroll -- for boarding students in 2007 was 9.6% compared with 7.7% for day students. The rate in the West was 15.76% for boarding students and 6.76% for day students. Some critics question the wisdom of separating teenagers from their families during such formative years and ask whether they might be more subject to bullying or abuse.

In a recent survey by the boarding school association, though, more boarding students described their school environment as supportive and free of drugs and alcohol than did private day or public school students.


At Webb, students come from around the country and many are children of expatriates who work in such places as Qatar or Kuwait. Others come from Russia, Japan and Nigeria, including Simi Obatusin, 16, who was born in the United States but moved to her mother’s homeland when she was 6. Now she stays in touch with her family through text messages and e-mail.

Annual tuition for boarders at Webb is $44,000 and for day students $31,300. Of the 393 students, 27% receive financial aid, 66% are boarders and the rest are day students from nearby communities.

Because part of these schools’ appeal is their diverse international make up, local students sometimes get turned down, said Michael K. Mulligan, head of the Thacher School. Many end up at private day schools or on the East Coast, where the sheer number of schools increases the odds of acceptance.

Increasingly, though, parents want to be closer to their offspring and more involved in student life, which can pose obstacles, said Upham of the boarding schools group.


“It’s not unheard of for parents to buy a hotel room, not for one or two nights but two weeks to -- quote unquote -- help their child,” said Upham. “Many are now saying we want to be within a few hundred miles to be able see Johnnie’s play and Susie’s softball game.”

Ellen Homan said that when she left her son, Jacques, 15, at Webb for the first time last year, her heart was so heavy she was sure she’d made a mistake. This year was much easier.

“You can’t just reach over and hug him,” said Homan of Las Vegas. But at Webb “it’s like the village raising the kids. There are people with a lot of experience. They’ve seen just about everything and know how to deal with it.”

Sending Mackenzie, 15, to Thacher was one of the best decisions she and her husband, Hugh, have made, said Kelly Boss. And her relationship with her daughter hasn’t suffered.


“I feel incredibly close to her,” said Boss. “She’ll call me and we have long conversations. I almost feel like I get more information than if she were here.”