Parents often ask us about the benefits of sending their children away to residential high schools. So we asked an expert to share her advice.
Last June I attended the graduation ceremony at a state-supported residential high school for gifted students. They looked like any procession of high school graduates: some with eager, happy smiles; one or two with sunglasses; here and there a tattoo or rainbow-colored hair; athletes, musicians, actors, math whizzes, poets. This could have been the class of 2004 at any high school, except for two characteristics: every student had been identified as gifted, and every student came from a family that had had to make the difficult decision to send a child to a residential setting two years before she or he would typically leave home to go to college.
“How can I not let her go? This is exactly the education she needs.”
Several years ago the daughter of a friend was accepted at such a school, and I asked how difficult it was to let this delightful, talented young woman leave home. Her reply was, “How can I not let her go? This is exactly the education she needs.” For some families, the decision might not be as easy. They must weigh the benefits of the educational opportunity against the loss of two or more years at home with their child.
Families assessing the pros and cons of a residential high school should consider the following factors:
- State residential schools provide a rigorous, advanced curriculum.
- The courses are designed to challenge students who are ready for advanced work in sciences, mathematics, languages, and humanities.
- The number of students ensures that high-level courses are offered regularly. Class sizes are often small, and guided independent study may be an option.
- The faculty members specialize in their fields, usually hold graduate degrees, and are skilled at stretching the capabilities of their students. They have chosen to teach in a residential high school and accept the additional responsibilities and time commitments that come with the position.
The academic program is only one aspect to be considered. In a residential setting, needs beyond the classroom must be considered.
- Bright students will find intellectual engagement with others of similar abilities and will discover that being gifted is valued.
- Knowledgeable staff members are available around the clock to supervise and counsel students. They are attentive to personal difficulties such as adjustment to the school, homesickness, and stress.
- If the school is affiliated with a university, graduate students in fields such as education and psychology often serve as residential counselors under the direction of professional staff.
- Extracurricular programs and social activities are provided to engage students.
- Counselors and teachers have the know-how to guide students and their families through the process of selecting and applying for admission to colleges and universities.
- Residential schools recognize how important it is for students to maintain close family connections. They schedule long weekends and holiday breaks, family weekends on campus, and other opportunities for family time.
When considering the opportunity to attend a residential high school, prospective students do well to start at the school’s Web site. It will be informative and may include a list of frequently asked questions that address specific issues. The students and their families should then visit the campus and talk with faculty members, residential staff, and current students and, if possible, contact students who have already graduated. Some of the practical questions that these people can answer best include:
- What is the daily and weekly schedule like?
- What is it like to live on campus and have a roommate? How is the food?
- Will the teachers help me if I have trouble in a class?
- Are students allowed to go shopping or to the movies?
- Is it a lot harder than my local high school?
- What about athletics? Drama? Music?
- Driver’s ed?
In short, the decision to attend a state residential high school must be made by the prospective student and the family after they have carefully considered many academic and social issues. Ideally, the match between the school and the student will be mutually beneficial, and the experience will allow him or her to grow intellectually and as a person.
—Penny Britton Kolloff, PhD
Penny Britton Kolloff recently retired from the faculty of Illinois State University and is president of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children. She worked to establish the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics, and Humanities, a state residential high school for gifted students, and serves on its advisory board.