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December/January 2009

Campus Life Before College
Taking College Prep a Step Further

The 80-acre campus of Wesleyan School in Norcross was designed to feel more like a college.

In Metro Atlanta, new residents looking for schools may find themselves comparing academic programs, taking a campus tour, maybe even visiting a dorm room or the fine arts building or inquiring about financial aid—and their children aren’t even going to college just yet. Plenty of primary and secondary schools are going beyond college-prep and becoming college-like, in campus setup, student life, and yes, cost. But the benefits of attending these schools may outweigh the expense. Offering the traditional academic subjects, they typically also offer student resources that are similar to a college, including larger libraries, dining halls, student lounges, more extracurricular activities and a wider variety of courses. In addition, the campus setup teaches students the skills necessary to succeed in college and beyond—independence, time-management, responsibility, as well as writing, critical thinking and study skills.

“People moving to Atlanta are very fortunate,” says Paul Stockhammer, president of Brandon Hall School in Dunwoody. “Atlanta offers countless school choices to meet a variety of needs.”

Students come from all over the world to attend Brandon Hall. It’s a coeducational school of 130 students in grades four through 12. There’s a boarding option for boys.

“We have students from China, South Africa, Belgium, Turkey and more,” Stockhammer says. The foreign students are learning about American schools and culture, while the American students are learning about the world from a personal perspective.

Similar to a college, the campus is situated on 27 acres. It sits on the Chattahoochee River and evokes images of a small New England college, with the courtyard and charming architecture. Regular classes are limited to six or seven students. One-to-one or two-to-one classes are also available, and college acceptance is one requirement for graduation.

“We are a school for students who profit from small classes,” Stockhammer says, describing his campus as the “intensive care” of education. That care comes at a cost, though. Tuition begins at $28,000 a year for day school, with each one-to-one class adding $7,600 to the bill. “Many of our parents look forward to college, because it will be cheaper,” Stockhammer jokes.

Nearby in Norcross, the Wesleyan School campus was specifically designed to feel like a college. “We made sure our four main buildings were built facing to create a quad rather than being built facing the main road,” says Andy Cook, director of admissions. “It may have been more functional, certainly, to have the buildings facing the road, but we wanted our school to have more of a college-campus feel.” New to campus are a 50,000-square-foot fine arts building and a performance gymnasium.

“The campus setup allows kids to get out of the basic class-to-class, single-hallway structure that some schools offer. Middle and high school students change buildings for different classes throughout the day. And we allow our kids to spend time on the campus—when the weather is right, you’ll see students out on the quad playing Frisbee, studying, socializing.”

Two main aspects of Wesleyan’s curriculum—writing and critical thinking— mirror those of post-secondary schools. “Critical thinking skills help our students become individuals—to have an opinion on something and be able to back it up with strong evidence and not just regurgitate what they’re told,” Cook says. And students write in every class, even math. “In college, about 80 percent of how students present themselves to professors is through writing,” he says. The courses at Wesleyan also mimic the more discussion- oriented courses students might have in college—where interaction with teachers and other students is encouraged. With 1,083 students in grades kindergarten through 12, Wesleyan is able to maintain smaller classes, which allow for more discussion. Tuition ranges from $14,680 for younger students to $16,935 for high schoolers.

Brenau Academy, a high school for girls in Gainesville, is not just like a college—the school shares a campus with one: Brenau University. Students may live on or off campus. “What is special about the academy is that our students also have the college experience, by living on a campus, for one. But many students take advantage of the option to take college classes at the university. We have students who take actual college classes when they’re ready,” headmaster Timothy Daniel says.

Students can incorporate university classes into their regular schedule and earn college credits. The school does not offer Advanced Placement courses, because they feel they don’t need them. With only 80 students, Brenau Academy is a small school by intention. “We would not want to be much larger,” says Daniel. “Our students are coming to a small, structured, nurturing kind of school, yet we’re surrounded by and have the larger resources of this wonderful university.”

Forty percent of the academy’s students take university classes, and that number is growing. Brenau uses a traditional high school schedule but is considering mirroring a collegiate schedule so more of its students can fit university classes in. Tuition is $11,500 for day students and $25,400 for boarding students.

  Woodward Academy campus
Woodward Academy, with nearly 3,000 students, is the nation’s largest independent school. The school operates its main campus in College Park and another campus in Johns Creek. “Much like a liberal arts college, we emphasize academics, arts and athletics,” says Rusty Slider, vice president of admissions. The curriculum is strongly focused on higher education. “Opportunity comes in the breadth of experience,” Slider says. Science electives, for example, might include botany and oceanography or anatomy and physiology. This gives students the opportunity to focus on a particular interest they may have, and with the variety of different courses generally available at college-style schools, nearly any student can find his or her niche.

Campus life at Woodward is much like a college. Older students change buildings for classes. Teachers keep regular office hours, so teacher availability is similar to colleges, which may make it easier for students to ask for help with schoolwork or even life. This increased student-teacher interaction also provides comfort to parents, because they know their child has another trusted person to turn to for sound advice.

Like the other schools, Woodward aims to instill responsibility and independence in students. In the upper grades, students at both Wesleyan and Woodward may elect to have a free period. Students can take an elective or keep it free, choosing to study or socialize or take advantage of the many other activities and resources available. The students certainly enjoy the freedom, but one of the main benefits of this independence is that it can help them learn how to effectively organize their time— time-management skills are invaluable in college when trying to juggle multiple courses and assignments and, for some students, jobs.

Even the admissions process at the schools is similar to a college, offering practice for the future. Students at Woodward are selected based on tests, grades, recommendations and an interview with an admissions officer. About one-third of applicants are admitted. Tuition is $11,800 for lower grades and $19,100 for high schoolers.

Clearly, Atlanta’s schools are taking college prep a step further, offering a campus that mimics a college and teaching skills necessary for success after high school. For students, this early college-prep experience also increases confidence, better preparing them for the true college atmosphere. However, this learning environment may not work best for all students, so visiting potential schools is important. Rather than looking only at what a school offers, parents should also consider what their child needs.

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