The Size of the School Matters

Bill Ellis is the Associate Headmaster for Enrollment and Financial Aid at The Kiski School, appointed in 2008.  Educated at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Bill has been in various admissions roles within private education since 1982.  He currently sits on the boards of multiple associations, while serving as a counselor, adviser, and community member here at Kiski.
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What makes a school small?  And more importantly, why would you choose a small school?  Kiski is a member of the Small Boarding School Association, (SBSA) a dynamic organization that specifically supports all small boarding schools.  I am a former member of the SBSA Board of Directors and very committed to this organization.  SBSA defines small boarding schools as having 200 or fewer students.  I personally, would say 250 or fewer but you get the idea.
 
In my career, I have worked at small schools, large schools, medium sized schools, coed schools, schools with large day populations and schools with no day students.  No matter where I worked, or how big or how small the school was, I felt that the personal limit of my daily reach was approximately 250 of the students (hence my personal reference to 250).  By this I mean no matter who called me, a coach, a teacher, an administrator, a parent, or an alumnus, and asked me about any of the “250”, I could speak with authority about him or her.  As I became a member of the Senior Administrative team at my small schools, it felt really satisfying to be able to speak so personally about the students, especially when a concerned parent from a long distance from the school called in a panic over the crisis of the day involving his child.  I recall a conversation with a friend who taught at a very large boarding school.  I asked her how she kept up with all of the students.  She asserted, “We can only keep up with the ones in our dorm, the rest we assume are being taken care of by their dorm parents.”  I am sure the system at that school is a good one, but I was extremely uncomfortable with that answer.   For me as the Admission Director and someone who introduced Kiski to all of the students here (and made promises) that just would not do.  I can’t imagine telling a parent that I don’t really know your son but I will ask who does and have that person get back to you.  One of the things prompting this thought is that just last night, a parent of a new boy called me with some “bump in the road concerns.”  Within minutes, despite being off campus, I was able to get his advisor to contact the boy and the mom.  And of course, I will touch base with him today and her later.  That is how a small school operates and that is how we roll at Kiski.

Knowing a student’s name and knowing the student are two vastly different ideas.  At a small school, we can not only put a name with a face, but because we share stories, experiences, and a community; we can gain a deeper understanding of each student. Much like a small town or neighborhood, the Kiski community allows a students to know one another, know what events are happening on campus, and take pride in their School community.  This should be comforting to parents who will be away from their son(s).  

Small schools provide personal attention.  Almost all independent schools and virtually all of the boarding schools talk about small classes and individual attention.  When you compare that to large public school classrooms, it is a significant selling point and clearly a point of differentiation.  Small schools, like Kiski, have an added dimension.  When I left a big school and came to my first small school I was astounded by what I was required to do in terms of the supervision of the students.  At the small school, I not only planned the ice cream socials and organized them, I dipped the ice cream scoop in the container and put ice cream in the bowls!  This sort of necessity enabled me and of course my colleagues, to interact with the students in so many different settings.  It provided me with opportunities to get to know my students in a much more profound way.

Some big schools have huge course offerings, multiple languages and numerous history electives.  I will admit reading some of the course catalogs reminds me of the course catalogs I read at the University of North Carolina where 21,000 of my closest friends and I attended.  But honestly, how many different languages can you take?  And in the course of four years, how many different history electives can you choose?  At Kiski, we want you to be competent in a language, well rounded in your knowledge of history, capable in biology, chemistry, physics, well prepared in calculus, prepared second to none in technology and be well read, able to write well and speak in front of an audience. We want you to be capable of working collaboratively, reasoning effectively and able to problem solve. Our “small school” curriculum ensures that the students can do all of that.

Small schools also have big programs that may seem counter intuitive but it is true.   We provide the same 12 varsity sports at Kiski as the large schools.  We also have JV and Jr. Varsity teams.  The fact that the sports program is required means that not only do our boys have the opportunity to be on teams, but we actually need all of them to participate in order to field the team.  So while the best players play and believe me, we win a lot, there is room for the younger, smaller, less experienced athlete to have the opportunity to learn the sport.  Someday, who knows what he will grow into?  But if there are no spots available when he is in 9th grade, he will never get the experience he needs to be a contributor later.  At small schools, everyone has to participate and contribute.

The same thing is true about our art program.  We need our students to be in the orchestra, the Glee Club, the theatre productions, write for the literary magazine, to edit the yearbook.  These are organizations that all big schools have but everyone who wants to participate may not get the chance.   

And how do our students know we need them?  Because the teachers actively seek them out, invite them by name individually and make them feel needed.  One reason is because they are needed but another reason is because it is all part of making our students feel welcome from the beginning. Students at larger schools can get lost in the crowd; struggle to find their identity or where they fit in at school.  A small school allows a boy to find his niche or discover his passion. The sense of community motivates the student to want to be a part of the School and contribute through the addition of his special skills or experiences.

A parent of a recent graduate told me that she was completely satisfied with the academic and extra-curricular experience her son had at Kiski. She was thrilled with the friends he made and the experiences he had.  But what she was not prepared for and what she ultimately found to be the most important part of his experience was the self-confidence he developed and displayed as he walked across the stage to get his diploma.  He was saying about his next step; “Bring it on.  I am ready.  I can do this.  I know I can do this next thing because I just did this last thing!” That is what small schools can do.

If you really want to see something special, come for a visit and see for yourself and hear from our students why the boarding school life is so great.
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1888 Brett Lane, Saltsburg, PA 15681   |   (877) 547-5448
Established in 1888, The Kiski School is one of the oldest, private, all-boys, college preparatory boarding schools in Pennsylvania and the United States.  Home to 200 boys, Kiski offers an academically rigorous curriculum that includes AP and Honors courses, 12 varsity sports, and a community that allows boys to thrive through project-based learning and self-discovery.
Kiski's beautiful, 350-acre campus is located in Saltsburg, Pennsylvania, 30 miles east of Pittsburgh, PA.