With the emergence of Shattuck-St Mary’s over a decade ago as arguably the best hockey development program in North America, almost everyone knows that the prep school option is out there. Too many hockey families, however, dismiss the option without much research because they don’t possess the correct information about prep schools. The prep school option often has more benefits and is more accessible than most realize and I hope you will read on to better understand the details and how to pursue the option. If your kids are young (squirt/peewee), I still encourage you to read on. There are things you can do, years in advance, to make this option more accessible to your child and your family.
Full disclosure… My son played hockey for and graduated from a prep school in 2012. At this time, I have no existing affiliation with any prep school hockey program, but I obviously have a number of relationships with coaches and kids who do. Like many of you, I had never considered prep school as an option for my hockey player. But, nearly a decade ago MYHockey expanded to include midget teams (it started with younger teams) and when that expansion happened, I begin to better understand the place prep schools play in developing players and young men and women.
If you attended a prep school or have kids attending a primary school affiliated with a prep school, then you are not likely to learn much new information here. This is primarily for those of you who have don’t have the background to make the prep school option a reality. Let’s start with why you might even consider the option. I consider the top three reasons a hockey family might consider the prep school option to be:
– Combination of great academics and great hockey. Midget AAA hockey can require kids to miss 15-30 days of school per year. Most public and many private schools have a real issue with this. Prep school kids may miss school, but it will be less and it’s understood/supported by the school. And in most cases, the education they get is far superior to what they might otherwise receive. There are subtle benefits that go along with this. For example, instead of a player feeling almost obligated to play Juniors, they see all of their classmates applying and getting accepted into great universities and find it easier to choose the route that fits them best.
– Better use of time. This includes both parents and players. Midget AAA kids typically spend a lot of time in the car. Before they get their license, it’s you taking them to and from practice and weekend games. After they get their license, it’s you worrying about them doing all that driving. In most prep school, kids attend class, walk to the rink to lift and/or practice and are done around 6:00pm when academics kick in again. As a parent of a boarding student, this requires little to none of your time. Even getting to out-of-town games is covered by the school. No adjusted work schedule, no waiting in traffic, less stress. Prep school kids typically practice four days per week, more than Midget AAA teams.
– Better social life. Midget AAA players give up so much during their high school years by playing the sport they love. They miss out on school functions like dances and football games. Most of their fellow students don’t know or appreciate what they do on the weekends. Prep schools offer a more healthy mix and the players get the opportunity to reap the benefits of wearing their school colors and being an integral part of the school spirit, not completely disconnected from it. I have been known to describe it in this way: a midget AAA player’s social life suffers because of hockey and it commitments away from school, whereas a Prep or High School player’s social life is enhanced by his participation in hockey.
Now that you are interested, your two biggest concerns are the expense and the fact that your baby is going to leave home at a young age. Both are valid concerns. Let’s address each.
Prep schools typically have tuition and fees ranging from $30k-50k per year. This would include the academic and hockey expenses. It may or may not include room and board and thus the reason for some of the variability in the expense. Let me be clear, I said they have tuition and fees in that range, but that is not necessarily what parents are paying. An estimated 50% of prep school hockey players are getting significant discounts through scholarships or financial aid. Many are paying only 25-50% of the published fees. But that depends upon what your child has to offer the school (more on that later). According to Russell Sherman of DITR Guide Services, there is a school out there for everyone. It’s about finding the right fit for your family, your child and your situation. You might have to be flexible and keep an open mind. It’s possible that you cannot afford your preferred school, but that doesn’t mean that should give up on the opportunity. A lot of families are sending their kids to prep schools for the same price as midget AAA or junior hockey and there is a good chance you could too.
If you are raising your hockey player outside of a major hockey development metropolitan area like Minneapolis, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Toronto or Montreal you might be considering midget AAA option that includes billeting. If so, there is a good chance that you are facing a scenario where your player will be moving away from home regardless of what exact route your family chooses. If you have the ability to secure a great billet family before committing to a team and know exactly what you are getting, it can be a good option; however, there are a lot of billet family horror stories out there too. Prep schools take the gamble out of the equation and provide a very structured, secure environment typically run by faculty who live in the dorms with the students. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spend months or even years preparing your player for the day he/she leaves home, but traditional prep schools provide a great environment for your child should you chose to go that route. Not only are their dorm parents to help with the transition and oversight, but the prep school schedule often dictates a very efficient and full schedule. Jonathan Johnson, head coach at Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh often talks about the schedule issue with perspective parents. Prep schools really optimize the amount of time your child has available to train and study. And while this optimized schedule can lead to more development in the classroom and on the ice, it has the side benefit of being extremely attractive to universities. They know that a student who has excelled in a prep school is more prepared for college and playing college sports than those who have not lived through experience where so much of their schedule is dictated by the school and its hockey program.
Assuming you think the option is still worth checking out, the question is when. I’ll only touch the surface here, but at a high level most families enroll their child in prep schools their freshmen or sophomore year of high school. First year juniors are not all that uncommon, but rarely do prep schools accept incoming seniors. There are a dozen or more that accept post-grads and it is typically used as an option by kids attending or hoping to attend an Ivy League or Little Ivy League university. Generally speaking, sending your child as an incoming freshmen typically provides you the most options. So, I would recommend that if your player is currently in eighth grade, this is your prime time to pursue the prep school option. Current freshmen also make up a large percentage of those who will attend a prep school next fall with a number of those kids entering prep school and repeating their freshmen year giving them the full prep school academic experience. Regardless of your players current age, it’s best to start the process by visiting schools and talking to admissions departments in the fall. Research in the fall, apply in the winter, decide in the spring. Schools are looking for well-rounded teenagers. According to Sherman, there are four primary elements to your application from the schools perspective: Grades, Test Scores, Character/Maturity and Hockey. Briefly, let’s look at each of these. They want to see that your child has been attending a quality school and has a track record of success. That doesn’t mean they won’t accept your child if his background is less than perfect, but they do want to understand your existing school’s academic rigor and they want to see that your child has a history of high performance. While test scores are a related academic concern, they might be looked at separately because good grades and high test scores do not always go hand-in-hand. Each school has its own required or preferred test, but the SSAT and ISEE are the most commonly required. You typically want to take these in the fall or early winter prior to applying for admissions. Most prep schools require a student interview as part of the admissions process. This may or may not include a separate parent interview, but most include a student interview. Simply stated, they are looking for mature, well-adjusted students that have the right personality traits to be successful while attending the school and afterwards (think endowment). Depending upon the school, the last (and least important) consideration is your player’s hockey skills. That is not the case for many of the “hockey” schools like Shattuck-St Mary’s or the Okanagan Hockey Academy, but it is for most of your traditional prep schools.
It is all four of these elements, however, that really determine if your family qualifies for admissions and/or financial assistance from a school. And because there is such a large difference between the schools, their history, student requirements and endowments, your player may be perceived quite a bit differently by each school. Applying to and pursing admissions to a variety of schools can provide your family with the most options and help you find a good match. Unless your child excels at all four elements, he will likely be rejected by one or more schools, accepted but offered no financial assistance by others and accepted and offered assistance by the remainder. Schools with medium to large endowments often offer a fair amount of financial need based assistance that requires you submit some form of family financial status application like the PFS.
While New England is the “home” of the prep school with approximately sixty schools offering prep hockey programs, there are other options. The MPHL is a non-New England Prep School hockey league with schools from the US and Canada with some great academics and a history of NHL draft picks. While some schools do not offering boarding, many do including Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh which is upgrading their long-standing five day boarding program to a standard full seven day program for the 2015-16 season. The CSSHL is a western Canada league where most schools are hockey focused, partnering with local public and private schools for the education element of the school. Most use a billeting model (Calgary’s Edge School is the exception and is a more traditional prep school) instead of dormitories. Andy Oakes, head of the Okanagan Hockey Academy and founding member of the CSSHL likes to stress the ten (10) month hockey program that you will find at his school and many of the others in his league. Where traditional prep schools often require students participate in sports other than hockey in the spring or fall, the CSSHL schools are hockey intense for almost the entire year. And that model has been expanded to a number of new programs in the Lower Mainland area of British Columbia and to schools in Ontario as well.
Traditionally, much of the US-born talent in the NHL has been the product of the Minnesota High School hockey system or the New England Prep School System. The emergence of the US NTDP has change these statistics some, but prep schools have produced the likes of Brian Leetch, Zach Parise, Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Max Pacioretty, Jonathan Quick and an entirely new crop of talented young players like NHL Rookies Matt Dumba (MIN), Curtis Lazar (OTT) and Kevin Hayes (NYR). Just as importantly, prep schools have produced a very large number of highly successful individuals and may be an excellent option for your family. It’s worth checking out.
Note: Since this article was written, there are other options (and leagues) available as well that are excellent.