Ahlya Fountain, 18, is saying goodbye. After four years as a boarder at The Bishop Strachan School in central Toronto, Ontario, she is leaving the handsome Gothic buildings and going on to university. "I am going to miss this so much!" she exclaims, looking at the other two girls at the table, one from Bowmanville, Ontario, one from Hong Kong. "I'm going to miss you so much. We're sisters. It's true."
Five years ago, at home in the Bahamas, Fountain thought boarding schools only existed in children's stories by Enid Blyton. Then her parents asked her to sit a test and it put the idea in her head. After checking out some boarding schools while visiting her grandparents in Montreal, she and her parents chose The Bishop Strachan School (BSS), where 85 of the 860 girls board.
Not only do boarding schools still exist, a study out of the U.S. shows they provide graduates with clear academic advantages and values that last a lifetime (see Myth vs. Reality sidebar).
Although Canadian boarding schools are based on the British model, they set their own style. Rupert Lane is in his first year as head of school at Ridley College in St. Catharines, Ontario, after teaching in British schools. "There's a cultural difference," he says. "In the Canadian context, there's more consultation, less autocracy."
In the hallway outside his office, students from around the world have discarded their uniforms for the day to attend class in their own national costumes, from Texas cowboy hats to Japanese kimonos.
Philip Gaertner, 19, is in his final year at Ridley and says he attended boarding school back home in Germany. But Ridley "really changed me. I am more open-minded. I even learned a whole Chinese song from my roommate from Taiwan. And my father says, 'I am so pleased you learned how to study.' "
It's unfortunate, then, that at a time when smaller families and absent parents make boarding schools more relevant than ever, parents seem more reluctant to let go of their children. It may be a lingering symptom of 9/11, BSS head Kim Gordon suggests. "I think we have to market to those people who want a family away from family," she says.
Emily Bradley of Toronto attended public school, an independent day school and, after Grade 9, Ridley College as a boarder. She knows what Gordon means. "I find a sense of community I have not seen before," says Bradley, 17. But that doesn't mean losing her family.
Although she wanted to board, the day she left home "was really bittersweet," she recalls. "My parents were excited for me, but it was hard to say goodbye. And it was really hard to leave my friends and my sister."
Once at school, there was little time to mope: "The first two months you are so busy you don't have time to think!" she says. Now "going home is different. You have a different appreciation for being back with your family." When she goes home for weekends - and many of her spring weekends were taken up with rowing training - she's just as happy going out to dinner with her parents as she is being with friends.
Bradley, who thinks about a career in international relations or politics, believes in the boarding school edge, especially in Grades 11 and 12.
"I think the jump from home to university is huge. This is a transition. I have the opportunity to be independent," she says. "There's more opportunity to succeed here. There are so many people behind you. Class doesn't end at 3:30. It's a 24-hour community."
In fact, that kind of academic and social backup seems to work for kids at all levels of ability. Fountain, at BSS, says she and her friends had real trouble understanding science in Grade 7. But after working together in a boarders' pre-exam study group, "I finally understood the water cycle."
"Academically," says her friend Karen Wiltshire from Bowmanville, "I have to work 10 times as hard (as the other girls) to get 75 or 80. But study groups really help me."
Some students might never make it to university if they were not boarders, Gordon says.
"I used to go home, do half my homework, then watch TV," says another BSS boarder, 16-year-old Jennifer Chong, whose parents are in Hong Kong. "I can't follow that stuff anymore." With two hours of mandatory study every night, "I have watched maybe 45 minutes of TV this year."
Parties are no problem, either. "You can't say 'Please let me stay out a bit later?' " Wiltshire says. "The rules are there. You suck it up." Besides, adds Fountain, who needs parties if "your best friend is just down the hall!"
It's not all easy. Chong, with her parents so far away, says: "I feel I have lost the opportunity to be close to my parents, and it makes me sad. People say, 'Oh your parents don't love you.' But I think they really love me because they are willing to sacrifice by having me at this distance from them."
And then she admits: "I miss my friends here more when I am in Hong Kong than I miss my parents when I am here."
At St. Margaret's School in Victoria, British Columbia, 90 per cent of the boarders are international. The school, says director of residence Beth Quinn, mixes it up by making sure everyone's roommate is of another background.
"Often the girls become best friends and correspond for years and years," she says.
Staying in touch is part of being an ex-boarder: "We have little old ladies in their 80s come back," says Gordon at BSS. "They say boarding was the happiest memory of their lives."
Every boarding school offers a slightly different experience. Small-town Stanstead College in Quebec is very much part of the local community, says Joanne Carruthers in admissions. Students here engage in social service, tutoring at two local schools and helping at a seniors' residence.
And then there are schools where only boarding will work. Saint John's School of Alberta has just 120 students and is proud of its outdoor challenge program. Keith McKay, president of the society that operates the school, says it experimented with admitting day students.
"We thought the boarders would be resentful of the day students being able to go home every night," he says. As it turned out, it was the other way around. The day students were jealous arriving at school every morning and hearing about the fun and adventures the boarders had had the night before. After three years, McKay says, all the day students had become boarders.
Academics are important, he adds, but when students and former students of the school get together, it's not the great history class they remember, but their time in the wilderness (canoe trips can last up to three weeks) or the dorm life. It's a bond, he says, that binds men and boys of different ages and cultures.
"The fact that they have to get along together is a great step towards independence." And that, says McKay, is one reason boarders have an edge in life.