History of Boarding Schools

— The Association of Boarding Schools
Updated on Sep 2, 2009

This article is generously provided for use by TABS with permission from The Vincent/Curtis Educational  Register.

In considering a boarding school for your son or daughter, know that you enter into an educational realm that had its genesis well before the Revolutionary War.  Though it is not within the scope or purpose of this writing to develop a lengthy history, a brief overview of the evolution of such schools might well provide basic information which will be useful as you conduct a school search.

The Colonial Era

At its earliest stage, education in colonial days was seldom thought of as being either formal or structured.  In fact, the burden of educating youth in the fledgling colonies was placed squarely on the shoulders of the family, the church, and, when possible, the community.  Gradually, the “old field schools” came into existence in agrarian areas.  Seasonal in nature, this early attempt at education operated around an agrarian schedule, finding small groups of students in session only when not engaged in planting, harvesting or tending to other farm related duties. 

quote 1Latin Grammar Schools

These early schools were followed by the elite “Latin Grammar Schools.”  Here, the focus was on classical studies, with a curriculum emphasizing the study of  classical works by Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Homer, Socrates, and Hesiod.  Strictly constructed and preparing the vast majority of their graduates for the clergy or positions in teaching, the Latin Grammar Schools performed the important function of college preparation for a limited number of students during the first two-thirds of 17 th century America.

With the continued growth of the colonies and the increased influence of European nations, small, one-teacher schools emerged, offering a broader curriculum and subjects which included: mathematics, modern languages, geography, rhetoric, accounting, logic, and English grammar.  Private by nature and by operation, these “English Grammar Schools” could be supported only in areas where there was an adequate populace.  Further, they were usually the enterprise of a single individual who alone served as headmaster, faculty, and trustee.  Their permanence was ephemeral and rested solely upon the ability of the school to remain solvent.  For all practical purposes, the scattered English Grammar Schools were continually clouded by financial instability.  Therefore,  they gradually gave way to the more successful “Academy movement,” which represented a compromise between the more practical education of the English Grammar School and the more traditional and classical education of the Latin Grammar School.


Academies in America varied in mission and scope.  Depending on the institution, they offered curricula that would allow an individual to enter directly into college or, having completed one’s formal schooling, to go directly into an occupation.  The first academy to enroll students from both nearby and distant locations opened in 1763, more than a century before the public school movement began in America.  Students were generally housed with faculty masters or townspeople who would take in boarders.  Thus, the earliest academies were without dormitories as we know them today.  Further, the sense of in loco parentis was embraced by the host teacher or host family, rather than the school itself.  Educator John P. McLeod finds this arrangement quite in keeping with today’s educational imperative, and comments:

“In a way, the early academy form encapsulated three influences which educators today argue are critical ingredients of a successful education – a source of formal knowledge (the academy proper), the family tradition (parental values), and society at large (the community and local family).  Certainly, within the society at that time, the academy education represented a remarkable degree of exposure and potential for learning.”

Over time, these schools became well established on the American educational scene and succeeded for myriad reasons.  In some cases, they were the product, not of academic zeal but rather, of religious furtherance with puritanical leanings.  Essentially, it was hoped by those such as Samuel Phillips, Jr., that the academies might well provide an educational solution to many of the social ills that he, and others, felt present.  As America’s cities grew and urban centers became more complex, internally corrupt, and dangerous, many urban dwellers sought a means for their children to escape the city, reside in a healthy (if not somewhat isolated) atmosphere, and be influenced by strong educational figures who would mold their moral, intellectual and physical characters.

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