August 29, 2011

Prepping for prep schools

Prep schools such as the Holderness School resemble college campuses. (photo: The Holderness School)

The summertime and early fall are good times for high school lacrosse players to visit colleges and determine where they want to study and play after graduation.

While the ultimate focus is on college, there is another option for players looking to continue their playing days, namely taking a post-graduate year at a prep school.

New England has long been known for having some of the nation’s most elite private schools, and that high level of expectations applies both in the classroom and on the field.

While many parents choose private schools for their children’s entire education, a prep year is an option that many parents don’t consider, not necessarily recognizing the benefits. A post-graduate year not only gives players more time to showcase their on-field abilities for colleges, it also helps strengthen their educational backgrounds. Some players benefit from improving their grades at prep schools, allowing them to be a prospect for a broader range of schools, or to attend a college they could not have gotten into while at the end of their senior year.

“If you look at the schools’ mission statements, it’s about lifelong learning, not just ‘pass this test’ or ‘read this book,’” said Aline Rossiter, director of marketing and enrollment at Chase Collegiate School in Waterbury, Conn. “It’s developing that willingness and desire to learn, and you’re prepared for college. And that’s what our alumni come back and say time and time again. ‘I was prepared.’”

Prep schools aren’t just for post-grads. Students can go into a preparatory school as an undergrad after eighth grade, just as they might with any other high school. Determining the right path and the options available is one of many decisions families must consider.

That decision-making process starts with research about different schools. Just as every player and student is unique, the schools differ from each other in academic style and rigor, campus setting, reputation and much more; as with choosing a college, it’s important to pick a prep school that is right for the student.

“Each school has its own personality, its own culture, its own way of doing things,” Rossiter said. “We want the student to make the right choice for them. You want to make the right fit so the student’s expectations are met, the school’s expectations are met, and you can excel in a comfortable environment.”

The process starts with exploring the available options. Experts say the first question is whether the student and parents want a prep school where the student lives at home with family — akin to a regular high school — or would prefer a boarding school, where the students live on campus.

“Boarding schools offer more individual attention, structure and an opportunity for students to become more independent while living away from home,” said Shannon Baudo, director of admissions and head girls’ lacrosse coach at The Gunnery in Washington, Conn. “On average, classrooms have only seven to 14 students, so it allows for greater discussion and a more personalized academic experience. … Students are more likely to take risks where they feel comfortable and know that they have a support system in place.”

Once the question of where the student will live is answered, it’s time for visits. Many prep schools hold open houses, where a family can visit without the student completing an application. From there, the next step would be setting up appointments for an official visit, including a personalized tour of campus and the facilities, interviews with faculty members — including lacrosse coaches when they’re available — and students, so that there is a more personal connection to what’s in store at a specific school.

The evaluation process works both ways, with school officials trying to determine whether the student belongs at their institution.

“The Gunnery looks for strong-character kids who are above-average students and who challenge themselves both in and out of the classroom,” Baudo said. “We are a small school — under 300 students — where we ask so much of our students. They must perform academically, athletically, artistically and personally in order for our overall community to be successful.”

The general sentiment is that students looking into prep schools should be well-rounded individuals, similar to how colleges and universities look at students.

At Chase, for example, all students are required to play at least two sports, albeit not necessarily at the varsity level. There are other things to get involved in as well, such as plays or choirs. The school doesn’t want to scare too many students away though; it’s not about being good in all of those extra-curricular activities, but rather about taking a shot and having the experiences that come from participating, even in activities that are not a student’s hobby or passion.

“You don’t have to know what you want, but that you’re willing to investigate that artistic world or the athletic world,” Rossiter said. “You can get a sense of whether it’s something the student wants, or if the parent wants it for them. Does the student have the initiative to want it themselves?”

Baudo suggests that while a successful lacrosse team may have some effect on a student’s final decision, it shouldn’t be the biggest factor into how well a school fits with a student.

“Kids have to remember that lacrosse is during the spring season only,” she said. “They will want to choose a school where they love all things about the school, not only the lacrosse coach or the program.”

As with applying to college, it isn’t just rosy interviews and good personal traits that get a student into prep school. There are certain steps and test requirements that need to be met.

An application must be filled out. Most can be found online and use a common application that can be sent to numerous different schools.

Also necessary are certain standardized tests. Exactly what examinations a school wants will vary, but the typical tests are the SAT, PSAT, SSAT and the ACT. Deadlines also will differ from school to school.

The biggest drawback to prep schools though is the price tag attached to them. Depending on the school, tuition can range anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000, similar to a year at a college or university.

Whether it’s for a fifth-year of high school for a post-grad or four years for an undergrad, the cost is a heavy price for some to pay.

“It’s certainly an investment,” Rossiter said. “As families think about any investment they’re making, education is something they take very seriously.”

The National Association of Independent Schools (nais.org) does attempt to help with the costs. Families can apply for need-based aid through the School and Student Services (sss.nia.org) program along with other services and resources.

The dollars should help families focus on the idea that prep school is about a lot more than “Do I need another year of lacrosse and a grade boost to get me into the upper echelon of college lacrosse programs?”

Clearly, the schools not only want to prepare students for college life, but they also want prospective students to know what they’re getting into when they set foot on the campus.

“Students should expect to be challenged and pushed,” Baudo said. “Sometimes this means that they may have to step outside their comfort zone to take risks in the classroom and on the playing field.”

Just like hard work, dedication and preparation help make a lacrosse player better on the field, the proper research and communication within a family can help ensure that they wind up with the right fit, no matter which academic option they choose.

This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue of New England Lacrosse Journal.

Phillip Shore can be reached at feedback@laxjournal.com