Academically average kid at an academically strong private school

Our 4th grade son is about average in his public school class, but there are some things he struggles with. At his public school (even pre-Covid), this means he is "good enough" and so he doesn't receive too much attention from the teachers. We'd love for him to attend a private Middle School that can offer him smaller class sizes, more resources, better sports, and more academic support. After asking around, however, it sounds like the strong private schools test incoming 6th graders, and those who are academically weak may not be accepted. This seems like a catch-22, as we'd like him to go to a better school for better academics, but he can't get in unless he is strong academically. I'd love some advice on what private middle schools look for incoming students, and which schools you'd recommend that we reach out to. We obviously think he's an awesome kid, and we'd like to find a school that thinks so too. We are looking on the East Bay but are open to looking farther. Thank you!

Parent Replies

Parents, want to reply to this question? Sign in to post.

Roughly 30 years ago I was in a similar place. As a fifth grader who did ok in school and was well behaved I was mostly ignored in my large public school class. My parents knew I needed smaller class sizes to thrive. My mom applied to a few competitive, private college prep schools. Knowing that my teacher barely knew my name, she wrote him a sample recommendation filled with tons of positive details about me. He must have used it. It worked and I got into a great, small middle school and thrived. Good luck!

Is a personal tutor an option as I would that would provide the personal attention and help without the heavy cost of private.

I always wondered why many parents in Berkeley/Bay Area see public and private school as an either/or option rather than supplementing with a personal tutor. Wouldn't this help achive your stated need?

You should consider the Athenian School in Danville. It's a wonderful progressive school that emphasizes whole child development. By progressive, the school truly wants to support your child's interests and development, not necessarily what parents think are best. The highest test scores will not necessarily gain him entry there but weaker students will be competing with more academically prepared students for admissions each year. The Athenian School has a Middle School and Upper School.

We found the Middle School to be extremely supportive and thoughtful in its teaching philosophy and practice but slackers should not apply. They do expect the kids to do their work at their highest ability. They will challenge your child in areas where they're weak and push them to thrive in areas they are strong. Our child's favorite subject in middle school was actually their most difficult. Also, a lot of students coming into the middle school may have been strong in elementary school now find themselves with extremely talented classmates so a shift in mindset and new skills will need to be developed. Because the school emphasizes whole child development, the new skills to learn may actually be social in addition to academic. Your child could be the best writer or math student but if no other child wants to work with him, he won't last long at the school. It's a highly cooperative learning culture so being the smartest isn't always the only valued skill/criteria. Our child said there were some really challenging classmates in 6th grade but by 8th grade, everyone learned to be cooperative and contributing members of the community. A great test of a successful student there would be: could your child influence and move their peers to do something on a project? Personally we think that's the key to success as an adult.

Likewise, families that only want top scoring peers for their child should not apply until they seek to understand the school's mission. However, there are many top academic students at the school. Academically gifted students will be challenged. In the Upper School, there is another jump in the social and academic expectations for students. Our child has thrived there and we are continually surprised to discover their new talents each year. We're humbled and grateful for the educators, other families, and our child's peer groups at the school. It's seriously a gem of a school at the base of Mt. Diablo. And yes, it's far and very expensive.

I don't believe attending a private (or public) school in which he stands out the only "average" kid would end in positive results.

It's most important to consider where your child will benefit EMOTIONALLY while learning. Let me explain.

I have an ADHD child who struggles academically and needs a lot of attention and tutoring.  She stands out among her peers. Comparisons take an emotional toll on the child in ways you'll never see. My daughter had stress so extremely that she'd hide, crying under the desk at school feeling shame, feeling she didn't belong. I ultimately felt it would make her life easier to put her back one grade level (and to a different school with new faces). It was a good and beneficial decision. Many successful adults today were held back a grade during elementary school so, I wasn't worried.

If ever your child feels he/she/they do not "FIT IN" with most peers then a strong chance that he/she/they will begin to fail. Tell your son the various choices you have in mind, stating scenarios he might face at each school. If HE gets say in the decision, it will help him to understand that HE is accountable for some of what results there. If he knows it will be challenging and sometimes face humiliation, will he be able to overcome that or ignore it?

Your child might be happier to instead be "the smartest kid" at school. Find a school that offers "advanced" classes or material for those kids who need more challenge. If your son is smarter than most others at his school, he will likely be asked to lead and assist other kids. Which is a HUGE confidence builder. EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT is of primary importance from 8 y.o. to 18 y.o.

I personally attended a K-12 alternative school in Gainesville, Florida which was an educational department of the University of Florida, called P.K.Yonge. P.K. Yonge was one of the first schools to install computers in all the kindergarten classes, back in 1980! Yes, a PUBLIC school. So, focus on finding the school that will offer YOUR CHILD the opportunities that SUIT HIS NEEDS, not to suit your desires. A school with good balance of peer academic levels, sports, creative activities and alternative learning (advanced levels).

There are local public/charter schools who have an amazing records. LIGHTHOUSE Community Charter is run very similar to private schools. Kindergarten through 12th Grade schools like Lighthouse Charter, allow your child to bond with peers, develop a foundation of confidence, and have highly coveted life long well-balance relationships. That alone is more than any SHORT TERM public or private school could ever offer. 

Whatever choice you make for your child, I recommend getting good TUTORS as well. A couple of tutors can help him stay organized, on task and help find where his talents lay.

Tutors will give your child that edge. BERKELY YOUTH ALTERNATIVES is a program offer affordable tutors who are UC Berkeley college students.

BERKELY YOUTH ALTERNATIVES   ~ byaonline.org 

P.K.YONGE   ~ pkyonge.ufl.edu/about/

LIGHTHOUSE Community Charter School ~  lighthousecharter.org

Be sure to read the fine print before accepting an offer.  Some private schools with strong academic reputations reserve the right to expel students for underperformance.  I don't know how often this happens as we avoided such schools.