Attending private school as a family without great means?

We aren’t wealthy. We would be considered middle/upper middle class based on income but we don’t have a lot of disposable income. We would not have considered private school but with the pandemic, we need kids to receive in person instruction in a safe environment. We are considering Aurora, Park Day, Redwood Day, and MCCS. I went to prestigious private schools and was quite aware of how “poor” my family were. We were not poor by any means, but as a kid with scholarship, I felt that way when surrounded by a majority of kids who were truly wealthy — large homes, BMWs and Porsche driving parents, lavish vacations and designer clothes. I am concerned that my kids will feel out of place as we prepare to slash various household budget to pay for private school. Have you sent your kids to these fancy schools as a family with moderate means? How was/is it?

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I had a similar experience as you - I grew up without a lot of means, went to a prestigious private school and always felt like I was an alien. Our daughter goes to Park Day and we never felt like that. It is a loving and awesome community. There are people there who are wealthy, but also plenty of us who are not. Don't know about the other schools on your list, but Park Day is great.  

Hi. We attend one of these schools and are not fancy. We live in a very small house in the flats, drive an older Subaru, and take modest vacations. Most of the families seem to fit this general description. (And the ones who don’t, don’t flaunt it.) Many or most families receive tuition assistance, subsidized by wealthier families paying full price. 

Based on my experience as a parent and as a former independent school administrator in the area, the list of schools you're suggesting is a good one. My information may be outdated, but these schools are less "toney" and have more of a community feel. While it's not easy to go from private school back to the public school system, that may be one option for you. We sent my daughter to a private for a few years, and the to public school the other years. When we sent her to private school, I made sure to still donate to our local public school. We didn't have a lot of money, but that's what felt right to me. Of course, it can be hard on kids to switch schools unless there is something in the school community that isn't working for them. If this is your plan, it's best to try to cultivate friendships outside of the private school community (Girl Scouts, sports teams, summer camps, etc). It can be challenging since you don't always know what public school your child would have attended if you pull them out of the lottery system, but what we found was that by the time our daughter went to Berkeley High School, she actually knew many of the students from these different activities. Resist getting insular in the private school, if you can.

We are an upper middle income family at St. Paul's. We feel very comfortable there, though there are absolutely many families with far greater means than ours (and also those with far less). When we were considering independent schools, I specifically targeted those where significant percentages of families received some level of tuition assistance--both because I knew our family would need this to attend, and because I wanted my child to be interacting with peers from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. (I also attended a private school for high school where I often felt "poor" compared to my classmates, though looking back now know our family was far from it.) I appreciate having my child at a school where a majority of families receive assistance--it means parents feel comfortable freely discussing economic tensions, aid applications, and the many tradeoffs that are part of choosing an independent school as a middle/upper middle income Bay Area family. I can't speak to the specific schools you're looking at, but you can absolutely ask how many families receive aid, and that should give you a sense of what the experience may be like. Good luck with the process!

I can't address this as a parent, and can't tell you about those specific schools, but as a kid I was in almost exactly that situation.

In my case, it felt perfectly fine. My parents were pretty straightforward and easygoing about it, and I don't remember it being a source of stress for anyone. I knew we had enough money to get by -- a comfortable place to live, enough to eat, birthday presents -- but that anything beyond that didn't really matter. Besides, look at fairy tales: the poor kid always wins!

In retrospect I think it helped that we hardly ever watched TV at home so weren't exposed to a lot of advertising. Also, the school was a fairly progressive place and appealed mostly to sensible, discreet families who didn't show off or boast. I do remember one girl who was kind of obsessed with how much money people had, but none of the other kids paid any attention.

We are sending our son to a school that has limited hours (no aftercare, lots of closures) and just isn't used to dealing with working families (most families have a stay-at-home parent, we can't afford that) and it has been a serious culture shock for us. The school just doesn't see or seem to care about the needs of families who can't afford to keep a parent at home. The demands on our time and excessive closures and reductions in school hours have been extremely challenging for us, and we aren't getting any sympathy or cooperation on the part of the school. And because most families don't have the same needs as us, we feel like we are in this struggle alone and the school has no need or desire to work to make any changes just to accommodate a very small minority. So this isn't exactly the same situation, but for us it has been really illuminating about the type of school community we want to be in. And we are in the same boat as you, very much hoping to do public school in the fall but considering private school because we need something in person, but we are targeting schools that seem less fancy for this reason.

The thing I noticed when I had my kid in private school was that the wealthier parents had the luxury of TIME, and that seemed to make more of a difference than the material goods they had. The moms didn't work or worked part-time and thus could host impromptu playdates after school, which my kid (who was in the after school program because both parents worked full time) was never invited to (because I wasn't hanging out at school to arrange them). Then, the moms would hang out, and the kids would hang out, and my daughter really felt left out because she didn't get to go out for ice cream, or donuts, or to the park, or to so-and-so's house after school. Then, the kids would talk about those things they do together at school, and mine would feel even more like an outsider. So, it wasn't the car that they drove in to go get the ice cream, it was the fact that they could go get ice cream during the work day. We switched to public school, and my kid was much happier.

Yes, we did the fancy school thing for middle and high school and it has not been easy. It has also not been terrible. My child is a senior now, has had some great teachers and experiences, and is happy with their college options. They have friends, both wealthy and not-so-wealthy. That said, I think my kid has felt generally out of place, and even though the friend group is there, it doesn’t seem that tight. We rarely have their friends over here, and that has also made group projects complicated. These things are never intentional, but they just seem to happen - all the other kids live close to each other, or near the school, or whatever. We have experienced what you described when it comes  things like cars, clothes, vacations, homes, etc, and even class discussions to a point, as most kids speak from a position of privilege. It helps that the teachers are more down to earth. The wealth gap becomes more and more apparent as the kids get older. So, probably what you already imagine - depending on the kid, for the education, the fancy schools cannot be beat (imo), the social dynamics, however, are uncomfortable at best and damaging at worst. 

I can't speak the those schools, but I can highly recommend The Walden School and Center in Berkeley. While it is a private school they are very diverse. There are some wealthy families, but I'd say the majority are not and they offer scholarships and really strive for inclusion and diversity. We've been there 3 years now and it's been wonderful. Small, in-person, caring staff and wonderful community.

If you're interested in language immersion, I can recommend the East Bay German International school. They're private but not fancy. The focus is not on elitism but on multicultural education with global awareness. Depending on the age/grade of your child (you didn't say), you can join even if your child doesn't have prior German background, in preschool and Kindergarten. They've had on-campus instruction since the school year began, with all the COVID procedures in place. Given their focus, the economic spread isn't much of an issue.

We sent our child to a montessori preschool (that extends into K-12), which felt VERY expensive and we also had a difficult time as our child started right around when COVID happened, so we had paid the full tuition to basically do distance learning with a toddler at home. Our family is probably also middle class based on income and neither my partner and I ever attended private school as children. We are excited for when our child is old enough for public school! I would say that yes, many families that attended our son's former school were well off (not sure about Porsche-wealthy), and it wasn't so much the feeling out of place because of material things that made us uncomfortable, but more that there were not many students that looked like my son or our family, if that makes sense? We are a family of color, both my partner and I with graduate degrees, and also essential workers. This caused a lot of stress during the times we were SIP because we didn't have tech jobs that WFH 100% like the other families at the school, or the ability to hire a nanny if we WFH either. We tried to apply for scholarships to get aid if we did need to hire a nanny and were denied because my partner was still employed and above the arbitrary cutoff for what the school decided was the limit. Needless to say, we left the school in June and did not return for fall despite them know being open for outdoor in-person instruction. We found a home-based preschool that is cheaper and more loving, and are waiting to hear about our enrollment in BUSD for next year. Our kiddo loved what he was learning and I would definitely say the learning environment is more enriched than what he's getting now, but he's also happier where he is now, so we prioritized that. I would say, if you think your kids will be unhappy or feel out of place, then go with your gut about if it's a good fit for your family or not. Our family values diversity and equity, and we just didn't see that in action despite it being the mission statement at the school, and actions speak louder than words. Hope that helps!

My family is of single parent, middle class, POC.  Park Day School is fantastic!!  Tuition assistance is relatively generous, and on a range, so no one really know who gets what or how much, nor cares.  Families who choose to go there, do so for the values and not the image.  I do not need to buy my child "fancy" clothes, shoes, backpacks, or other.  She is not embarrassed by our non-luxury car.  The academics are great, the socio-emotional environment stellar, and the social justice lense for real.  I highly recommend, and haven no reservations.  My child is currently in 7th grade.

Hi there! We are a Park Day family and find that there’s a balance of families. From our perspective there is not a focus on wealth or status at all between the kids and the school does it’s best to make sure all kids feel as equal as possible - making sure everyone has the resources needed. This has been significant with the pandemic and distance learning. In our experience Park Day is also able to have age appropriate conversations about class and wealth and the current climate which is really important that kids understand. I’ll also add that this is a very diverse area and there’s plenty of families at public schools with fancy cars and vacations. You’re going to find this everywhere, to me what’s important is how the community interacts with it. All this is to say we’re happy with 2 kids at PDS and are likely a family in the “middle” similar to what you describe.  

Your post sounds familiar to my situation.  Growing up on the east coast, I went to private school.  My family had a modest home compared to my peers and I grew up lusting after giant houses -- not healthy at all!  Fast forward 30 years, things are similar. We live on Alameda but send our girls to a private school that isn't nearby (none of the ones you are considering). Our home is quite modest compared to some of their classmates, and though we fit in socioeconomically, I always feel a bit weird about having their friends over, particularly as our house is always a mess and I'm very conscious of it.  I think when your kids are younger, they won't notice the difference with their peers.  But as they get older they will.  A lot of this may also be in your head, as it is with me.  I wish I had something more positive to say, but it might not get any better and you'll just have to manage your feelings and expectations. Ultimately, if you wind up at one of those schools, it will be about the quality of your kids education and of course there will be some families that you become friends with and are close to.  Concentrate on those relationships and it might become easier.

We are a solidly middle class family (two incomes; two vehicles are both 15+ yrs; own a small home; no lavish vacations; lots of fun staycations). Our eldest has already graduated Park Day (attended K-8), and our younger one also started in K and is currently finishing up 8th grade. Park Day has been superb for us. The climate and culture have been enriching for both of our kids, and for us as a family. The school works intentionally to foster a learning environment that is first and foremost about the kids with equity, social justice, and belonging at the center of everything. That means teaching and learning that embraces diversity in ethnicity; gender identity; religion; economic class; a variety of household structures; etc. 
My kids have made friends with kids who live with their single parent in an apartment, as well as single or married, wealthy parents living in large homes, and who take expensive vacations. We have never felt out of place. At school fund raisers that have a ticketed entrance, no family is turned away for inability to pay; there are no pay-to-play events such as special dinners for high-level donors; and everyone’s contributions are valued, whether it be monetary or volunteering time (time is money!). 

Yes, at drop off, we pull up in our aging, scratched/dented van, and are behind some Teslas and BMWs, but we’re also behind some Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics. The school makes every effort to have meetings that are accessible for working families who may have childcare needs, or simply can’t meet during the typical school day. And when possible, childcare is provided. 

Over the years, my kids have asked why we don’t take bigger/longer/international vacations and we’re completely upfront about it: investing in their educational foundation is our priority.

And let’s be real. Kids will sometimes brag or hurt another’s feelings. No doubt. Park Day doesn’t cast itself as a place where kids won’t struggle, or won’t ever experience a negative feeling. Park Day’s strength lies in its response to these types of challenges.   
Built into the DNA of Park Day are ways to support kids as they revel in their comfort zone; learn in their stretch zone; and sometimes dip their toe in their panic/rip zone -- all the while fostering a love of learning. Additionally, restorative practices and OFNR dialogue (Observe, Feel, Need, Request) are second-nature at the school (it’s a learning opportunity for all sides involved). These are important pieces of raising a child that Park Day gets so right. 

Hi there, we’re in our 2nd year at Park Day school (1st grade). The families we’ve spent time with have been hard working families, some doctors, corporate jobs etc, but also therapists, teachers, nonprofit folks, artists. Nearly 40% of students receive financial aid at Park. Feel free to DM me if you’d like to chat more.

We were in a similar situation last Spring with our rising kindergartner and chose Park Day and have been very happy. The staff has been incredible- I was laid off after we made the decision which obviously caused even more anxiety about cost etc and they were thoughtful, supportive and helpful. Since we started there, we’ve happily seen that most (I would say vast majority in our experience) of the families have two parents that work and there is a lot of diversity in the families you’ll meet. When school started virtually (it has since moved to in- person for those that choose to send their kids - we did!), we talked with other families about doing a pod together and many shared openly that they did not have the ability to pay for care alongside tuition. I remember a lot of honest and supportive convos and no exclusion of any kind or weirdness. At least that was our experience! Really I can’t say enough good things about Park Day. We’re planning to leave the area because of family, etc and the one thing that we regret is leaving the community and the school. I don’t think we’ll ever find a more supportive, diverse, thoughtful and welcoming community again - and I’m really not exaggerating! Good luck - these are such tough decisions. Happy to share more if you want to message as well!

My child currently attends Park Day and we have not had any issues, and I wouldn’t even be considered in the middle upper class. I only looked at Park Day and Redwood Day. Park was a much better fit for us with its racial and socioeconomic diversity. My son is thriving there and I’m loving the parent community. It is not “showy” at all from the cars to how kids dress. Sure there are some luxury cars, but it doesn’t have that energy of prestigious private school wealth. The belief in social justice and diversity drives the curriculum and practices which lends to a more welcoming community in my opinion. I’ll also add that what they’ve put in place for in person school is incredible. They’ve been so thoughtful and careful to the point that I feel completely safe sending my child back on campus. Good luck on your search! 

This is a great question, and one we also asked ourselves before moving our kids to private school this year. I think the answer is, it depends on the school. We are also a middle-class family, and we basically chose the school that had the best financial aid package. We feel comfortable at our school -- in part, because our school gives financial aid to over 50% of families who attend. At my child's soccer practice, the parents all discussed when next year's financial aid forms were due: there was certainly no stigma around the issue.  My advice is to look closely at the school's financial aid statistics: the higher the percentage of families who receive financial aid, the more likely you are to feel comfortable there.

I grew up in Oakland and went to Park Day and another independent school that is not on your list. My son attends Park Day. My parents income bracket when I was a kid and mine now are likely similar to yours currently. We’re not rich, but we’re not struggling beyond the way all but the very rich struggle in the bay area.

Both now and when I was a kid I have never felt the kind of financial divide that you are describing at Park Day. I know exactly what you’re talking about because I definitely experienced the feeling of being one of the “poor” kids at the other school I attend, even though I did not receive financial aid.

While I’m sure there are a wide range of incomes at Park Day school, the kinds of people who are drawn to the school are not the kind of people who are likely to be showy with their wealth. Especially for kids with a middle/upper middle class background, I think they are really unlikely to feel “not enough” because of what they have. (I think this may be true for kids in lower income families as well, but I don’t want to speak to other people’s experiences in that way.) The school’s focus on personal relationships and social-emotional learning also tends to discourage this kind of situation.

No school is perfect, but I do not think this is a widespread problem at Park Day.

I can speak for Park Day School, where our daughter began kindergarten this Fall. I was truly amazed at the generous financial aid package the school gave our family along with admission. The cost of living in the Bay is so high now that close to 40% of families at the school get some amount of financial aid, and a quarter of financial aid packages actually go to families earning $180K or more. You would not be alone in being middle class, yet without a lot of luxuries. Park is such a low-key, relaxed, and friendly community where families and their children aren't into status symbols. I don't think you would find it alienating in terms of class issues. This is the kind of place where the families with money aren't showing it off, they're donating some of it to the Annual Fund because they want a more equitable world. You'll see a nice car or two, but you can bet it's a hybrid or electric vehicle with a decent human being inside. The school does not have glitzy exclusive fundraisers but community events like the annual East Bay Mini Maker Faire, where the kids, and their creativity and learning, are the focus. Park Day is an extremely thoughtful community where possible issues of exclusion are carefully scrutinized and intentionally avoided.

Just to provide another perspective, I went to *public* school with a lot of rich kids (Piedmont Schools) and definitely felt and noticed ALL the things you are worried about as a child/teen! So I don't think it's a strictly private school problem. While there are some super rich families at my son's private school I would say that's not the case for most of them. There's a big range. Honestly there was a range in the Piedmont of my childhood, too, but I definitely focused on the disparities. I guess what I'm trying to say is that this problem may come up no matter what you do. Perhaps it's best just to confront it. These days with instagram, etc the need to "keep up with the Joneses" (or the Kardashians) is something we all just need to get over. You are doing the right thing in prioritizing your children's education. Good for you! Stand firm and hold your head high.

I am honestly shocked when other adults tell me they "aren't wealthy" or "middle class." This is the Bay Area. Anecdotally, I know at least 6 Park Day families that claim they are not wealthy but they have a household income of over $200k, own a small (but valued at over a million dollars) house and have money for trips to Tahoe and Hawaii annually.  The actual "not wealthy" families I know rent apartments and work full time and even with financial aid couldn't begin to afford Park Day. I don't know how it got to be so completely skewed here, but just wanted to throw in the perspective of a 'legitimately not wealthy person' who has lived here her entire life. So, please take these responses with a grain of salt. 

I have a child at Park Day School and couldn't be happier! I am a single parent and while I do alright financially, we are definitely not wealthy. I have found that there is a great diversity of income levels at Park Day and have not noticed any of the wealthier kids flaunting their money in our time at the school. I had very similar concerns as you when we were considering moving from public school, but my child has been welcomed whole-heartedly and has never felt out of place. I am so grateful for the assistance we have received to be able to attend PDS. It has been a game changer for our family. Good luck with your search!