The locals live and learn
Private school families say boarding makes sense in Washington region

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 3, 2009

For Sean Woo, boarding his sons at St. Albans School was an easy choice. His two teenagers got the prestige, the rigorous academics and an around-the-clock minder all in one package. And with St. Albans just a half-hour drive from Woo's McLean home, he could still make all the choral concerts and sports events.

"We would have been ferrying them around everywhere" had his sons attended Langley High, the neighborhood school, Woo said. "The traffic, particularly during the times that the kids need your attention, is ridiculous. . . . [St. Albans] is just very convenient in that sense."

Woo's sons are part of a small but growing trend of private school students who board locally. Some families say they think the combination of a crawling D.C. commute and a heavy homework load would make it impossible to attend such schools any other way. Other Washington parents say they're too busy to have the kids at home. And some value the boarding school experience but don't want children 500 miles away in the anxious post-9/11 era. For many, it's a combination of all three.

At St. Albans, 19 of the school's 23 boarders have families who live within driving distance of the school. Ten years ago, locals made up about a third of the boarders, said Jeanne Hamrick, a spokeswoman for the school. Boarding costs $13,677 in addition to the regular tuition of $32,990.

Woo said that he and his wife -- a consultant and a physician, respectively -- weren't interested in their sons being far away but that they liked the idea of boarding schools.

"They mature a little bit," he said. "And where can you get 24-hour supervision, seven days a week, for just a nominal increase over the tuition?"

John Woo, a senior, said that he enjoyed being away from home.

"It's nice not to have your parents looking over your shoulder," he said. He enjoys the company of his fellow boarding students, he said, noting that they plan weekend activities together. A recent outing to a Redskins game was "sad, but fun," he said.

Boarding schools across the country have also seen more local families, said Peter Upham, executive director of the Association of Boarding Schools.

"In general, people that are considering boarding school are not looking quite as far afield," he said.

That has been the case at the Madeira School in McLean.

"We have seen a gradual but consistent increase in boarding students who are coming from within a two-hour radius of the school," said Meredyth Cole, assistant head at Madeira, where the bill for boarding is $11,110 in addition to the regular tuition of $35,050. Like St. Albans, the school enrolls boarding and day students. She estimated that half of the school's 161 boarders are from no more than two hours away. A decade ago, that figure was closer to a quarter.

Cole said that many parents find educational benefits in a boarding school but that they are less inclined to send children to a school in snowy New England.

"I think parents are wanting to be part of their children's lives," she said. "Twenty years ago, there was more comfort with that separation."

That's the case for Todd Van Hoose, an Alexandria lobbyist whose daughter is a sophomore at Madeira.

"With kids' schedules and our work schedule, frankly, we're only missing each other at dinner," he said. "You get the best of both worlds. We make all of the soccer games," and his daughter benefits from the independence of boarding school, he said.

"We talk to her every day. We see her two or four times a week," he said. "From our perspective, it wasn't that big of a switch." He said that it would have been "almost logistically impossible" for his daughter to attend the school if she hadn't boarded, given his and his wife's long work schedules.

That was also the case for Marshall Forney Jr., a sophomore at St. Albans whose family lives in Dale City.

His school commute used to be a slog: an hour and 15 minutes each way, inching along Interstate 95 from Dale City to the District on bleak early mornings.

Now, it takes about 45 seconds -- out of bed, along a hallway, down a polished hardwood staircase and into a classroom.

"It's making me mature faster," said Forney, a sophomore. "And you're not that far from your loved ones."

Forney started as a day student at St. Albans in the eighth grade. He had to leave the house by 6:30 to make St. Albans's morning bell at 7:45. He would get home about 7:30 at night. Freshman year, he attended Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington County, but by summer he was ready to return to St. Albans, he said. The high school schedule meant that he would be getting home even later -- and that there would be a four-hour mountain of homework waiting.

"I came up with the boarding idea," he said. "Me and my dad had to convince my mom."

Forney and his parents stay in touch with phone calls and texting, and sometimes his mother stops by in the evening after she finishes work in Crystal City. He still makes it home for church most Sundays.

And he said he is enjoying living on campus.

"There's more free time" without the commute, he said. It's a good social experience, too. "When we graduate from here, the people in the dorms are going to be the closest," he said.

Still, though, he said that distance sometimes has a downside.

Forney said he misses his 12-year-old sister at home in Dale City. Their mother, Renee, said the feeling is mutual. And even Forney's father, who was supportive of the boarding idea, showed a crack in his usually stoic facade on the early September weekend his son was packing his bags.

He dug up videos of his son's childhood, Renee Forney said. Images of a time gone by flickered on the screen.

"That's when it really hit me," she said.

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