Private vs. Public High Schools

Parent Q&A

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  • Hello Parents!

    My daughter is a Freshman at a private parochial school and is feeling like she shouldn’t be there? We can not convince her otherwise … despite the fact that she:

    • has made friends easily 
    • she is a straight A student
    • she is involved
    • her teachers love her
    • she got in fair and square: high school placement test was amazing, her essays were amazing, her teacher/principal recommendation letters were stellar. She had a solid interview … Honestly, she did that!
    • and she LOVES her school

    EVERY night we have to go through the same thing. I can’t figure out why she doesn’t think she is worthy of going to school there?????? Yes, she went to a public school her first 9 years and now feels badly that her friends were not able to go too because of various reasons. But, that doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t go! We have already told her we aren’t pulling her out, so she had better just deal with it. But, I really want her to enjoy her experience. Is this going to be a looooong 4 years or, will she finally get over it? Have you ever experienced this with your child? 

    She also has anxiety and a hard time getting to sleep and sleeping well once those beautiful eyes are closed. So, I started giving her Melatonin at 8:00 so that she is knocked out by 9. We have also been trying to get her a Therapist but, unfortunately Kaiser is on strike in that department. We have asked for someone outside of Kaiser since they can’t provide the service but, that’s been like pulling teeth! If you have any suggestions I’m 100% open to hearing them. Also, if your daughter Loves her therapist, I’d love some referrals please please please. I want to help my baby …

    It is great that your daughter is able to talk with you about her feelings.  I would be curious if there are any religious, socio-economic, or cultural identity differences between your daughter and her peers that she is now trying to sort out.  Alternatively, if you find that she is routinely perseverating about whether the school is "right" for her irrespective of positive parts of her experience, you may want to have her screened for OCD. Sometimes that kind of rumination and reassurance-seeking can be a symptom (such as in relationship OCD). The International OCD Foundation has lots of information, referrals and resources if this is part of the picture. 

    Stop trying to convince her and start just listening. She is doing fine. But she needs to talk about her experience. Have you had an experience in which you felt like you didn’t belong? Ask her if she wants you to share. She is concerned about the friends she left behind. Ask her if there is some action she would like to take in regards to those friends. Just listen and try to understand. 

    It's absolutely legitimate for your daughter to question why she is going to a private school and to feel out of place there after attending public schools for K-8 and it sounds like, strongly identifying with her peers there. Perhaps it is you who should examine why you are so attached to her going to the private school that you want to insist she complete 4 years there when she is uncomfortable.

    Just wondering has anyone asked her where she thinks she belongs, and has anyone tried to make that happen for her? Maybe she just wants to be somewhere else (and that’s ok).

    Honestly, I found this letter a bit stressful to read. Why is it a firm requirement that she remain in this school? Is it possible that something has happened or is happening to her that she can’t talk to you about, so she’s asking to escape for a reason she thinks might be acceptable to you?

    No one here can answer the question of why she feels she doesn’t belong in this environment - only she can. Have you listened very carefully? Have you asked calm, kind, curious, nonjudgmental questions? If this were my child I would certainly be listening with a very open mind and open heart. Kaisers strike is now over, but there are also many ways to quickly get therapy if your child needs it. I don’t think I’d delay.

    Many years ago,my mom pulled my sister and me out of public school and into a private school.  My sister graduated from the private school.  I couldn't stand it -- I was a hippie kid and the private school did not cater to that.  Some of the kids were nice, many were snobs, and I didn't fit in.  To be frank, I was badly-adjusted in general (trouble at home) and it showed.  My sister had issues as well but covered them.

    The schools in my home town had open enrollment, and one of the public high schools was particularly welcoming for kids like me.  I pushed to be let out of the private school and go to the welcoming public high school.  Best decision I ever made, I got great grades, felt appreciated for who I was, made friends, connected with my teachers, got into Stanford, etc.

    My husband, who grew up Quaker, attended a large, well-regarded Quaker high school in Pennsylvania.  He was unhappy there, and pushed to attend a different school, a much smaller, more bohemian Quaker high school that he really loved.

    We put our daughter in a small private school from PK through middle school.  This decision was based on the specific programs at that school; otherwise she would have gone to public school.  It was overall a good choice, maybe, in part because she is diminutive and shy.  She's at Berkeley High now, and frankly the teachers on average are better than the private-school ones.  This was also my experience way back when I chose the public school over the private one.

    Parents imagine the teaching is better at private school because they are shelling out all that money.  Public-school teachers are profoundly dedicated and generally better-trained than private-school teachers.  The real advantages of private school are generally smaller class size and more parental control.  In a high-school situation, however, there are fewer course choices simply because private schools are generally smaller. 

    Private-school kids are more affluent, and the class distinction may look "better" from the parents' standpoint.  This may lead to the illusion that, for example, the private-school kids have less access to recreational drugs.  My daughter's observation, however, is that the private parochial school many of her private-school friends now attend has at least as much drug use coupled with a lot less education about drug use.  Similarly, Berkeley High provides robust sex education, specifically consent education, and access to sexual-health services, which the parochial school doesn't.  So far as I know, lack of sex education and sexual-health services does not lead to less high-school sex.

    What I'm trying to convey is that the advantages of private over public school are exaggerated.  I agree with the other folks responding to your query that you should listen to your daughter.  If she's unhappy, she's unhappy, even if the school she's in is great for 95% of the kids there.  Frankly, I think you should let her attend the school she wants to attend.

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Public vs. private real life experience?

August 2009


Hi, Could parents who decided to send their children to private high schools share opinions on this issue? My daughter has been in private schools since K. Some of the parents we know are planning to send their kids to public high schools. One reason is that public high school is a way of preparing kids for real life (more diversity, larger school environment, more community-focused, better opportunities to learn survival skills and learn to be independent, more academic/sport options, etc.) Since I'm leaning toward private high schools, I'm wondering -- why would life in private high schools not be as real? Do you think private high schools prepare students well for real life issues? I'm referring to issues such as how to make friends with people from different background/ethnicity, how to be independent, responsible, and resourceful enough to survive in college and beyond, how to be actively involved in the community, how to live life with compassion, generosity, etc. Would my kid miss any major life lessons if she attends a private high school instead of a public one? My husband and I expect to continue to teach my kid how to behave and to be good role models for her, of course. The private high schools in consideration are CPS, Bentley, and St. Mary's. Thank you very much. Anonymous

A student could have great success in either public or private high school, depending on the student and the circumstances. Our two daughters went to private schools pre-K through 12 and then to the public California UCs. They easily transitioned from small private high schools to large public universities.

Investing in private schools through high school worked well for both of our daughters--they were both supremely prepared for college. The high schools (one of them is on your list) provided opportunities in many dimensions. All of the items you listed were available to them (diverse friend base, being independent, ability to take initiative, contributing to the community, many alternate activities and interests to explore, and more). Life lessons abound in private as well as in pubic schools. Another thought--if the state budget will result in a larger number of students in public school classes, then that is a factor. anon

We live in Berkeley and have a son who will be a senior in a private HS and an incoming 9th grader at the same school. We did consider public school at various phases of their school lives, including high school and decided that it was not the best option for either of them. Our perspective is that all of life provides ''real-life'' experiences. While high school can certainly influence these experiences and perspectives, it's really up to you as parents to provide the kind of life lessons you want your children to have: where you live, your friends, summer activities, family activities, travel, and values, etc etc. Your kids have already absorbed (or at least observed) most of your values by now. Most private high schools recognize the need to expose their students to ''real life'' but each individual student determines what this means to them. Public high school doesn't guarantee community involvement. And it's perfectly possible to attend a private high school and grow up to be a compassionate, down-to-earth, socially active person. life begins at home

Hello to you. Wanted to share our experience. Our son went to a private K-8th grade school, and we were eager to put him into Berkeley High School come 9th grade, which we did. That was our intention all along. However, 9th grade there was a lost year for our child, at least academically. It matters which small school your student is in. The fit has to work, the whole environment has to work for your kid. It wasn't good for ours, and after a negligent response by the school administration to verbal and physical threats our kid received at the end of the year, he wanted out. He's now at CPS , so we've experienced both environments. Both schools have pros and cons and my heart was broken when we decided he needed to leave BHS. I do not believe a kid at this age needs those ''real life'' experiences we all have dragged on about. There's a level of cushy entitledness at the private high schools that makes me ill, but they get plenty of experience outside of school, and there's time after high school, too, to be involved in their communities... CPS and I'm sure others, have many wonderful volunteer programs. One might say that at this age when kids can be vicious and out of control, that the intensity of it isn't real, either, that it's endemic to the age. Frankly, it can cause some real hurt. Then again, BHS is an energized place filled with interesting kids and they're seriously trying to make a go of it there - to bring everyone together... it always comes down to who your kid is and to try to make the fit a good one, if one is able. I just don't go for that real life stuff anymore. (I'd be happy to talk with you more, let me know) g.

People say a lot of things about their reasons. Sometimes it is easier to express it by saying something is more ''real'', more ''grounded'' etc.

You need to make your own decisions. Since your daughter is approaching high school, include her input too. Keep in mind that often a decision based on ''where my friends are going'' doesn't really work out, because they are rarely placed in the same classes - even in small private schools.

I recommend The Athenian School in Danville for consideration. Many people think it is ''too far to travel'' but the program and curriculum are so outstanding an extra 20 min or 30 min commute may be well worth it. Get your calendar out and plan some visits. Many of the schools have parent open houses way before students need to visit. Each school has its own educational philosophy, culture, and set of outcomes. Really look at the range of classes offered. Do they grade mainly on exams, or projects, or a combination? What learning styles are recognized and nourished?

Take your daughter to as many of these events as she has time for and schedule a campus visit for her as early as possible - these visits fill up fast, and you have to space them out so she does not miss too much school in one month. Go on unguided visits to campuses now.

Most of all do you have the cash to afford 4 years in a private high school and still have money for college? Many people do not. So Public HS means there are funds for college. Private HS tuition is very close to UC college tuition. Scholarships to Private HS are very rare, and college scholarships are disappearing. Relying on loans can really take your finances down, especially if you already have debt.

Having to withdraw from High School in the middle is more unsettling that starting out together as freshmen. I think all schools are going to be under stress in these times. Public schools are going to be taking even deeper cuts, it will be very hard to predict exactly how that will all fall out.

We made the choice to do with less ourselves and put our daughter in private schools through HS. She received a great education. Very competitive colleges accepted her, but she made the choice to go to a UC. She is looking to go to a private school for grad school. But she is in college doing well, and getting ready for grad school. BTW the UC system even with its financial stresses has been excellent. Sign me as: private school supporter Private HS Supporter

You are looking at VERY different private schools, Bentley, CPS are in a similar category and St. Mary's is at the other end of the spectrum when it comes to ''real life'' experiences and diversity. St. Mary's does not have the same socio-economic make-up that the other two have. Many students that go to St Mary's are there on scholarships and would otherwise not be able to afford going to a private school. These very reasons make St. Mary's a wonderful 'private' school because you get the best of both worlds. You really need to look at the major differences between the first two schools listed and St. Mary's and then decide. I don't think 'real life' experience fully exists at these schools where the students are predominately wealthy. parent of St. Mary's grad

My husband and I both went to private high schools (not in California) and had very uneven experiences. My husband was asked to leave one school, and loved the other for its sports programs and a particular great biology teacher. I went to three different boarding schools - two of them rather insular and nasty, the third larger, with a wider range of activities and an atmosphere that is difficult to duplicate.

I haven't seen any private schools in California that compare to that school. The closest in style and opportunity would be Berkeley High . We sent both our kids to public schools because we wanted to save for college, and also because we felt we could fill in any gaps in what they received - for us in particular that was international travel, camping and wilderness experiences, occasional private tutoring, and private music lessons. We also have volunteered at their schools and made donations to the schools wherever possible. Public schools can be uneven in the quality of teachers, and rather rigid in their bureaucratic requirements, but my kids have had some extraordinarily good teachers and really good teaching in a variety of subjects. My daughter, now in college, looks back in astonishment at all she achieved in high school. Both kids are pretty confident in all sorts of situations. For them, I think we made the right choice. Berkeley High parent

When my husband and I thought about schools for our kids, I knew that a college prep high school was not necessary to do well in college and graduate school. I had attended a rural public high school that had no college level courses (e.g., calculus), and I had done well in college and law school. However, I also knew that I had to work harder to catch up because I was not as well prepared as my fellow students. I had survived many mediocre high school teachers who did nothing to stimulate an interest in the subjects they taught.

We decided to send our son to College Preparatory School , where he is thriving. CPS is 40% students of color. More than 25% of the students receive financial aid. The average grant for those students is $19,000 (on tuition of $29,950). CPS will distribute more than $1.7 million in financial aid in 2009-2010. Community service is important to us, and it is an integral part of the schoolC,bs culture ( It includes maintenance of an Oakland playground, bi-weekly preparation and serving of a meal at the Berkeley MenC,bs Shelter, and academic enrichment for underprivileged students from Oakland public schools ( DC


Rough Language and Rowdy Behavior

November 2003


Are Private schools really better? What are the pros and cons? For the first time I am considering sending my 8th grade daughter to a private high school. I am concerned about the environment at their public middle/high school more than anything. But people tell me it's the same at private schools. There are just as much rowdiness, drugs and sexual activity at private schools, and that's just the way kids are these days .. everywhere. Here are a few examples of why I am concerned: last week my 6th grade daughter said some students in her class pulled a condom out of its cover and started messing around with it. Yesterday my 6th grade daughter said she was admiring someone's backpack and the girl turned around and said ''what are you looking at B-tch?'', apparently they call each other this in regular conversation. At the high school, they found human feces in the vending machine. My daughters do not use the restrooms at school because of the conditions, everything is everywhere except in the toilet. This is supposed to be the best school in the West Contra Costa Unified School District with the highest test scores. Even my 3rd grade daughter said a classmate got in trouble for using the B-tch word and I have seen 3rd and 4th graders dancing in extremely sexually provocative moves and postures. Is it just me, is this how all kids behave these days, am I just ignorant and have my head buried in the sand? I find the rowdiness and disrespect that kids display disturbing. When I go to my daughters' middle school, I feel intimidated by the kids because of the way they behave (I haven't ventured over to the high school). My daughters are straight A honor roll students in the GATE program. Academically, I think they would do OK in the public school, but should they have to put up with this kind of environment? Do private schools really have a different environment and turn out kids who are more respectful of adults and their surroundings? Please, any input would be greatly appreciated. Sarah princess3

Hi, I have taught in two different private K-8 schools and I have not seen the type of behavior you mention. Foul language is not tolerated and even stupid, shut up and sucks are not allowed in class. I have never heard a kid called the Bword or anything like what you describe. I'm sure such things also don't go on at other public schools and maybe they do at some private but in my experience (over 15 years working in private schools) the children are generally well behaved and respectful with the occasional exception. good luck finding the right place for your child

Education starts at home.

I\x92m a single parent of a 9th grader at El Cerrito HS. My daughter has a Math LD and has always been in the public school system, which has handled her alternative learning needs very well. She's a straight A student. Academically perhaps, private schools may better benefit her, but she is very active in sports, an arena in which I don't think the private schools can compete very well.

However I am the product of private education and from that experience I voice my concerns on Public V Private. I am also familiar with the Berkeley area schools via my nephews enrolled in a Berkeley private school. At the crux of your concern is the social environment. In my experience at private school I found just as much social disregard for rules/elders/social morals. In fact I think there was more sex and drugs going on at my private school of 8th, 9th, and 10th grade than in the public school I finally graduated from. Reasons for this perception can be anything from socio-economic background (access to $$), school population, to parents who aren\x92t as involved with their kids and leave the private school to be the surrogate. But what it comes down to in my most humble and experienced opinion is social and moral education starts at home and needs to be continually reinforced. If you are interested and active in your child\x92s social life, the margin for falling to the fray is considerably smaller.

My child has been exposed to all sorts of drugs/sex/violence/etc at ECHS. Sure it frightens me but I know I cannot place my child in a bubble and protect her forever. She is a good kid because I am there for her, always honest with her, continually reinforce right and wrong, and because I support her ability to make the right decision on her own. Ask your child where she would be most comfortable as far as schools go, allow her to be part of the decision. I believe the more we enable our children to be in control of their lives, the more likely success will be the outcome for their future.

Yes things have changed socially from when we went to school. Kids swear more, drugs/sex/violence more prevalent. Our country is on a moral downslide. For many of us, our moms stayed at home while we went to school, now both work. Most likely it will not matter from a social perspective if you send your child to a public or private school, in the end, our children make their own choices when we are not there to guide them.

If you are concerned about the conditions of your daughter\x92s school, get involved, file a complaint, and let your daughter know it\x92s okay for her to voice her opinion to school officials too! Many public school systems fail because we simply turn away, we don\x92t care to be bothered by something we feel should be handled by others. Fact is, no matter where your child attends school we need to be vigilant of the conditions in which they thrive. Perhaps if we all paid better attention to the public schools, private schools would still be a thing of the social elite. Education starts at home. Jill

I taught in the WCCUSD and now teach in a Catholic school. In my experience there is a world of difference between the two. As a teacher in the public school I heard children swearing daily. There were students who dressed in ways that were provocative beyond their years. There were countless instances of rude and other outrageous behaviors. In addition, the number of fights both verbal and physical were huge. All of these are things that I no longer face on a day to day basis in my new school. That doesn't mean that there aren't private schools that do have some of same problems...but I would be surprised if all were present. If you really want to move your kids you have to shop around to find the school (and school community) that matches what you want.

Should public schools be like that? I don't think so. Kids should be in schools where they feel safe. They should be able to walk down the halls without fear. They should be able to use the bathroom. And children should be able to be children and not have to grow up too fast dealing with obscenity and sexuality before they are ready. Unfortunately, that isn't what is happening at some public schools.

In part I think it is because there just aren't enough resources for the schools to deal with all of the problems. At my old school there were police called to campus almost daily. Between the fights, gang and drug problems, the administration was so busy that behavior issues like rudeness, swearing and inappropriate dress were pretty low on the radar.

That doesn't mean that we didn't try to deal with it. I did not ever permit swearing, rudeness, fights, provocative clothing, etc., in my classroom, but as a teacher there was only so much I could do. (There were times I would send kids out for truly outrageous and disruptive behavior and they would be bounced back in 5 minutes without any consequence at all.) Outside of my room I was even more limited. And, believe it or not, there are a lot of parents who don't think that it is a problem if their kid is in a fight, forget about if the kid swears, is rude or dresses provocatively.

At my school the teachers formed a committee and tried to set out guidelines for dealing with the ''small stuff'' in hopes that it would avert some of the bigger problems. In some ways it did help, but overall it didn't work because everyone wasn't behind the effort. I think that the administration, the faculty, the parents and the students all need to be part of the solution to those problems... and that is hard to do in WCCUSD.

Are these reasons to move your kid... that is a decision you and your family need to make. Personally, it is not a situation I want my kid to face in grade 3, 6, 8. Will I feel different when he is in high school? I don't know. If your child(ren) are bothered by what is going on at school you might want to move them. Or maybe you want to make some noise with the administartion and see if they can work to change what is going on. a teacher

Dear Sarah, I believe your posting outlines some of the main reasons why people seek a private education. In private school generally there are more teachers per student, contact with families is frequent, and students who cannot comply with standards are often required to leave or simply not renewed the following year. Also when people pay $10,000 to $20,000 per year per child sometimes they are very involved with their child's education.

All that being said I went to Public Schools for elementary, high and graduate schools and never found fecal matter in the vending machines. My first professional position was teaching at a very impoverished high school with a high proportion of gang members and students went to the bathroom safely. Why? Because those were the expectations. In the high school where I worked students did not bring weapons into the school - they were searched. Also the halls, and bathrooms were always monitored by teaching staff at all times. People were helpful, not confrontational and the students responded with respect. It wasn't that way at all the schools, our principal was a former PE teacher and she knew how to lead large groups of all kinds. I learned a lot too. When I hear these horror stories I wonder why parents do not form ''bathroom attendants brigades''. What child would do something weird in front of mom, auntie or grandma?

I recommend visiting some high schools in the next thirty days or you will be missing the deadlines coming up. I visited 10 private high schools in the Bay Area last year -all the kids and faculties were great, no need to be worried about your reception. claudia crask

I personally think the sense of intimidation you had when faced with working class girls swearing at you is a great reason to send your kids to public school . When they can handle that they can handle anything. Having worked on a video series concerning sexual assault, I realised that when we train middle class girls to be constantly nice and polite, we are setting them up to be victims of intimidation throughout their lives.

You do need to talk to your kids about what is appropriate for them to DO, particularly not to copy the bad behavior that happens to them. This is basic parenting. Even at the best schools there will be kids doing very bad things (although they may do them more politely).

Bullying takes many forms. The gross forms such as shouting and pushing are easier to take action against and can in the long run be less horrible than some of the cruelties thought up by smarter and more verbally adept kids. All good schools, public or private, have a clear way of dealing with bullying. Public schools can be very responsive to dealing with these issues - talk to the teachers, go to the PTA. Fiona