Transitioning from a Boarding School to a Day School: Benefits and Challenges

In his 42 years in independents schools, Dave Davies has served as head of the Deerfield-Windsor School(GA); a “founding” upper school head; an interim head, and a 27-year veteran of boarding school life. Here he reflects on the move from a boarding school to a day school.


To a Head of School or other senior administrator at a boarding school, the idea of heading a day school may seem like paradise! No more seated dinners with 300 of your closest friends, faculty tugging at your sleeve after dinner, students needing instruction about table manners, or the embarrassment of the Head’s three-year-old throwing a tantrum in the dining hall in front of students and colleagues. No more 11:00 pm visits from the Dean of Students heading to the hospital with an ill student, or to the local police precinct to retrieve a student who thought that lifting some snacks from the local convenience store wasn’t that bad an idea. No more disciplinary boards for offenses committed in the dorm over the weekend. Pack them up at 3:30 pm each day and Friday afternoon for the weekend and live in the “real world” evenings and weekends. Or so you thought!

To be sure, there are fundamental differences between heading a boarding school and leading a day school. There are benefits and drawbacks to both, and the “scale” doesn’t necessarily lean solely toward a school full of commuters.

Generalization is risky business, but here are a few challenges at many day schools that are greater than at most boarding schools:

  • Boards of Trustees at many day schools are more likely to be made up of current parents, and  their meetings are likely more frequent not always focused on strategy and “the view from 35,000 feet.” 

  • Many all-boarding or boarding-day schools have only three or four Board meetings per year, and Board membership is typically more diverse: alumni, past parents, and community members, for example.

  • Day schools will often have seven or eight Board meetings per year; inevitably the proximity in time of those meetings to problems or issues on campus can encourage the Board discussions to get “into the weeds.”

  • Day parents are typically much more involved, owing partly to daily or nightly contact with their youngsters and geographic proximity that allows them to bed at the school any time during the day.

  • Day school faculty and staff work with students only seven or eight hours per day, and so have less opportunity to influence students on a wide range of issues, everything from cell phone use to extra help from a teacher. The in loco parentis function, while a definite burden at boarding schools, also provides rewarding opportunities for weeks or months of continuous interaction among students and between students and adults, without the sometimes “interference” from friends from other schools and, yes, even parents whose mores and values don’t align with those of the school.

  • Discipline for student misbehavior occurring away from campus is often more challenging at day schools. Determining how far the “long arm” of the school should extend into the community is a major challenge for day school Heads. Does a student who becomes involved with the law while under the parent’s responsibility have any accountability to the school? Does an incident require a “front page story” before the school can argue that the student has harmed the school community? Or can an off-campus act that creates an unsafe environment for the school necessitate the school’s intervention, regardless of where it took place?

As a boarding school administrator who transitioned to a division leadership role and two Headships at day schools, I found that developing relationships with students was considerably harder at day schools.  Even at a boarding school that included day students, those day students were often on campus for meals, evening library hours, or athletic events. The easy, casual interactions that allow students to see the Head in more relaxed settings facilitate close personal relationships.

Parents and Board members who live, work, and socialize in the local community daily often tend to be much more involved in daily matters than boarding parents and Board members at a boarding school. When a Board member has her ear chewed by a disgruntled parent at the Little League field or the local market, she may, even at her most magnanimous, have trouble keeping her strategic hat on.

Expectations of the Head’s presence at events, games, and performances is under a sharper lens when parents attend their children’s activities.  All of us as parents can get tunnel vision, and when the Head is not at every athletic event (a physical impossibility given packed sports schedules), parent grumbling can start and grow. I attended plenty of school events, but I joked on several occasions that I needed three or four of those life-sized cardboard images of myself to have propped up at those events I could not attend.  At the boarding school, I never heard complaints about my presence.

There are certainly many advantages of a day school Headship, most of them related to lighter time demands and the relative convenience of not being on call 24/7. However, any illusion that this will be a relatively “part-time job” is not borne out by the realities.