In fourth grade, my son warmingly known as Norbie, came home raving about his teacher's son who lived on a high school campus. I wanted to correct him and say, “No you mean college.” I didn't interrupt. Instead I listened as he went on and on telling me about everything his teacher, Ms. D., had told him about her son who was in boarding school. Because I worked at the same school, I went the next day and asked her about what Norbie had told me. She confirmed that everything he said was correct. He paid close attention to detail. Everything she told me was exactly what Norbie had told me just a few hours earlier. He knew the name of the program her son had attended prior to his high school experience, the name of the boarding school, and where it was located. He also knew the requirements he had to fulfill, if he wanted the same shot. It was that day, I knew things with Norbie's education may be completely different from anything I ever knew growing up.
A few years had passed and Norbie was no longer attending the same school he was when he was in 4th grade. It was now the beginning of his 7th grade year. He had mentioned over the summer that by September he would probably be able to apply for the NJSeeds program that he had heard about back in fourth grade. I went online filled out the interest form and kept it moving. Fast forward a few months later. We are in the front office of his old school visiting some friends we both knew. His 4th grade teacher saw us and almost broke through the glass shouting, "I believe applications have opened! Did you do the inquiry form? I replied, “Yes!” She says, “Okay. Now go complete the application.” She was relentless and for that I will forever be grateful. I went home that evening and Norbie, a product of Ms. D’s 4th grade scholars, made sure he did not go to sleep until I at least checked my email and saw that the application was indeed currently available. Just as Ms. D had stated: it was available. That night I printed out the first part of the application.
“NJSeeds is a nonprofit organization that by that point had been around almost 25 years. The New Jersey SEEDS Scholars Program is a tuition-free program designed to prepare 8th-grade students for 9th-grade placement at an academically rigorous day or boarding school. Over a 14-month period, students take classes on Saturdays and participate in two summer residential programs. The Scholars Program nurtures a student’s critical thinking skills, love of learning, and self-confidence. In addition, the Scholars Program seeks to ensure that each child is admitted to a selective school.” (NJSeeds.org)
The application has two parts. In part one, he was given a series of open-ended questions. He was to choose a few and answer them. Norbie could not go on to part two until the first part was completed. He also needed reference letters from his teachers and his guidance counselor as part of the application process.
Norbie worked hard to get those open-end questions completed as well and as efficiently as he could. There were only two days left, we ran through our checklist, reference letters were complete, part one done and now all we had to do was click “next” on the open-ended page and we were done!... Wrong! As you recall, I stated there was a second part. I had messed-up. I kept telling Norbie to focus on completing his questions. I did not realize that part two was an entire essay. He was to choose one of the schools from a list provided and write an essay describing his first day on the campus. With less than 48 hours left, two full school days for Norbie, while completing an essay that was due for school for homework. As his mom who made a big oops, I helped with the research and he wrote his essay. I reviewed it, gave it back to him a few times to revise it and he edited, and edited. He finally had his final draft completed--we only made the submission by minutes to spare. Now all that was left was to wait.
Within a few weeks of submitting the application, I had received a call from the NJSeeds office, they wanted to invite us to be interviewed and Norbie to take an assessment. This was the next step of the application process and would be the determining factor if Norbie would be accepted.
We interviewed, Norbie took the test, and then again...we waited.
A few months later, we received the acceptance letter from NJSeeds. The letter stated that he was accepted into the first phase of the scholars program. This meant he had to go through a three week summer program to see if he could make it to another next step (phew!).
That summer program was meant to either break you or make you. Can you really survive the boarding school life? They were on a very rigorous and strict schedule. Academic classes during the day, extra-curricular/sports in the afternoon, dinner, study hall, a little free time and bed. Norbie would call me a few nights a week exhausted. Other nights when I didn’t hear from him I learned it was because his time-management skills did not allow him time to fit in a quick call home. He had just finished his seventh grade year, there was so much growing and developing to still be done, but if this was the goal he wanted--he was going to have to work hard in order to achieve.
Norbie did survive the Scholars Summer Program, but again we waited to hear whether or not he would be accepted into the year long program. Within a few days though, we heard back from NJSeeds. Norbie had been accepted into the program! We were both full of so many emotions. Elated that he had proven to be capable of what he had wanted for so many years, but also nervous about the unknown territory we were both about to enter.
In the upcoming year the staff of NJSeeds became like our new extended family. Teaching everything we needed to know about independent schools. We learned things such as: the difference between a day student, a boarder student, and a third former versus a freshman. We also learned that the students were in school every Saturday during their 8th grade year; 8am-3pm. They are prepping for their standardized assessments. In addition, interview practices for both parents and students were held on a regular basis, meetings about what to expect and how the process worked, financial aid workshops and they also had counselors to help us through all of the emotions this process evoked.
Norbie and I visited, toured, video called, and interviewed with admissions counselors at nine different schools in five different states. Two of the schools Norbie showed interest in were in California and Ohio. The other's were in the New England area and our home state of New Jersey. The two schools in California and Ohio made this process all too real. The fact that a high schooler aged between 13-15 years old would be so far away from family was unreal to me; however, the truth was (to me): that this hard reality of my child leaving for this source of education is not privileged for kids around the world because many don’t even know that these programs exist. It would be an honor for Norbie.
These schools have amenities, resources, high-achieving academic programs, athletic options, and extra curricular activities many of us could not even dream of. A large number of the schools offered more than five options to learn a second language, study abroad opportunities, independent studies, and fellowships just to name a few. As for the amenities, theatres just as beautiful if not more amazing than those on Broadway, athletic fields with full training facilities, dorm rooms as luxurious as some five star hotels, dining halls that made you feel as though you were a student at Hogwarts, and grandiose libraries that reminded me of the one I saw in The Beauty and the Beast. Some schools had buildings created just to study marine biology and astrology, one school had a building dedicated only to the arts and another had underground tunnels that allowed them to access different buildings on campus without having to get stuck outside in blizzards. The school in California even had its own horse program. “Freshmen are paired with a horse the first week of school and required to ride for the entire school year” (thacher.org). They learn to care for the horses as a form of learning responsibility.
What I learned the most during these tours and interviews was that the way independent schools viewed education was completely different than what was drilled into me for many years, not only as a student, but as a parent and educator. The Head of Schools, staff and community valued the student as a whole. They were not teaching to a test; rather teaching to life. The skills they would acquire at these schools were meant to help them develop intellectually, build and strengthen their character, and ultimately make them great leaders in this world.
March 10th was Decision Day. This is the day all schools would let students know whether or not they were accepted into the schools they applied for. Norbie and his classmates nicknamed this day, “March Madness.” The night before we were so full of so much anxiety and excitement. The anticipation was killing the both of us. We woke up on the 10th with letters flooding my inbox. Norbie was accepted into eight of the schools. Some he was waitlisted for because of financial aid. Norbie’s top choice was St. Mark’s School in Southborough, MA. In my personal opinion, they had the best acceptance letter of them all. They created an acceptance video that made the announcement that much more exciting and rewarding.
We went back for Revisit Day, when a school puts on a show for prospective students and parents, in April and the deal was sealed. The first time we had visited this school it was a cold, gloomy, rainy day. Norbie and I had been separated for our tours and honestly, after visiting seven other schools I was exhausted. Going back for Revisit Day not only showed the school in the fresh, spring vibrant atmosphere, but also exposed Norbie and I to some of the most amazing staff members and a community that lived up to their motto of “Intentionally Small, Thinking Big.” During the Revisit Day, we met the person who would later become Norbie’s advisor also known as “mom’s” to everyone in our household or Mrs. M. Mom’s has become my saving grace. We share a lot of the same qualities, but she’s so much better because she has the patience and understanding of a saint for her students and advisees.
Norbie moved into St. Mark’s the following September to begin his high school journey. Prior to him leaving, I hosted a graduation party for him and invited everyone who was part of his life leading up to this moment. Many of his teachers, beginning as far back as Kindergarten and current teacher, like Ms. Hoffman who helped him survive his 8th grade year with six day school weeks, attended the party. Seeing everyone in the room that partook in this journey was a testament to what I say everyday, it takes a village. I could not have done this alone and for them Norbie and I will be forever grateful.
Norbie’s dad, his brother and I arrived on campus move in day and went through the schedule that was handed to us upon entering the school. We attended orientation, visited all the vendors, his dad made a few runs to Target, we made sure he was settled in his room and had dinner before we finally said: our farewells. That first drive home was the hardest. I cried the entire four hour drive home, but I knew deep inside this was the best decision I have made for my son’s development as a whole person.
He is now about to finish his second year at St. Marks. The first year was rough. Although NJSeeds had worked hard to bridge the academic gap between his old school and this new one, a year of Saturday classes would not be enough. Keeping up academically didn’t fare to well with him at first. Mom’s made sure to inform his dad and I that this was normal. There was a lot he had to adjust to. His time management skills needed a lot of work and his “frontal cortex was still developing,” as Mom’s frequently reminded us. She set him up with a tutor and made sure his study hall times were actually spent studying and completing homework and projects. The first few months I made a trip at least once a month. Missing things like games and school shows were hard for me. I was the mom that was involved in everything. I had some adjusting to do myself.
By the start of the second year we all had a better grasp of how this all worked. Norbie still slipped up in the beginning, but thankfully had Mom’s at his side. He struggled with homesickness more this year than last. As well as a few things that happened amongst friends and classmates that had him having to use his critical thinking skills along with his morals and values to help him get through and solve some problems. Norbie went with his school’s baseball team to Florida for spring training during spring break this year and plans to possibly attend a study abroad program during one of the upcoming summers.
This journey has taught Norbie and I so much. The first lesson is to set a goal and never stop believing in it. Achieving your goal takes hard work and dedication. Boarding school is not easy; however, the experiences you gain, the friendships you make, and the exposure you receive is absolutely worth it. The second lesson (and the one that means the most to me): is to always remember those that have helped along the way, and to give back when you can. Norbie volunteers at his school. When I can, I attend the workshops that NJSeeds has for incoming parents. When Norbie is home from his school breaks and there is something going in with NJSeeds, he tries to attend and give back to the program that helped him reach the goal he had back when he was in 4th grade. Never forget that you have the power to create whatever future your child desires. Boarding school is not for everyone, but it is an option that many parents don’t know about it...but it has changed my child’s life.