"I was excited," Sara Frackoviak recalls about leaving home to become a boarder at a private school. "But my friends were, 'I can't believe you are doing this!' They all thought I was being shipped off because I was bad."
Boarding student or day student? It's a conundrum for many parents and students.
For Sara, who is 17 and has just completed her fourth year at Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ontario, which is a couple of hours from her home in Oakville, it was no contest. Boarding, she says, "was great. The very, very first night I was upset, leaving my parents. But the first morning everyone there was, 'Oh, you are going to love this.' And I have never had so much fun in my life!
Maybe it was because so much was going on," says Sara. "I tried out for rowing, and that was a good way to meet friends."
At first, she says, she wouldn't phone home if she was having a bad day because she didn't want to upset her parents. Then she started sharing her troubles with her housemaster, Sue Traugott. "She's amazing," says Sara. "She's so easy to talk to and she gives such amazing advice. If you have had an awful day, she gives you a hug and a treat."
Looking back on her four years at Trinity, she says, "if I had been a day student, I don't think I would have made as many great friends."
But Collin Cureatz, 18, a day student, like about 40 per cent of the kids at Trinity, has also made lots of great friends at school - "friends for life," he says.
One of Trinity's two head prefects, Collin spends almost as many waking hours at school as the boarders. After his fourth-year classes, there are sports. "I use the gym and the lab and I hang out with my friends." He eats dinner at school every weekday, and usually arrives home, two kilometres from the school, about 10 p.m.
Collin realizes he's lucky. For many day students who live further away, commuting takes a big chunk of time, "and you are not as in tune with the school," he says.
With boarders in the majority at Trinity, you could say it has a boarding culture. But the opposite might be true at Concordia High School in Edmonton, where only 30 of the 115 students board. Creative director Gil Allan says he sees the boarders waiting for the day students to arrive every day "for things to come alive. The real action happens Monday to Friday."
Sixteen-year-old Luke Adam, for instance, has to get up at 6:05 every morning and face a 45-minute commute to his Grade 11 classes at Concordia, "but I don't feel I lose anything (by not boarding)."
Sarah Davis, a 15-year-old Concordia boarder, sees it differently. The school's uniqueadvantage is being located on a university campus, with access to all the university facilities. "If I was a day student," says Sarah, who's in Grade 10, "I would not be able to participate as much in sports, drama, choir and student council." She has also made friends with fellow boarders from around the world, she says.
Sarah, like many boarders these days, often goes home for weekends. "My friends at home think (boarding is) really neat. They think I'm lucky."
Aude Volstad, director of admissions at Queen Margaret's School, an
equestrian academy on Vancouver Island, was both a day student and a boarder in her time. And although she boarded at one of those strict convent schools, she says now, "boarding was probably what ensured my success at school. It kept me closer to work, and I probably pursued personal endeavours I would not otherwise have done."
Boarding is different now, Volstad say. Today it's "like a permanent sleepover party." The day girls at Queen Margaret's who have to catch the 4:15 p.m. bus for the 75-minute journey home to Nanaimo "miss out a lot," she says.
For girls boarding at Queen Margaret's, like those at The Andrews School, an equestrian school in Willoughby, Ohio, having their own horses on school property - as some do - makes life just about perfect.
"The fact it's an all-girls school makes them feel less stressed," says Bernie Villeneuve, Andrews' Ottawa-born equestrian instructor. "And having their horse - that's their baby - makes them feel at home, part of the family."
Erin Duffy, assistant director of admissions at Wilbraham and Monson Academy in Massachusetts, claims that in any university freshman class you can pick out the kids who boarded at school. "They know how to handle their time and do their laundry. They seem better organized," she says.
Boarding helps with life skills and it's a whole lot of fun living on a floor with 24 other people your age." For families going through turmoil, she adds, boarding offers "a place that's safe and stable."
Talk about stability: Some boarders occupy the same dorms their parents and even grandparents did.
Gale Emery was attending her 50th class reunion at The White Mountain School in New Hampshire last year when she started to think how nice it would be if her granddaughter, Chloe Watlington, could enjoy the same experiences she did at what, back then, was called St. Mary's in the Mountain.
Now Chloe, a Grade 9 freshman at the school, which is 60 miles from the Canadian border, is enjoying all the things her grandmother once did. "I drive up to the school now, and it all seems so familiar," says Chloe, 15. And some day, perhaps 50 years from now, like her grandmother, she expects to still be in touch with the friends she's making now.
School administrators talk too about the maturity boarding brings. "We are looking at preparing kids not just for college but for life as grown-up human beings," says Pete Upham, assistant head at Asheville School in North Carolina. Comparing boarding with daily attendance, he says that boarders at the school, a few of them Canadians, "have a more complete experience."
For kids who commute, it can be exhausting keeping up with the homework load, Upham says.
Like many schools now, though, Asheville tries to blur the distinctions. Day students, for instance, are required to attend dinner and an intellectual entertainment on Thursday evenings. Boarders often go out for pizza together, while day students often hang around the school on weekends - because that's where their friends are.
For Jeff Wright, admissions director at Lee Academy, in northeast Maine, where boarding is being reintroduced after a lapse of some years, the biggest plus is bringing students out of their shells, especially those from overseas.
That works both ways. Kathryn LaBranche, admissions director at Trinity, says that, in addition to learning independence, Canadian boarders get a wider view of the world by living alongside students who might come from Africa or Hong Kong.
The decision? It depends on the student, says Melanie Richter, development director at West Island College in Montreal.The college does not offer a boarding program as such, but offers "the ultimate boarding experience" - the chance to spend a semester or two aboard a tall ship.
Some children thrive at boarding school, others do not, she says. Whatever the choice, it's the needs of the student that should come first.