Applying to Private Elementary Schools

Parent Q&A

Private School admissions events Jan 9, 2017 (2 responses below)
  • Hi!

    We are a bit late in the school enrollment game. Our local OUSD public school is not working out for our kid who keeps saying school is boring and often simply refuses to go. The cost of private school is so huge that we were trying to make the public school option work. But... after 2 years at OUSD, we feel that our child's love for learning and free spirited intellectual curiosity are being suffed out by "busy work". It's sad. The older child doesn't complain about our local public school but the younger one who is in Kindergarten pitches a fight nearly every morning. 

    Are there any schools that we might be able to get into now (2 months after application deadline)? St. Paul and Park Day are very appealing to us due to proximity and what little we know about both schools, but we recognize that those are popular schools and trying to get into them for 1st grade is probably impossible...

    Does anyone have direct experience with Grand Lake Montessori's elementary school program? We know that its preschool program is well liked but we don't know what the elementary school is like.

    Many well-intentioned people comment that we should try for private school and don't assume that we won't get financial aid. Our combined household pre-tax income is $280,000, which to me sounds like it won't qualify us for any financial aid. (I know... it sounds like a lot of money but we live almost paycheck to paycheck because our monthly fixed expenses including student loan, mortage, property tax, insurance, food, gas, transportation, after school and school break childcare, utilities, etc. is over $10k a month and after we pay tax, there's very little money left for us to afford luxury like private school. So, we're really struggling with our child's seeming need for a different educational environment and how we are going to pay for it...

    Thank you. 

    Absolutely do apply. I know for sure that both Park Day and St. Paul's have accepted students after the application deadline in the last couple of years. It's also worth applying for aid to see what happens, though I agree that it is probably a long shot. GLM's elementary program is very new and quite small, but also considerably less expensive than the other two schools. No idea what it's like programmatically as it was just getting started when we were looking for schools for our child. Good luck with the search!

    Many schools in the East Bay have rolling admissions, even after the deadline has passed. If the websites aren't clear about it, the various admissions directors would probably be happy to have a conversation with you. They also would be the ones who could most likely talk through your personal financial situation (or direct you to someone who can) so you can gage whether it is worth applying for aid. It is expensive to live in the Bay Area, and I'm sure you're not the first family with a pre-tax income in the mid/upper 200s who has had these questions-- especially with two kids to consider. Good luck finding a school that works better for your children and family!

    Hello, Escuela Bilingue Internacional has been a great school for our family. I highly recommend, and they are still taking applications.

    Best of luck to you and your family :)

  • Private School admissions events

    (2 replies)

    We are currently applying to start our son in Kindergarten to Head Royce, St Paul, Redwood Day and Park day.  We are excited about all of them.  We are both working full time and attended the tours of each school, but really did not have the time to attend any of the open houses, socials etc. Anyone know if attendance at these events is a factor for admission?

    While attending those additional events might be helpful I don't think they'll hurt your chances. One administrator told us it looks good for you because it shows you're really excited about the school and they're more likely to recognize your name when they go through the applications but at the same time I doubt it would be a strike against you for not going.

    Hi I am applying to Head-Royce this year as well!  I wondered the same and have chatted with the folks at Head-Royce.  I was assured that these events are for my husband  and I to make sure the school is a good fit for our five-year-old not vice versa.  Crossing my fingers for grade one admissions! Good Luck to you.

Archived Q&A and Reviews


How Competitive is Admission into Private Schools?

Oct 2012

I'm a mom of a soon-to-be Kindergartener and I'm starting the tours and research for East Bay Private Schools. We're looking at many schools, but are most interested in The Berkeley School, Black Pine Circle, and Walden (so far).

My question, to be blunt, is ''How difficult is it to gain admission into these schools?'' We have a son, bright, sweet, enjoys preschool, and no behavioral problems - probably like most kids applying to these schools. The question of admission is on my mind because the SF Private Schools are very competitive and I wonder about the admission situation for these schools - particularly as we get excited and invested in what they are offering.

We are moving from the City, to become members of the East Bay community, and are excited about the transition ahead - but also feel clueless about some aspects of this process. Any insights and words of wisdom are welcome. Thank you!

Well, my son is already in 8th grade at Black Pine Circle - a school that has been beyond wonderful in every aspect - so I am talking about 2004-2005, but here is my experience: We looked at several schools two years before we were to start K, because we were planning to spend the year right before K living abroad. After attending an open house at BPC we fell in love with the school. We decided that this was the only school we really wanted to apply for. Logistically it was complicated, because we would be leaving the country during the in August 2003 and not returning until Sept 2004, a week before our son was to start K. So we were facing flying our 5 yr. old back for an interview in Jan or Feb. We called the school, we told them that we thought BPC was the best for us and we would not be applying to any other school, that we really liked it, and to our surprise they agreed to see our son for an interview before we left for Europe. In March 2004, along with the rest of his class, we received - by fax - the letter of acceptance. Black Pine Circle was incredibly accommodating, and I think it really helped that we were able to let them know without hesitation that if they would take us we would say YES! So if there is a particular school that is your clear favorite, and you think it is the perfect match for you and your family, do let them know. Nobody has ever confirmed this for me, but I do believe that if they know that if they offer you a spot you will say yes - everything else being equal -, it helps them decide who to offer the spot to. Very happy at BPC

Like you, I was concerned at how competitive admission to independent schools would be. So I chose 4 that I would be perfectly happy to have my child attend, and we received offers from 3 of them. Even if a school does not have a space for your child, most applicants are put on wait lists, and quite often a space opens up. Most schools are not looking for brainiacs or kids with some kind of extraordinary talent. Just happy kids who can take direction and enjoy learning. The only ''competitive'' aspect I have found is that a school will try to have a gender balance in a class, so if they have too many of one sex or the other, your child might not get an offer while they try to balance things out.

Totally depends on which private school you are talking about, but in general, I'd guess that private school admission here in the East Bay is far less competitive than in SF. There are a few private schools that get many more applications than they have openings. You can usually spot these because they have a higher octane ''screening'' process for prospective students - they are looking for 4 year olds who can already read and write a little, sit quietly at circle time, and participate in an interactive session. But the majority of local private schools are not difficult to get in to. If you want your child to go to private school, there are private schools here that want your child!

The reason is that public schools have steadily gained in popularity over the last 10-15 years in Berkeley and Oakland, and that fact, coupled with the recession, has resulted in declining enrollment at most local private schools. Many of them were established in the 1970's when more parents had lost confidence in the public schools, and they continued to thrive during the tech boom even though public schools were improving, because so many families had the money to not even consider public school as an option. But things are different now. The recession has reduced the number of families that can afford private school tuition. These families have improved their local public schools via more parent participation and higher expectations, which in turn has attracted more families away from private school. Another reason is Oakland's charter schools, the best of which now have a more competitive application process than a lot of the private schools.

Most East Bay families that can afford private school now live in a neighborhood that has a pretty good public school. Many public schools even exceed nearby private schools in quality. So the private schools have to work a little harder now to keep their enrollment at the levels they need to sustain salaries and infrastructure. I think this is a trend, because of the cycle of families improving public schools and thereby attracting more families to public school. I suspect we will see more private school closures in the coming years.

This is just my opinion, as someone whose kids have attended a variety of public and private schools over the years. I have chosen private over public when I had a kid who needed something different than what he could get in public school. Everybody has their reasons. You should definitely check out the public school for your new neighborhood, because there's a chance it might be quite a bit better than some of the local provate schools. But there is certainly no reason to fret about getting into an East Bay private school if that's what you want. local mom

Anxiety about affording the ''right'' Kindergarten

Oct 2009

Our oldest child will be entering Kindergarten next fall and I've started to obsess about schools for her. I'm just not sure about our local public school--test scores are not that high (although improving) and from what I can tell, parent involvement is strong only among a small number of families. I'll probably end up applying for an intra-district transfer (WCCUSD), but the chances seem slim of getting one from what I understand. So, I'm going to research private schools, but I'm worried about long-term affordability--we could probably swing one kid, but not two, unless I go back to work full-time at a stressful job with a commute. Realistically, what kind of financial aid do private schools offer--would we get a better package with only my husband's salary? Sibling discounts? Also, is it terribly competitive to get into most decent private schools? Any insights would be much appreciated. perplexed parent

I was in your shoes several years ago. I did panic, and I decided to go the private school route. I was very impressed with the private school tours, the sense of community, the lovely environment. After three years in what is one of the best private schools in the area, I realized I had made a big mistake!

Turns out, the public schools in WCCUSD are more advanced academically, have a multitude of resources that the private schools do not have, have wonderful, supportive, well-educated, involved parents, excellent teachers (who are more educated, often, than their private school peers), and amazing kids! Four years later, I am still kicking myself that we ever went the private school route.

I would suggest you send your child to your neighborhood school. Give it a try. If it does not work out, private schools are so under-enrolled these days that you can transfer the next year. Had I known what I know now, I would never, ever start at a private school without first trying the public school.

Four kids later, we are thrilled with WCCUSD. Yes, it has been a bumpy ride, but our kids loved elementary school (and no, they did not attend Madera, Kensington, or Harding), one is thriving at Portola, and two are at El Cerrito High. Support your local neighborhood school

I just wanted to mention here that my impression year before last (my twins are now in first grade) is that schools may reject applicants on the basis of financial need. We have friends from preschool who also have twins--who applied to the exactly the same schools we did--but they applied for financial aid while we didn't. Our families are both white, and our kids perform (as far as we can tell) at the same level. However, our friends' kids were flat-out rejected at every school they applied to, while our twins were accepted at one and wait-listed for the other two. There was no explanation for their rejections (just a ''not a good fit'' type letter). I had thought that the admissions claim to be ''need blind'' but... well, I'm just sayin'... You might want to avoid the financial aid request, at least for the first year. Hated The Process

I too went through the anxiety of Kindergartenarama two years ago and am happily on the other side -which turned out for us to be in a private school in Oakland. First, I recommend creating a chart with a list down the one side of what your criteria for school are and dream so you're not just in lizard-brain trying to weigh practicalities. Keep filling it in with a score card (A-F?) for each school. Then I think the very best thing you can do with the first question about navigating your public school options is to go find out what your options really are -the rules, the school, probabilities of transfers, etc. Visit -it's not all about scores!! Second, regarding private schools, its important for you to thoroughly review what is said in print and online so you can narrow it down to where you'd want to visit. And then visit for your self and ask alot of questions, including about financial aid, sense the vibe of each place so you have your own gut reaction. Each school's answer about percentages and probabilities of getting in will be distinct. I haven't ever heard of sibling discounts:( Finally, apply for all of the ones you like -NONE you don't- say 4. With the money... you may end up being motivated to go back to work and there may just be the perfect -not as stressful position for you. So start with the ideal, see for yourself and gauge what you can really sacrafice -one way or another- to get as close to your initial dream as you can. Heather

If you are able to work but choose not to, why would you be eligible for the limited supply of financial aid over families with working parents who still can't afford tuition? Financial aid committees will ask the same question. You can always apply, but the purpose of financial aid is not to save you from a stressful job and a commute. Sorry to be harsh, but as a full time working parent with a commute and a stressful job paying full tuition, I found the notion offensive. Perhaps you should reconsider your public school options if tuition isn't comfortable. good luck

It is important to take time to think about your child and the kind of environment in which they function best (and your needs as a parent), and to look at schools with this in mind. It will be helpful if you know the size, style and spirit of the school you seek. Visit the schools you are considering -- public or private -- and see how YOU are treated as a prospective parent -- you will learn a lot by being there in person. I made a decision not to consider schools where I did not feel welcomed at the visit.

Most private schools offer financial aid and if you feel that private school is something you may want to pursue, it is worth applying and seeing what assistance you are offered. There are also very good public schools out there and even those in the same district can be quite different so keep an open mind.

Although difficult, it is not impossible to transfer out of WCCSD -- I know several families who have successfully done so. However, they generally found out that their child was accepted to the other school district after the school-year started. Depending on your child, a school transfer at that point could be stressful (for example, my child was shy and therefore I did not want to consider a mid-year transfer). It is free to apply for an intra-distict transfer, so if you think it may work for you, file the paperwork and decide about it IF your child happens to get accepted.

In my experience, becoming aware of the right learning environment for our child was something that evolved through the elementary years. We were able to find a mid-size public school that worked well for our child initially, and after moving to El Cerrito, we found a small community-oriented cooperative elementary, Crestmont, where my child thrived. if you work through the process, and don't put ''all your eggs in one basket'' it will get sorted out and you will find the right school for your child.

Most of all, don't get discouraged -- the months before kindergarten can be an anxious time for parents, but if you know the type of learning environment you are seeking for your child, you will find it. -- Been There

Deciding on school is a very stressful experience. A couple of things about private schools. It is not as much competitive as it is about finding the right match for you and your family. In your area there a lot of private schools to consider. I would recommend exploring those and, if you find any that you feel are a match, applying for financial aid. Many schools including ours offer significant financial aid for those who need it.

My kids are at Windrush School in El Cerrito. It has been an excellent match for our family. A great community of families, a very strong academic program and an extremely caring and nurturing environment for the kids - they put a lot of emphasis on the social and emotional needs of the kids to enable them to succeed academically and in the world as citizens. It is on the small size which makes the transition to kindergarten very smooth for the kids. They say that the two most challenging transitions for people are to kindergarten and to college. I felt that having that level of attention in that first year was really important.

Private schools are offering tours, I encourage you to sign up for those and the information days/nights to see what is out there. Good luck with your search. I know it is not an easy time. Anon

Basing your decision on whether or not to attend a school because of test scores is very short sighted.

My children got a fantastic education at a W. County elementary school with average test scores because they had caring teachers and the school staff were very compassionate and committed to helping each child.

All that money that we saved by doing public school went into a college savings fund, paid for family vacations, and enrichment during the school year and summers.

Plus our kids had the experience of meeting children from all walks of life--rich and poor, regular ed and special ed. These are invaluable ''real world'' experiences that will serve them well later in life.

Also, some schools with very high test scores can be difficult to handle because helicopter parents gravitate toward them and generally drive themselves and the school staff nuts with their worries and anxieties.

There are some very good reasons to attend private schools but why not try the ''free'' option first, see if it works for you, and if it's not a good fit, you can apply to a private school later.

Dear Perplexed Parent, I was super stressed also about the big kindergarten decision. We decided not to go to our public school although we really couldn't afford much else. We applied to three private schools. Our number one choice St. Paul's not only let us in but also gave us the best financial aid package out of the three schools. Last year our second child started at the same school and much to our relief we received enough financial aid for both children to make it work for our family. St. Paul's really seems to do everything it can to keep families together. I think about 30% of the school is on some sort of financial aid. We LOVE the school and really couldn't be happier!!!! I would recommend that you look at all the schools you are interested in and go through the financial aid process. Good luck with everything, Mom of three

Well, at the risk of sounding glib, the best way to alleviate anxiety about affording school is just to choose public school!

You didn't mention which school you are zoned to. There seems to be a fair amount of fear in the West County area about public schools that are not Kensington or Madera. I say that without an ounce of judgment because last year I definitely shared that fear.

This year, that fear is gone because my son and a bunch of his friends from the neighborhood are very happy at Mira Vista. We know families that are happy at Riverside, Harding, Washington, Olinda, Stewart and Ellerhorst. I don't know any families at Fairmont right now but from what I've heard it's a small, close-knit community with some great teachers. There are some great things happening at schools with so-so test scores.

WCCUSD kindy is still just a half day. Before school began I saw this as a drawback but now I see it as a plus. Kids get all afternoon, at home or at aftercare, to unwind and play. And when you do public school you're more likely to be able to afford fun enrichment classes!

Best of luck to you. public school mom

How many kindergartens should we apply to?

Sept 2006

I know this is kind of a crass question but in facing the private school application process for kindergarten in Fall of '07, I can't help but wonder how many schools people typically apply to and/or recommend applying to? How competitive is this process anyway?? My husband and I are already a bit aghast at the prospect of private school (We seriously cannot figure out how anybody pays for it! How would we? Who knows?)and truly hope to get a decent Oakland public school in the lottery (not necessarily one of the supposed ''best''). But we feel like we need to have a back-up in case that doesn't come through. At the same time, we don't want to spend a small fortune on application fees, nor get totally caught up in the school crazies. Any advice on how to approach the private school application process from more of a ''only as a back-up'' approach? Is such a thing possible? Also, everyone says that financial aid is available, even for more ''affluent'' people, but what does that really mean? We certainly are not affluent by Bay Area standards, but we could never claim to be poor either (thank goodness). Lastly, has anyone elected to have their child sit out kindergarten in lieu of attending either a poor public school or unaffordable private school? Thanks so much
Feeling quite flummoxed

I have a son in private school and a daughter in public school-- feel pretty experienced in both sides of the equation. Regarding the application process--my advice is to only apply to those schools you would really consider. If that's only two schools--as it was in our case--only apply to two. Remember that your child will be ''assessed'' at each school you apply to-- and while this is made as non-stressful as possible it's certainly not easy for any 4 or 5 year old to do repeatedly. I think there is a great myth about how competitive it all is. While there are certainly a few schools that are VERY hard to get into without legacy or sibling advantage, there are also lots of schools thathave lots of spaces! And they are often the best schools!

I would also strongly encourage you to consider the public school option. You can always change your mind down the line if it doesn't work out! We love our daughter's school and in some ways regret not sending our son in the beginning. Good luck! Both public and private

I don't know specifically about OUSD but most school districts typically tell you of your school assignment late in the summer, possibly even days or a few weeks before the first day of school. Whereas with private schools you are notified of acceptance in March, and then have just one week to accept and put in a deposit to hold that space. So ask yourself whether it would be worth losing your deposit to hold a space at a private school you like. There will likely be openings at a few private schools once you know your public school, but I think that would be too late to get financial aid for the year. Our daughter goes to Walden in Berkeley which is a teacher collective where the costs are kept down by being a collective and by parents doing work hours at the school for tuition reduction- still it's expensive but less than most of the others. The larger schools do offer more aid to middle income families. BTW our family loves Walden; and yet it has been very hard to pay for, we have accumulated a lot of credit card debt and not taken major vacations for years to do it, mostly it has been worth it, but not easy. We only applied to 2 and got in both; I think the # of apps. to do would depend on the perceived prestigiousness of the schools you are applying to. anon

Like you, my husband and I considered private school as a backup only. Frankly, the financial aspect was daunting (who wants a second mortgage to pay for 9 months of school for a gulp kindergartner?).

My advice is to visit as many private AND public schools as you can before deciding which one to apply to. Each school has very distinct personalities and philosophies and it's true that you need to find the one or ones that fit your child's needs. After visiting only 3, I discovered that nothing can compare to an actual visit. Seeing the classrooms and playgrounds, viewing the resources and even at times experiencing the teachers with their students gives a parent a strong feeling for whether or not the school is a good fit.

While I can't speak for all private schools, it was explained to me at one that we visited, that all applications are first reviewed and students accepted or waitlisted. Only after the students have been identified does the school then look at financial aid applications. Anything from $1000 and up was available according to need and fund availability.

The application process for both public and private schools is crazy. Assessments and questionnaires, self-portraits and educational backgrounds -- it's like I was entering college again -- and for a 5 year old? It seemed insane.

In the end, the lottery treated us unkindly and we did not get placed into any of the 7 Oakland public schools we had listed. We were accepted to and are now attending Redwood Day School. While the cost is high and believe me, it's a stretch each month, my daughter is ecstatic. The resources available to parents, students, and faculty is tremendous and the philosophy is echoed with every teacher at the school. It's like having a first child -- the process is painful, but in the end, after the decision is made, you make the best of the situation. Public or private is not the issue. Finding the right school for your little one is the priority and there are plenty of options to choose from. No doubt, it will be school crazies (particularly for the first time parents) -- but whatever you and your husband decide will be the right decision for you.

Been There, Done That

How does the school application process work?

June 2006

Hi, there, I know it is kind of early but I cannot not worrying--our child is going to go to kindergarten next year and it seems we have a big project coming to research the school. I would like to ask a couple beginner's questions:
1. how many schools do people usually apply (I assume he may have to go to a private school as local public school is not of the satisfactory quality)?
2. any idea the ratio of applicant vs admitees for the private schools around east bay? what are the standards for schools to admit their students? what if a child is rejected by all the schools?
I know these may be silly but it seems a highly stressful procedure--so many what-ifs. Any response would be deeply appreciated. Thank you. anon

The whole process of applying to private schools for kindergarten is surprisingly stressful. The ratios of applicants to those admitted varies by school -- some are just more sought after than others. I looked at 8 schools within a certain geographic area -- I was simply not willing to drive too far or on certain traffic filled highways. I ended up applying to 4 of the 8 schools I toured. I had one clear first choice school, but felt like the others were all good choices for our family should we not get the first choice. I felt reasonably sure we'd get into at least one of the four. I tried to keep an open mind throughout the process and I also took it pretty seriously. The competition is fierce at certain schools. As it turned out, we did get our first choice. Frankly, I've never heard of a child not getting in anyhere -- if you only apply to one or two you risk that, I suppose, though I also know people who only applied to one and got in. We felt like our public school was not an option and did not want September to roll around without a school and that caused us to apply to more rather than fewer.

My advice would be tour as many as you have time for -- they are very different from each other and your preconceived ideas my turn out to be inaccurate. The good news is that we have some truly wonderful private schools in the east bay. Good luck anon

From what I recall and have seen since we went through this process 7 years ago- people usually apply to 3-5 schools, and there are usually 3-5 times as many applicants as there are slots. It makes it feel competitive, but if you look at the math there are really enough spots to go around. Don't freak out- most likely there will be a good match at one school- they'll pick you and you'll pick them Good luck!

I don't know how many private schools you should apply to, but I recommend that you talk to parents in your community who have children at a variety of public schools and get their views on those schools. There may actually be public schools in your city that do meet your and your child's needs. Get direct information; not heresay from families that don't have kids there. Get phone numbers for friends of your friends with public school kids and call and ask the parents for the strengths and challenges of their kid's school. Then pick a couple of public schools in your city and do the enrollment paperwok for those (It's free!). If nothing else, these can be your fallback schools, and you will have educated yourself with first-hand information in the mean time. Also, one never knows when they may no longer be able to afford private school and need transfer their children to a public school. It is good to have the information, just in case - Mom


When are kindergarten open houses?

Aug 2006

Hi! I have a 4 year old son who will start Kindergarten in Fall 2007, was wondering if anyone knew about any open-houses (both private and public) that will be happening anytime soon? Any help or direction is appreciated. THANKS! Lorena

Google search for your district - Oakland or Berkeley or whatever - then go on the site, jot down numbers and start making calls. Some of the schools announce their Open Houses on the BPN, some don't. You'll need to do the research to find out for sure. It's a journey and you're just starting out. Unfortunately, you've got to start by calling and keeping a list.. Been there.

For BUSD they usually have opprotunities for day time visits and scheduled evening open houses early in the calendar year. However, to be sure of the dates and times, you should call the BUSD Enrollment Office (I think). They are at (510) 644-6504 anon