"The Focus Can't Just Be On Academics"

How One School’s “Whole-child Approach” Resulted in Big Gains in College Admissions

Choosing a boarding school with your child is no small job. You want your student to have a challenging academic experience that will prepare them for college and beyond. You want them to make friends and lasting relationships and enjoy a rich social life. Perhaps most of all, you want them to have opportunities to stretch and grow into themselves but with the emotional support, they’ve always received at home from you. You want them to have a true home away from home. 

St. Anne’s-Belfield School’s Residential Life Program in Charlottesville, Virginia, uses a whole-child approach that will help your student acclimate to their new home and form meaningful connections with other students, faculty members, and the local community. Full-time faculty members and administrators serve as “dorm parents” to St. Anne's-Belfield Residential Life students, with a ratio of one dorm parent for every five students. Not only does this provide a healthy environment where your child can learn and grow to their fullest potential, but the experiences offered through St. Anne’s Residence Life program are the kind that prospective colleges value — as evidenced by the fact that in 2022, two-thirds of St. Anne’s residential students enrolled in one of U.S. News & World Report's top 30 colleges and universities. Residential students were admitted to the University of Virginia at a rate five times higher than the university’s average for out-of-state students.

“The focus can’t just be on academics,” says Director of College Counseling Sandra Sohne-Johnston, one of the School’s three full-time experts who counsel students and their families on college admissions and success. “Colleges want to see students who know how to contribute to a diverse community. They are looking at students and asking, ‘have you reached your maximum academic and personal potential? Do you have the initiative? What is the quality of your activities, and have you achieved results for yourself and your communities?’” 

The secret formula, according to Director of Residential Life Antxon Iturbe, is knowing each child well, and providing what he calls “roots and wings:” a healthy and nurturing foundation, and the confidence (and occasional nudge) to soar to one’s full potential.

Residential Life students work on their laptops

To this end, each boarding student will be assigned a “dorm parent” and a “House,” a small group of students who create a community of support, camaraderie, and connection. Dorm parents expand their roles beyond the classroom and care for their student's overall wellbeing, along with serving as your primary point of contact with the School to receive updates and voice any potential concerns. This close partnership allows your student to grow into their independence through very careful and intentional guidance. The dorm parent and their House members feel like a family, getting together for family meals, participating in weekend activities around town, and even going on the occasional overnight trip. St. Anne's-Belfield takes students every year on overnight backpacking trips, rock climbing, and kayaking trips, and visits to nearby Richmond and Washington, D.C., all well supervised and with safety as the top priority. 

“Our program is really good at getting kids out of their comfort zone and interacting with their environment and each other,” says Iturbe. Apart from ensuring that boarding students feel connected to their new community, St. Anne’s-Belfield makes sure that students invest their energy and talents in significant ways outside the classroom. The School has curricular expectations for students to make a difference in their communities, with a service-learning trip in Grade 10, dedicated time for clubs and organizations that create leadership opportunities, community service requirements, and a senior internship. This approach of developing the whole child — at school and beyond —  brings about some valuable outcomes. The independence of living on campus within the safe and vibrant college town of Charlottesville, combined with rigorous academics and constant support from St. Anne’s faculty and staff, increases students’ self-efficacy and self-advocacy skills. They develop greater open-mindedness and an orientation toward diversity and inclusion through their interactions with their dorm family, day students, and the Charlottesville community. 

“Students learn about themselves and what tickles their heart,” says Iturbe, “And they develop self-discipline and confidence that will follow them to college.”

For more information on the St. Anne’s-Belfield Residential Life program, contact Associate Director of Upper School Admission Tristan Kishonis (tkishonis@stab.org) or visit www.stab.org/apply/upper-school

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