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"Race, Poverty, and Residential Schools,"

by Heidi Goldsmith May/June 2002 issue of Poverty & Race

Boarding schools are among the oldest institutions in the country. This educational choice has been reserved for the rich. Boarding schools for the affluent have been celebrated. But somehow it is controversial when we say choice for all children. Every child wants very much to succeed. The introduction of boarding schools is nothing more than another educational choice.
----- Former Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson, at First National Conference on Residential Education for Disadvantaged Children and Youth, October 2000

Parents who live in nice, safe neighborhoods and have the financial means often send their teenagers, with pride, to residential preparatory (“prep”) schools. Youth from economically and socially disadvantaged homes rarely have that choice. In fact, it is actually counter to current public policy to “place” – i.e. enroll – an abused, neglected or poor youth in anything other than a “family.” Youth in the child welfare system can only live in what looks like a family – i.e., a foster family, or a group home with no more than 18 residents. At age 18, they are then “emancipated,” meaning they must now fend for themselves, with no one to support them. Current public policy for foster care youth strongly favors any number of foster care placements over enrollment of a foster youth in a boarding school.

There are only approximately 30 boarding schools for economically and socially disadvantaged children in the US right now. Approximately 70% of the students at these schools are children of color. While there are over 300 preparatory (“prep”) schools in TABS, The (National) Association of Boarding Schools, only two have more than a few scholarship students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. These two, Girard College in Philadelphia and Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi, have student populations that are 90% and 98% African-American, respectively. Most of these students – at Girard College, 100% -- are from low-income, zero- or single-parent backgrounds. Yet their success rates are astounding: 99% of their graduates go on to four year colleges.

Residential Education

We use the term “residential education” as the umbrella term for an out-of-home setting where a person both lives and learns. It encompasses boarding schools, “prep” schools, orphanages, youth villages, residential academies and, most recently, residential charter schools. These 24-hour educational, future-focused settings become students’ “second homes.” Students are safe, fed, receive a quality education with smaller class sizes than in most public schools, and can take advantage of sports teams, computer clubs, art, leadership programs, community service and more. They learn social skills such as conflict resolution, have positive adult role models and gain a positive sense of what their lives can be. Values and lessons learned are consistent 24 hours/day – what is taught in the classroom is reinforced in the dorms or cottages, and vice versa. The focus in these environments is on students’ potential and futures.

CORE: the Coalition for Residential Education is an advocacy group and an association of residential schools, and their supporters, who serve youth whose homes and communities cannot meet their needs. Specifically, those these schools aim to serve are:
  • Youth who don’t live in safe homes – homeless youth and those in abusive homes
  • Youth who have been bouncing around from foster home to foster home, or who would likely fare poorly in the foster care system
  • Youth whose well-meaning parents, struggling to make ends meet, beg the residential schools to accept their children, to keep them safe, and away from the drug culture.
  • Youth whose parents won’t go into residential drug treatment programs because they are afraid to place their children in the foster care system. So they continue their self-destructive habits and their habitual abuse and neglect of their children. Enrolling their children in residential schools would be good for the children, and face-saving for their parents.

An internal survey of students attending CORE schools found that approximately 70% are youth of color; 93% are economically disadvantaged.

Most students spend at least two years at these residential education programs. According to practitioners across the country and in other countries, this is the amount of time young persons needs until they finally understand they are in charge of their own life outcomes. They need this longer-term, stable setting until they grasp they needn’t be a victim any more. A light goes on in a young person’s eyes at this approximately two- year point, and their motivation skyrockets. They now believe they can become a “somebody,” a valuable member of society, a productive citizen.

Most residential education programs for children from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds meet a student’s educational and living needs at a cost of approximately $28,000 a year. This is less than half the cost most juvenile delinquency facilities incur, where many of these youth are likely to land without significant intervention, a third to a fifth of the cost of residential/psychiatric treatment centers, which are short-term, intensive and focus on the youth’s pathologies.

Funding for the existing resident education programs fall into three categories:
  • Publicly funded: The federal government funds three programs run by different agencies: the Department of Labor (Job Corps), the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Department of Defense. Two states (Pennsylvania -- the Scotland School for Veterans’ Children -- and Indiana -- the Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home) provide funding as well, in both cases Civil War relics and available only to children of veterans.
  • Privately funded: Philanthropists such as Stephen Girard and Milton Hershey funded residential schools in their names; American Honda recently funded a residential school in Colorado; individual visionaries who were not wealthy founded and began private fundraising for their dream residential schools.
  • Public-private partnerships: This is the most popular recent method of funding, which includes residential charter schools, of which there are now four nationallyy. Public funds pay for some elements, such as the education component, and/or the per diem on behalf of foster care youth cared for. The remaining funds are raised from private sources.

I was personally inspired to make this option available for at-risk youth, having seen Israel’s network of 60 youth villages, which are used as a national tool of rehabilitation and social inclusion. These villages are based on a hybrid between a kibbutz and an English boarding school. Israelis tell the youth in the villages, “What your family cannot do for you, your community will.” Some of Israel’s most successful politicians, business leaders, artists, teachers and other citizens are graduates of the youth villages and attribute much of their success to them. Many Americans agree that a similar network of residential education programs would be extremely effective in the US.

The New National “Residential Education Movement”

The idea of residential schools for economically and socially disadvantaged youth is catching on. A new national movement, in its relative infancy, believes a young person needs to live in a setting, such as a residential school, that behaves like a family – providing basic food, clothing and shelter, physical and emotional safety, consistent love from caring adults, stability, belonging, and encouragement to achieve one’s best. New schools are being planned and opened across the country by public servants, private individuals, corporations and existing youth-serving organizations. In addition to opening new schools across the country, additional steps are being taken:
  • Creation of a nationwide network of residential schools, through CORE;
  • Campaigns to change public understanding of what these places are and can be;
  • Changing public policy so that young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, including children in the child welfare system, can attend.

Challenges: Money, Myths, and Myopia

The new residential education movement faces significant ideological and public perception challenges. It is less expensive, in the very short term, to let a youth drop out of school, and “do his own thing,” than to invest approximately $20,000 more a year by sending him to a residential school. In the long term, however, it is likely to be cost-effective – and good for the youth, their families and our communities. Funding for prevention and for non-problem focused programs for low-income youth, however, remains a low priority.

There are misperceptions of what these residential education programs are – and are not. The Dickenson image is a far cry from today’s reality. People wanting to open new residential schools therefore face formidable NIMBY challenges, fears as to what the new schools and their students will do to surrounding neighborhoods. These fears are often reinforced by people who don’t want youth of color and those who are economically disadvantaged in their areas. A third challenge is that the majority of the current child welfare establishment is strongly anti-“institutional.” According to them, anything large (i.e., a residential school housing and educating 70 to a few hundred youth) is bad, even without checking out these programs.

The new San Pasqual Academy, opened September 2001 in San Diego, will ultimately be home and school to 250 teenagers from the foster care system who have already been in 7 – 25 foster homes and whom the courts have determined cannot be reunited with their families. One thousand children in San Diego County alone are eligible. Yet, a number of child welfare advocates have objected to this setting, and some have even sued.

There are some down-sides and challenges inherent in this option for youth. One is that students need to learn to live in “two worlds” – within the world and norms of the residential school, and the world they came from, visit, and likely will return to. This is sometimes enough to cause students to drop out of their residential school. Conversely, teachers at these schools often complain that it takes a day or more for the students to be “teachable” again after a visit to their homes. Another challenge for these students in residential schools is adjusting to life after graduation. Regular life, with all its choices, is very different from the safe, structured environment of a residential school students become used to.

Research Needs and Questions

There are no empirical studies of residential education as a whole – something that is sorely needed. There are thousands of success stories from alumni/ae. There are also poignant testimonies of students currently in existing residential schools. Over and over again, students in schools I visit tell me they are the only one of the friends they grew up with who is not in jail or dead. Sometimes youth arrive at the entrance to the residential schools on their own accord (“pilgrims”), often from hundreds of miles away, with a modern version of the bandana on a stick over their shoulders, and plead, “Please take me in”: schools do their best to accommodate such cases.

Potential skeptics and supporters alike ask for proof, outcomes and statistics that residential education is effective and cost–effective. The lack of such information is an obstacle to increasing the number of residential schools, to changing public policy, and to changing public opinion about this option for youth. Some of the questions needing study are:
  • Who are best served in these settings?
  • What is the “value-added” of the residential component, which is the most expensive and controversial part?
  • What aspects of these programs make the most impact?
  • How are children’s lives improved in these programs?
  • How do students in these settings fare compared with students of similar backgrounds and talents who live in foster homes, group homes, or those who remain in poverty-stricken neighborhoods?
  • What are the effective practices and policies of other countries which would contribute to those in the US?

Viewed as a desirable option for youth from comfortable backgrounds, boarding schools should also be a “normal,” sometimes desirable, and available choice for low-income children, regardless of race. Low-income youth and their families need this choice at least as much as those living in more comfortable circumstances. These settings are especially needed for youth who, through no fault of their own, lack a stable, supportive, loving, stimulating home. This option for youth should be accepted as valid, as a matter of public policy and as a matter of practice.


Heidi Goldsmith ( is the founder and Executive Director of CORE: the Coalition for Residential Education. 1620 Eye St. NW, #202, Wash., DC 20006, 202/496-9189,


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