East Coast and West Coast Boarding Schools


By Jane St. Clair

Truths and Stereotypes

In her best-selling novel, Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld writes about social castes at an elite east coast boarding school. The main character, a scholarship student, often feels left out and alienated from a code of unwritten preppy rules she does not understand. When she becomes available to give haircuts, she does not realize she crossed a line into acting LMC – “lower middle class.”  All her attempts to act cool fail:

I was one of the least cool people I knew. All I ever did was watch other students and feel curious about them and dazzled by their breeziness and wracked by the impossible gaping space between us because of my horrible lack of ease and an inability to be casual.

Sittenfeld’s book plays into the stereotypes of east coast boarding schools. These institutions are supposedly full of students from families with old money whose last names are household words. The new TV series, “NYC Prep,” likewise presents prep school students as spoiled, self-centered teenagers who can spend any amount of money they want. The implication is that if you are a scholarship student who cannot afford ski trips on winter break and designer clothes, you shouldn’t bother to enroll because the other students will not accept you.

If books and TV shows depict east coast boarding schools as elite and snobby, the stereotype of west coast boarding schools is that they don’t exist. In fact, the Los Angeles Times recently printed an article titled “California Boarding Schools: An Oxymoron?” The cultural stereotype is that west coasters are not status-conscious or tied to traditional ways of doing things, including educating children. All west coasters are supposed to be multicultural and laid back, and believe boarding schools are for snobs.

Breaking Down the Stereotypes

There is a lot of evidence that both stereotypes are breaking down and have been for some time. In the 1970s, many elite boarding schools on the east coast, some of which date back to colonial times, found themselves in trouble. Enrollments kept declining as Americans adapted a more anti-establishment way of thinking. Even families whose sons and daughters had attended the same boarding school for generations became weary of the “establishment” and questioned the necessity of maintaining status and class differences.

East coast boarding schools responded to the changes in society by making major changes themselves. Today, they offer more financial aid; accept students from all backgrounds and walks of life; and their curriculums have become more multicultural, with more emphasis on educating the “whole child” instead of just focusing on getting their students into the most prestigious colleges.
Meanwhile, the number of boarding schools on the west coast keeps increasing, growing by 8% in the last ten years. Today parents and students can choose from hundreds of boarding schools all over the country. Many specialize in certain areas such as sports, music, or science.

The Development of Therapeutic Boarding Schools

One of the fastest growing kinds of boarding schools is called “emotional growth schools” or “therapeutic boarding schools.” Emotional growth schools maintain the advantages of traditional boarding schools such as small class sizes, individual attention, superior academics, developing student self-reliance, and the fun of living with peers in a completely “child-friendly” environment.

Some therapeutic boarding schools specialize in helping teens overcome certain psychological problems such as Attention Deficit Disorder, bipolar disorder, Asperger Syndrome and so forth. Others have programs for overcoming substance abuse problems or achieving weight loss. Some specialize in helping students who lack motivation get a fresh start in a nurturing environment.

On one Internet discussion forum that centered on east and west coast stereotypes about boarding schools, a student from the heartland wrote that her friends were giving her a hard time because she wanted to apply to a boarding school:

“Most people assume parents just send you off to get rid of you,” she wrote, “or that it’s a place in the middle of no where with nothing to do. That bugs me. When they ask me, “Why are you applying to boarding school?” I say, “Because it’s a fabulous opportunity to grow academically and socially. Because it’s a privilege to go to a boarding school.”


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