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Schools mull free ride for students in need


There are roughly 15 million students attending public high schools in the United States. The total enrollment at boarding schools? Around 38,000. But studies have shown that students who attend boarding schools are more likely to get into and succeed in college, earn post-graduate degrees and make a higher annual income than their public school counterparts. And it’s no surprise why.

Public school systems cannot begin to compete with the broad experience offered by boarding schools. From an abundance of extracurricular activities to more numerous and rigorous academic offerings, students are constantly challenged in an environment in which they are safe, sheltered and nurtured on a daily and nightly basis.

Of course, an education that complete comes with a hefty price tag. Tuition at most boarding schools ranges up to and above $40,000 annually, making them more expensive than an education at a public state-subsidized university, as well as many private colleges. With fees that high, most parents simply write off the notion of sending their kids to boarding school.

Recently, however, several New England schools have adopted new policies to encourage low-income students to apply. Phillips Exeter Academy and St. Paul’s School — both top New Hampshire boarding schools — and, more recently, Groton School in Massachusetts, announced last month that they will offer free rides to any current or accepted students whose families earn less than $75,000 a year (St. Paul’s will pay for students with annual family income of $65,000 or less).

At Groton School, which has a co-ed population of just 353 students in grades eight through 12 and is the smallest of the three schools, the hope is that the new initiative will ensure that the enrolling student body is as talented and diverse as possible, regardless of socioeconomic standing.

“What we’re doing is addressing a myth that is completely wrong,” said Groton School Director of Communication John Niles. “A lot of folks feel as though a school like Groton is just out of bounds because they could never afford the tuition, and in fact two-thirds of U.S. households would be able to qualify for a full scholarship to Groton” with the new policy.

Marlyn McGrath, Harvard University’s director of admissions and a former member of the Groton School Board of Trustees, dubbed Groton’s announcement “an auspicious moment in private education in America.” Two years ago, Harvard improved on its own free tuition, room and board policy by upping the minimum family income from $40,000 to $60,000.

“Out of the 124 students receiving financial aid this year, we have 45 kids that are in this category of under $75,000 [in family] income,” Niles said. This accounts for just over one-third of the financial aid pool and about 13 percent of the student body. “For about 30 years, we have actively recruited and made opportunities available by outreach efforts in admissions work to urban and suburban” low- to medium-income families, he added.

Groton graduates are an eclectic bunch, ranging from former presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Stephen Hill, executive vice president of Black Entertainment Television. But there are some in the arena of urban public education who have mixed feelings about the policy at Groton and other schools.

Sharon Keyes, a guidance counselor at The Harbor School, a public school in Dorchester, is concerned that, should any of her kids be accepted to one of the schools, they won’t get the kind of attention necessary to keep them engaged and thriving.

“My only concern is that it’s not a setup, that [Groton is] going to ensure successful transition and not let the kids fall by the wayside,” she said. “They need to maintain services to keep these kids in their schools.”

Keyes has dealt with Noble and Greenough School, a day and boarding school in Dedham, for the past three years. To this point, not one of her students has been accepted into Nobles.

“I have stopped dealing with Noble and Greenough, because they make these promises that they’ll get the kids in, and when it’s time for them to take a chance on one of our kids, they’re not willing,” she said. “It is quite disappointing.”

The admissions office at Noble and Greenough School is awaiting a decision by the school’s trustee board to institute a free tuition policy like the one now in place at Groton.

“We think it’s fantastic that Groton School has been able to offer that,” said Kathy Velazquez, associate director of admission at Nobles. “We’re certainly trying to gather as much information as we can, and it’s something that the board of trustees would have to act on.”

Roughly 20 percent of the students enrolled at Nobles receive financial aid. Velazquez, who joined the school’s admissions team several years ago, was invited by the dean’s office to fill a newly-created position specializing in outreach to nonprofit organizations and public schools.

“I was excited about the school dedicating resources to hire a staff member to specifically reach out to communities that don’t traditionally contact independent schools,” Velazquez said.

The Harbor School is one of the schools that have sent students to visit Nobles. That no Harbor student has been accepted into Nobles does not necessarily reflect poorly on either school. In fact, Nobles finds itself in competition with many of Boston’s top exam and charter high schools.

“Sometimes it seems that the public schools show a little bit more resistance because they don’t want students to go outside that school system,” added Joyce Eldridge, director of communications and media relations at Nobles. “We’re certainly not trying to raid the public school system.”

Instead, they say, they’re just trying to make students and parents aware that the opportunity exists to attend a school like Nobles.

In the end, Keyes said she is worried about empty promises. But to be fair, even students from wealthy families have a difficult time gaining acceptance to a school like Groton. The admissions process rivals that of most colleges and universities, and to gain entry, applicants must be determined, focused, responsible and, above all, gifted. They must have excellent guidance from parents and teachers, and be willing to work incredibly hard at a very young age.

“Especially with minority students, I’m very conscious that you can have this great advertisement, and once they get there they have to fend for themselves, and that’s when the parents get upset,” Keyes said. “As long as they’ll provide a clear-cut mission and enhance the learning experience for those kids, I give kudos to these private schools. I really would like to see if families will take advantage of this.”

Keyes admitted that she had only recently heard of Groton School’s new policy, but that she would certainly be delivering the news to both her students and their parents. It’s an idea that she welcomes, she said, but has seen fall short all too often.

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