What are some friendly boarding schools in the northeast?

My son is at a private day school. He is doing very well academically and we are considering boarding school for him. However, we have heard that the environments of some of the elite boarding schools (Exeter, Hotchkiss) are very toxic; alumni have told me about stressful workloads, unsympathetic teachers, and competitive student bodies. We of course want our son to have a great education, but not one that comes at the expense of his mental health.
We would also prefer a coeducational school. Any information about Saturday classes, dress code, and matriculation would be appreciated.
Some more information about my son:
He is more interested in history and civics than in STEM courses.
He is totally unathletic and has no interest in sport.
He has expressed interest in taking art/music appreciation courses.
He enjoys extracurriculars such as Model UN and Mock Trial, so we would strongly prefer a school with clubs and activities.

“Toxic” is not a helpful way to frame it. The issue is fit: there are kids who are very very happy at both Exeter & Hotchkiss- because the environment suits them. There are other kids for whom those campus cultures are unhappy- because it doesn’t suit them.

So the key is to tease out where your son fits: how much competitiveness suits him? (enough to help him discover what he can do, not so much that it dents his confidence or takes the joy out of doing things), academic intensity (not necessarily the same thing as academic rigor), school ethos, campus culture etc.

This whole process will repeat for college: it’s all about fit.

ps: fwiw, there are unsympathetic teachers in every single school that I have ever been associated with- from public to private, large to small- but over all those schools I have never seen a school where the majority of teachers are unsympathetic.

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Hotchkiss is fantastic, and not toxic at all if the fit is right. In any case I would not say it is toxic in any case. But, it’s meant for kids that have excellent time management skills and have drive. Those kids flourish.

I have had 2 kids go through Hotchkiss. One had undiagnosed ADHD and he struggled. He had terrible time management skills, and teachers weren’t hugely sympathetic. Hotchkiss is not really set up to help a kid with issues. My son did make it through, and he feels very close to the school and feels it made him who he is. He’s now out of college and well on his way with his career. So, despite his struggles it was not a toxic place for him.

My 2nd child doesn’t have adhd and he really flourished there.

There are definitely less intense schools that provide an excellent education. A 3rd child attended Millbrook, which I think very highly of.

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@collegemom3717 said it better and more succinctly than me! Yes, bottom line, it’s all about fit.

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If you’re willing to go to Pennsylvania, Hill has people of all types, and is not overly competitive. We have many history and philosophy courses to choose from. We have over 60 clubs and activities, a strong humanities program, and a very tight community. Keep in mind that we do have a dress code, although it gives structure and eases the mind for some. At Hill you will find sporty kids, artsy kids, humanities kids, and STEM kids. At Hill like many other boarding schools, there is an athletic requirement(1 term/year). At Hill, teachers are flexible and understanding, as 99% live on campus.

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We have not been able to visit in person but we felt in tours and admission experiences that George and Choate had very positive environments.

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I have heard Choate is very intense. What made you perceive it otherwise?

I think your distinction between rigors and intensity is interesting. Do you know of any boarding schools which you would describe as academically rigorous but not necessarily intense?

Well, it seemed less intense and friendlier than Exeter and had more flexibility than Groton. He had a lot of choices but we weren’t able to visit any. George just seemed really friendly.

Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania.

Wyoming Seminary in Penna.

I second Mercersburg.

I second @liyesh comments about Hill. Our child had a great four year boarding experience. Would do it all over again.

George is known for being very welcoming and inclusive. I think it sounds like a good fit with its “culture of kindness.” No Saturday classes, casual dress, all teachers addressed by first name. Happy to answer questions on this one as the parent of an alum.

Westtown doesn’t get mentioned here a lot, but like George, it’s a Friends school so the vibe might be right.

Mercersburg is also known for being a kind school. Ditto St Andrew’s (Delaware).

You might also like Peddie.

Each has a different vibe. One of covid’s silver linings is that there is quite a bit of content online, so you can do some virtual visits to see what these schools are all about.

I totally agree that “toxic” comes from poor fit. There are kids that thrive on intensity and competition while there are others who strive to do well yet want a more collaborative environment. Either type in the wrong place can be miserable.

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You should look into St Marks & Middlesex, also. Check out Berkshire - very good reports from students we know from sports/travel teams.

Second the suggestions of Mercersburg & St Andrews (Delaware).

We know a boy at Hill who has had a great experience there.

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I third George School. I got a really good impression when I visited there, and my friends who did attend are quite satisfied.

I will say that in terms of pace of life, Lawrenceville can be very stressful, depending on how involved you want to be. The four factors you mentioned are all present at Lawrenceville (sports requirement can be worked around, the MUN team is very strong, there’s an arts requirement, and humanities are Harkness-based), but we do have Saturday classes, and I, as a day student, have even found myself frequently having to come to campus on Sundays (on top of spending >10 hours on campus each weekday). I will say that teachers and students alike are very friendly, but there’s this constant air of “everyone is super busy and tired at all times,” especially if you are within certain circles.

For example, here’s a quote from a satire article in our school newspaper that hit a little too close to home:

I feel a pang of anger and shame when I must assess one symptom in particular: fatigue. Since the very first minute that I entered Lawrenceville’s gates, I have been fatigued. Lawrenceville is, by nature, an extremely demanding and exhausting place. Over the course of my three years at this school, I have grown to appreciate the sounds of casual walking-down-the-hallway banter: “I am so exhausted; I stayed up all night finishing my essay,” followed by the inevitable, “You think you’re tired?! I haven’t slept in a week!” Exhaustion at Lawrenceville is unavoidable, and I think it’s fair to say that every student is, at all times, experiencing new or worsening symptoms of fatigue. Nonetheless, in order to attend class in person, we must state not only that we are nowhere near collapsing from exhaustion but that we, in fact, are not experiencing any fatigue whatsoever.

I imagine it is largely the same at many other competitive schools. Of course, you could just do no extracurriculars, but what’s the fun in that?

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I will third, fourth, etc about the following schools and their communities:
St Mark’s (DS just graduated from there)
Mercersburg (DD will be attending there)
Berkshire
George
St Andrew’s
Middlesex

We had a kid transfer from Hill to SMS due to bullying and said the community was completely different at SMS, but that is just one instance I know of from Hill. Others I have heard love it. That being said, SMS has been a very inclusive and nurturing environment for my kid.

In the end, though…it will be all about fit. Even some of the schools that had what appeared to be great communities were not a good fit for my kids and we did not accept admission or apply there for that very reason. So, take everyone’s suggestions as a starting point and then make decisions based on your own perceptions/feel/experiences instead of reputation.

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What about Middlesex and St. Mark’s make them stand out as friendly to you?

Mainly the emphasis on community. Never did I see “cliques” or separation of groups on campus at SMS based on gender, race, color, athletics… not once when I visited my kid. They kicked several kids out due to bullying behaviors – it is not tolerated. The kids would always include my DD in their conversations and activities when we visited, no matter that she was several years younger. They have multiple times over been awarded the ISL best sportsmanship awards. They also always wave and say hello to strangers on campus - they don’t need to know who you are.
MX comes from my son competing on varsity sports level - he says of all the schools he competed against, they had the most kids that are down-to-earth, good people.
Several people who transferred from other schools commented on what a good community of students SMS had compared to their other school. One of the parents had a kid at SMS and one at another highly touted school and she said hands-down SMS had a much more grounded and much more kind group of teens.
I asked admissions what they look for in a student and the DOA at SMS didn’t hesitate - she immediately said, we look for good kids with pure hearts.

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I keep hearing great reviews of Putney.

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I would love to read posts if you asked the question a different way: What are some unfriendly boarding schools in the northeast? :shushing_face:

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