Owls: Why Consider Flying West?

Samantha New lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband and daughter.

Utah, Colorado, California

Perhaps you envision yourself skiing the Rocky Mountains on the weekends with your classmates, or, you’re drawn to the laid-back lifestyle and stunning landscape of Southern California. Boarding schools west of the Mississippi leverage their access to the regions’ natural resources to emphasize outdoor education and recreation. Look to the West if you’re seeking East Coast academics situated in a less traditional setting. 

Most competitive boarding schools are starting to recognize the need for experiential learning, however, schools in Colorado, Utah, and California take “experiential” to new heights– literally. Students at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School learn how to pitch a tent at 10,000 feet on their new student 10-day orientation trip. Similarly, most schools out west bolster extreme outdoor sports such as Fountain Valley School’s mountain biking club and Wasatch Academy’s skiing and rock climbing clubs. Although these examples may seem extreme, what better way to learn perseverance than bouldering or hiking a fourteener? 

While nature provides its own curriculum cultivating curiosity and self-reliance, schools in the West also maintain strong academic programs and college preparation like their East Coast counterparts. Imagine the engagement students feel in the classroom with their teachers who they have also sea kayaked alongside? Now, add in unique specialty programs, and there are a myriad of schools offering a robust educational experience. Cate School (Carpinteria, CA), for example, instills the spirit of inquiry through their leadership program. Senior students are expected to help lead school operations by fulfilling roles such as teaching assistant, public service program head, speaker organizer, and peer tutor. Equally impressive are Santa Catalina School’s (Monterey, CA) marine ecology program and the Webb Schools’ (Claremont, CA) onsight Paleontology Museum. Similarly, Villanova Preparatory School (Ojai, CA) touts the Clare Boothe Luce Program, a female-only STEM society. These programs are indicative of the hands-on approach to learning in the west. With Silicon Valley nearby, students at these California boarding schools are inspired by innovation and ingenuity. 

Less prep and more arts? Besant Hill and Idyllwild Arts Academy are both perched in awe-inspiring parts of California and bolster outstanding arts programs for the aesthetically inclined. Students at Besant Hill enjoy over 20 art electives. Meanwhile, students at Idyllwild Arts Academy can draw inspiration from the quirky artist community of Idyllwild, the mayor of which is a dog. Speaking of dogs, if your student seeks an exceptionally close-knit community, check out Midland School (Los Olivos, CA) where students are allowed to bring their dogs to campus. Midland also hosts an onsite farm and students live in cabins heated by solar-power. As we like to say at McMillan Education, “There is a school for every learner.” 

Flock west if your family is seeking as much learning from the classroom as the setting. The schools listed below catalyze developmental growth through experiential learning. Whether partaking in a unique leadership program, a kinesthetic academic project, or an extreme sport, students will learn self-reliance and perseverance in addition to their academic curriculum. In the words of the founder of The Thacher School (Ojai, CA), “Come West, breathe deep, let these hills be your teachers.”


  1. Fountain Valley School (Colorado Springs, CO) 
  2. Colorado Rocky Mountain School (Carbondale, CO)


  1. Besant Hill (Ojai)
  2. Cate School (Carpinteria)
  3. Dunn School (Los Olivos) 
  4. Idyllwild Arts Academy (Idyllwild)
  5. Midland School (Los Olivos)
  6. Thacher School 
  7. Santa Catalina School 
  8. The Webb Schools 
  9. Villanova Preparatory School 
  10. Ojai Valley School 
  11. Stevenson School


  1. Wasatch Academy 

About The Author

Samantha McMillan New, OTR/L MOT