What we saw in 2020: As former independent school educators ourselves, we owe a big shout out to our friends in the boarding school world for not only instantly pivoting to a robust online curriculum, but also for maintaining the warm communities that constitute the soul of these institutions: clubs and sports met online after school; all-school meetings carried on; chapel services were held remotely; advisories and extra help sessions kept on pace. Additionally, we thank the local day schools for reaching out to keep us up to speed on their rapidly evolving curricular and admissions protocols. Somehow, you all managed to “keep the lights on” during an incredibly challenging period that just dragged on and on. Thank you on behalf of all our families and students for going those extra, extra miles … !
Flashback to the onset of the pandemic: after admissions decisions came out March 10, 2020, many of our friends in the independent school world were even more concerned about their future sustainability, as the existential challenges already facing boarding schools were deepened by the pandemic. As boarding school evangelists, we partnered with over 110 boarding schools last spring, hosting seven fairs with several hundred attendees, spreading the word of their transformative power in the lives of students. Ultimately, most boarding schools worked hard to successfully contain the pandemic and create safe educational bubbles that offered as “normal” an environment as possible for students to grow. We are so thankful for the enormous efforts schools have made to keep students on track in the face of increased workloads and even heavier responsibilities for maintaining the wellbeing of our students.
It’s likely no surprise that last spring we saw an initial, understandable period of panic, with dozens of families reaching out to us with deep worries about their public school’s response to the pandemic and a desperate attempt to find a quick fix for what quickly became a long-term challenge. We did a lot of listening and consoling, but not many of these families were actually ready to pursue independent school as an option. During the summer of 2020, more families started to convert their public school disillusionment into private school searches. Then August was a flurry of activity with families looking for last-minute placements, many of which proved successful thanks to our flexible colleagues in admission offices across the county. While early fall was quiet on the school front as parents were giving their inherited circumstances a go, by late-fall and even into the mid-winter months, we were experiencing a record number of families engaging us to find the right independent school for their kids to address the long term effects of the pandemic on the educational needs and overall wellbeing of children. As for Boston-area day schools, an initial concern about how to assess students without scores or in-person interview days gave way to zoom interview spots getting filled up earlier than we’ve seen in the decades we’ve worked with Boston-area day schools. In this unprecedented year, we have had the privilege of matching 129 domestic and international students to what we predict will be over 90 schools this season.
What lies ahead for 2021: We sympathize with schools as they navigate the unfamiliar world of deciding which candidates to accept without standardized test scores, in-person visit days, and COVID-compromised grades, curriculum, and teacher recommendations. As in the college world, holistic reads of applicants can prove to be less predictable, particularly for schools that are accustomed to using more quantitative measures to assess fit. We also see schools experiencing more difficulty predicting which students they will “yield,” since campus visits and in-person experiences have been so limited. On our end, we’ve never leaned more heavily on our own direct experience working in and with these schools for many, many years to provide guidance to our families sorting through options and trying to figure out an unfamiliar and often overwhelming on-line admission process. To remain up-to-date on the ever-evolving admission practices and trends, we’ve also hosted dozens of admission offices for Zoom sessions to swap our evolving experiences and share how we’ve all innovated in the face of these unprecedented challenges. We suspect that this ability to be nimble will be an ongoing requirement for schools for at least the next admission cycle.
We also predict the surge in applicants to wane a bit in 2021 as many families who suddenly became interested in Boston-area day schools, or took a chance on boarding having never considered it as an option, may return to public schools post-vaccine and end up being what our friends in admissions call “renters” rather than “buyers.” Boarding schools, meanwhile, will benefit from what we have been hearing loud and clear from discussions with our international families since the election: “We are now eager to send our kids to the States.”
We are encouraged by signs that both day and boarding schools will commit themselves to diversifying their student body in the wake of the social justice movement and the cathartic Black@ social media posts last year that exposed emotional wounds suffered by students of color at independent schools over the decades. We also appreciate that our school colleagues will be open to offering more spots for the increase we are seeing in students needing a repeat or PG year, or midyear admissions, to make up for last year’s lost content, skills acquisition, and developmental opportunities.
Schools that offer deliberate programming around getting students back up to speed in both academic and personal growth realms, we predict, will have the upper hand and also avoid attrition down the road. We are anticipating, given the concerns we are hearing from parents, that families will be seeking this type of more COVID-recovery focused programming in the mainstream realm of education. The sad reality is, however, that we are also preparing ourselves to aid the inevitable struggles of a group of students this fall who will find the re-entry to a “normal pace” academically and emotionally difficult.