The Duffy family are modern myth-busters when it comes to old stereotypes about boarding school. Clara wasn't "sent away" by parents looking for someone else to raise their child. Indeed the now-17-year-old instigated the idea herself after a virtual visit to Vancouver Island's Brentwood College.
The Edmonton family is a close-knit one and remain so despite being separated by miles and mountains. Ms. Duffy's parents, Adrienne and Patrick, keep on top of school activities and assignments and see their only child often.
"There were days in the beginning when it was not easy," recalls her mother, "but we stay very close and remain connected. We see her at term breaks and holidays and when we visit her school for parent interviews or to attend the Spring regatta, which we do every year."
It's the kind of contact that was unthinkable for parents of the past. Today's boarding school families Skype, e-mail, text, call and visit. And when they are together, many make it a relaxed family time without the hectic schedule of team practices or music lessons and the endless nagging to get homework done.
Now in Grade 12, Ms. Duffy says her three years at Brentwood have given her independence and confidence in preparing for the future.
"I love the community of the school and especially my boarding house. I've built good relationships with members of the faculty and there is a lot of support and mentoring from faculty to help you make decisions that support future plans."
Her mother echoes this and points to the breadth of programs her daughter's been exposed to in the academic realm, arts and sports. As well, she says, "our daughter has grown in her confidence and is connected with a wonderful community of students from around the world."
The benefits of boarding are dear to the hearts of school officials who work in the somewhat rarefied world where students and faculty are together 24 hours a day.
Andrew Weller, admissions director of Ridley College in St. Catharines, says that, above all else, "it's the independence piece; the sense of responsibility a young person gets from living away from family but in a safe and supportive community. It's the kind of growing up that you do when you don't go home every day.
"Kids get a great educational experience, have a lot of fun, and grow personally in a way that prepares them for university and life."
Oakville's Appleby College has a mandatory boarding requirement for Grade 12 and communications director Tracey Pearce-Dawson says it's a "rare event" for a student to leave the school before Grade 12 to avoid boarding.
Emily Fleck, 18, entered her last year as a boarder after being at Appleby since Grade 7. Living in Oakville meant Emily was a day student for the first five years.
"When committing to the school, I knew that I would have to board five years down the road but it wasn't prominent in my mind. It felt so far away." When the time came, she says, "I was concerned that boarding would be very strict and scheduled."
She says that, while there were some drawbacks (the lure of seeing friends sometimes won out over homework), boarding was "the perfect stepping stone towards university, as I was away from home but still in a structured and comforting environment."
Despite the benefits, boarding school can be a tough sell.
Mr. Weller and his colleagues point to the "strong trend now for families to want their children close to home." This has had a particular effect on the Toronto market where there's strong competition from an increasing array of private day options, as well as public schools offering a growing number of specialized and alternative programs.
Then there's the economy.
"Two years ago, the vast majority of boarding schools were fully enrolled," says David Hadden, former head of Lakefield College in Peterborough and current chair of a committee set up by Standards in Excellence And Learning (SEAL) to promote Canadian boarding schools both here and abroad.
"Schools were down 400 boarders last year and it was most acutely felt in Ontario and east," Mr. Hadden said. "There's no doubt that the economy is the driver in the decline."
SEAL is a newly-formed amalgamation of the former Canadian Association of Independent Schools (CAIS) and the Canadian Educational Standards Institute. It represents 93 of Canada's top independent schools.
According to CAIS statistics, boarders dropped from approximately 4,900 two years ago to just under 4,500 last year. During the same period, total enrolment in the association's member schools actually increased by about 250 students to 40,800.
Mr. Hadden says there's a "sticker shock" when families see that Canadian boarding school costs in the $35,000-$50,000 range — plus additional fees and travel back and forth.
"The cost has increased by triple the rate of inflation over the past two decades and the fees have virtually doubled in the last 10 years," Mr. Hadden says.
In an attempt to strengthen the appeal of boarding school to Canadian families, as well as attract international students in a highly competitive market, SEAL has set up a collaborative project with its 27 boarding school members. The group is grappling with the need for more research and the need for a comprehensive up-to-date marketing approach.
"We're seeing more and more families that have busy lifestyles with both parents working and they see the benefits of boarding even for those who live close by," says Anna Gallanter, who's been hired to direct the two-year collaborative project.
"Another thing we're seeing is young people in Grade 8 or 9 going to their parents and asking about trying boarding school."=
Increasingly, students do their own online research on schools they are interested in and have a significant say about the decision to board. Student focus groups held in several locations across Canada revealed almost 80 per cent of those surveyed "identified themselves as having the most amount of choice in the decision to attend boarding school," compared with their parents, according to Sarah Milligan, the project's communication co-ordinator.
Increasingly, boarding schools need to reach young people in the virtual world, where they spend much of their time, utilizing social media and interactive sites to get their message out.
"Small schools can't afford budgets for international recruitment or big advertising campaigns," says Paul Kitchen, head of New Brunswick's Rothesay Netherwood school. With a student population of 250, half of whom are in residence, Mr. Kitchen anticipates benefits from collaborative marketing and, toward that end, he's chairing the project's communication committee.
There are, he says, "thousands of towns in Canada that we haven't reached yet about the benefits of boarding. These are areas that are not served by independent day schools. Boarding school is for students who are not being challenged in their current school or who are not feeling part of their community."
And, of course, there's the international imperative.
"We need to address two questions," says Mr. Kitchen. "For the Canadian market, 'Why Boarding?' and for the international one, 'Why Canadian Boarding?' "
Ms. Gallanater says that enrolment numbers for this year won't be in until later this month, but early signals were that "schools are having a much better year in terms of applicants."
TO BOARD OR NOT?
Knowing whether your child is right for boarding school, and which school is right for your child, is a matter of heart and head.
You need to do your research and also have the sixth sense that leads you to what experts call "the fit" for your child.
Start with the Internet. Modern boarding schools offer lots of information as well as virtual campus tours. You can also look for videos, often student-produced, on YouaTube, chat-rooms, blogs, etc.
Canvass friends and colleagues whose children have attended boarding schools.
Arrange to visit the school. Experts say there's no substitute for spending time on campus. While there, make sure you talk to faculty and other students; sit in on a class or special event; return for a second visit, if possible.
Prospective student visits can include time in the classroom, on the sports field and even an opportunity to stay overnight.
Possible topics to explore with school officials: what happens during evenings and weekends; what is the international make-up of the school; how does the school handle difficult situations and conflicts between boarders; how do you keep students safe and secure.
Boarding schools are working to increase financial aid, although the levels vary and a needs assessment will be required. This is often done by an independent third party and will require documentation.
Special to The Globe and Mail