Editor’s Note: Katherine Desiminie is a Union City resident and summer intern at the Hudson Reporter newspapers.
Driving down West Farm Road in Bethlehem, a small town in northern New Hampshire, leads to the even smaller campus of the White Mountain School, a private boarding high school consisting of 120 young men and women in grades nine through 12. In all directions, one can see snow capped mountains and trees covered in green leaves. This is where I arrived for my freshman year of high school two years ago, after being raised in Union City, N.J., for 14 years.
My first thoughts driving down that tree-surrounded road consisted mainly of “Oh God, what have I gotten myself into?” over and over again.
I had suddenly gone from Hudson County to a place where strangers smiled and waved at me as we passed on the street.
The White Mountain School is a progressive school, so the students call the teachers by their first names and the teachers are less of superior authority figures, and more like peers. The environment is relaxed, with couches in the classrooms and teachers holding classes outside just for fun. The student body is roughly 120 students, so the classes barely ever exceed 10 or 11 students. This makes for a personalized learning environment, with no stigma attached to not understanding something and needing to ask a question. I recall from my public school days in Union City that asking a question could be a daunting task.
Teachers are invested in their students with a level that is simply not attainable in a larger school, and they care that students are interested in what they are learning and that they really understand it, not just that they are able to pass a standardized test.
There is a certain way that private high schools tend to be perceived, images born of and reinforced by books such as “The Catcher in the Rye” and movies such as “Dead Poet’s Society.” While there are, indeed, hundreds of private high schools that are like the ones in those pop culture examples, with students who wear suits and ties and attend mass every day before class, The White Mountain School is not one of them. The environment is a lot less structured and a lot less like a public school.
However, there are similarities. The aspect of living in a dormitory with your peers and away from your parents is seen at White Mountain, too. The majority of the students are boarding students who live in a dormitory on campus.
The transition from living in a home with my parents doing everything for me to being very independent was easier than one would expect. At a school with such a small student body and such caring and invested teachers, the community becomes a second family and your dormitory becomes a second home.
Found it through ‘NJSeeds’ program
I found White Mountain through the NJSeeds program, a non-profit organization based in Newark that helps students broaden their range of educational scope to include private day and boarding schools. NJSeeds chooses promising students to participate in the program, which is completely free for the students, and helps them find and apply to private schools.
When I was in seventh grade at Woodrow Wilson School in the Union City school district, NJSeeds representatives came in and spoke, and I filled out an application. But I didn’t start at White Mountain until ninth grade.
The NJSeeds regimen includes two three-week programs, one the summer before eighth grade and the other the summer before ninth grade. There programs are kind of mock boarding school experiences, in which students live at a boarding school for three weeks in order to get a taste of life away from home and how the academic rigor at private school differs from that at public school. Students in the program also participate in classes every Saturday throughout their eighth grade year to help them be academically prepared for private school and to guide them through the application process.
Not only does NJSeeds provide those programs, but when students decide what their favorite school is and where they most want to go, representatives from NJSeeds contact the schools and advocate for the student. They also provide college tours, SAT classes, and information about summer programs.
Going to White Mountain gave me a lot of opportunities to do things and learn things I had never done before. We have field courses twice a year. I’ve been on trips to Maine and Boston to learn about community service, and this year I went to Washington D.C. to learn about the history of the feminist movement. I’ve hiked, rock climbed, canoed, sang the National Anthem with my a capella group at a baseball game, started a literary and art magazine, taught a Bollywood workshop, met students from Ethiopia, Kenya, Afghanistan, Germany, France, and more, and had a chance to step way outside my comfort zone on more than a few occasions. I have had new experiences, met new people, learned new things (inside and outside of the classroom), and discovered, what seems to me, a completely different world from the one I used to live in.