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Away at school but closer to home with technology

Connor Orsava, a new boarding student at Rothesay Netherwood School in New Brunswick, can stay in touch with his mother, Susan Armstrong, using a variety of methods endorsed by the school – Skype, BlackBerry Messenger and Facebook.

andrew meade The Globe and Mail

As a boarding school student in the 1960s, Paul Kitchen recalls the ritual of calling home. After all it was unique, happening just once every two weeks, a time to catch up with his family and the goings-on there.

Now as head of Rothesay Netherwood School outside of Saint John, Mr. Kitchen ensures his 143 boarders in Grades 6 to 12 follow a much different pattern. With cellphones, texting, Facebook, instant messaging, video-chatting and other ubiquitous forms of communications, their communications home have almost no schedule at all.

"Kids and their families are in touch every single day; they talk on the phone, Skype and e-mail back and forth," says Mr. Kitchen, who's been in the position for 25 years and has seen a significant communications evolution among his young charges. "What we're trying to do is have the family unit stay in touch, stay intact."

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Connor Orsava, 15, a new Grade 9 student at the New Brunswick school, contacts his family regularly through BlackBerry Messenger and has loaded Skype and Facebook onto the laptop computer issued to him by Rothesay Netherwood.

The private day school in Toronto he previously attended blocked Facebook on campus and didn't allow him to download it onto his school computer, but Rothesay Netherwood encourages its use, he says, as long at it's outside of class time and a 90-minute study period on Sunday to Thursday evenings.

His mother, Susan Armstrong, says the regular communications from Connor are reassuring, as both of them adjust to him living away from home.

She recalls that when her brother was a boarder, there was a two-week period at the beginning of each school year when he wasn't allowed to call home, so that he wouldn't be distracted and could get over any homesickness.

"After that, you could call home on Wednesdays, using a telephone with a tether to a wall, and you'd have to get into the pecking order to use it," she says.

Today's instant communications have transformed the very notion of boarding, Mr. Kitchen says. "A boarding school is not that thing we used to envision 30 or 40 years ago, where the family connection was a little bit broken and the kids got toughened up and had to make it on their own."

He adds that through boarding, the family dynamic – and especially communications in the family – can often change.

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"Parents say they talk about meaningful things, they're not fighting about whether the kid's room is cleaned up or is eating a proper breakfast," Mr. Kitchen says.

Instead, the students report to their parents about their relationships at school, success on the soccer field or the novel they're reading in English.

That was the case for parent Barbara O'Beirne.

Three of her children boarded at St. John's Ravenscourt School in Winnipeg while the family lived in Colombia and Mexico, where her husband John has worked since 1996 for companies that build natural gas pipelines.

"You end up not having to deal with the nit-picky things parents have to," says Ms. O'Beirne, who now lives with her husband in Merida, Mexico, on the Yucatan Peninsula. "Sometimes I felt like I was cheating."

When her kids came home at Christmas, Easter and in the summer, "they wanted to spend time with us, which was great," she adds, and the family was closer as a result.

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Connor Orsava hopes that living away from home will somewhat change his relationship with his parents.

"Hopefully I won't get harassed as much at home about the small issues, and we can talk about different things," he says, adding that he also depends on communications technology to stay in touch with friends at his old school and elsewhere.

Ms. Armstrong says she is more confident with her son at Rothesay Netherwood, given the regular flow of information that comes from the school.

"There's no wondering," she says. "I know what he eats, I know where he sleeps, what class he's in, what his homework is."

Rothesay Netherwood also sends home 10 reports a year, Mr. Kitchen says. Given boarding students' busy academic and social schedules, and despite their range of communications options, they sometimes still have to be prodded to keep in touch with home. Mr. Kitchen may ask students to contact their parents, who call the school wondering why they've not replied to texts or e-mails.

And a list of 12 "Rules of Boarding" posted on the back of the door of each dorm in the school's residence includes a clear directive:

"Call home often, your family misses you."

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