CPS, Athenian, Lick-Wilmerding and affordability

My son is applying to high school for 2019. He's in an independent school now and is an excellent student, plays a few sports (not a jock), and loves making things: stained glass, welding, forging, motors, models. He doesn't have a giant checklist of extra-curriculars. He's a good egg, and I hope he has choices. Lick was his first choice going into this journey; he's become aware that it's the most competitive in terms of admissions, and seems to be taking that to heart (odds are slim). He toured CPS and absolutely loved it. I was amazed at what he absorbed in the three classes he observed. I've heard it's a pressure-cooker, and am worried about that (admissions are also very competitive). He's looking at Athenian, although the distance from Oakland seems daunting. I'd love to hear about current experiences with any/all of these schools, and especially about how one affords them. Are they all need-blind in terms of admissions? Or does applying for aid affect schools' decisions? I would really like to learn how families afford it, personal experiences, and if possible, the pros and cons. Bishop O'Dowd is on the list, too. Nervous about the religious component. Thank you.

Parent Replies

New responses are no longer being accepted.

My daughter is a sophomore at O'Dowd and loves it. There is something for everyone there. It is a big school but not too big. Our family is not religious at all and I have no problem with the religion component. There is no "pushing" Catholicism in either the religion classes or the all school masses and liturgies. The message is love and kindness and service to others. All freshman take a one semester class called Spirituality and Sexuality, which is basically sex and relationship education, and they learn about everything, including birth control and abortion. When it came to that part of the class my daughter said that the teacher just said that the Catholic church does not believe in this, but here are the facts, no preaching. Relative to the other private schools it is very affordable, especially considering everything that they have to offer. Every school is different when it comes to tuition assistance so you should reach out to the different directors of admissions with your questions. I think you will find that they will be very forthcoming about how it works and what you can expect. Good luck. It can be a stressful process at times!

Our daughter spent her Junior and Senior years at Athenian, graduating in 2017.  I cannot say enough wonderful things about the school.  We too live in Oakland, and she took the Athenian bus from Rockridge BART to and from school, which made the distance to Danville less daunting.  We found the school to be inclusive and friendly.  It isn't a pressure cooker, but is academically rigorous.  Our daughter enjoyed the small classes, her friendships with her teachers, and the many opportunities to try new things.  Athenian has a Maker Studio.  They also require all Juniors to participate in a 26-day backpacking trip with their peers, which was a highlight. When our daughter graduated she only wished she had been able to spend four years there!


We went through this process two years ago, so I know how stressful it can be. And yes, full tuition at independent schools is out of control. That said: schools are pretty forthcoming about what fraction of families receives financial aid, and how to apply for aid. They should be needs-blind for admissions purposes, but it's impossible to tell unless you work in admissions. I don't know if this helps at all - but after touring and talking to folks at several private schools, we honestly could not pinpoint differences at graduation. Yes, the Athenian school has that airplane - but unless you live on campus or near the school and can stay after hours, you just can't work on it. Yes, CPS has the small school feel and many kids end up with early admission to college - but you only get in if you're in the 92nd percentile (or higher) on the standardized test. Lick is super-competitive, but they are dead serious about how many kids they admit from any one school (and that commute is daunting!) In the end, remember that (1) kids graduate from all these schools, (2) HS is what you make of it, and (3) you have to consider your finances. Take a step back. You'll pay college tuition soon.

Where I'm going with this: if you're considering O'Dowd, please give Saint Mary's in Berkeley a look as well. O'Dowd is a diocese-run school, whereas Saint Mary's is independently run by the Christian Brothers (they are a Catholic order, but they fundraise and run the school on their own.) It's a coed school, unlike DeLaSalle. We came from Prospect Sierra and didn't know what to expect about the religion classes, but they are not overwhelming, and my son loves his religion teachers. It's an academically rigorous school (college prep!) with plenty of honors and AP classes offered, and with the school administration actively trying to limit how many courses students take, so they don't burn out. The student body is intentionally diverse - racially and socioeconomically. There are plenty of clubs to choose from for extracurricular activities, or your son could start his own. Sports play a role, but this is not a "meat-head school" that offers full rides mainly to athletes. Tuition is around 18K. We don't have experience with tuition assistance, but many families have opted for Saint Mary's over O'Dowd because of what they received in assistance. It's at a 7-minute walk from North Berkeley BART. The best part: during Enrichment Week in March, teachers offer one-week programs that are non-academic. This includes trips, activities such as cooking, watching movies (on a theme), or local adventures such as ziplining, paintball, etc. Juniors and Seniors can take driving class or SAT prep. My son has travelled to New Zealand in freshman year, and to New York in sophomore year. This year he applied to go to Malta or France (no guarantees that he'll go, but everyone has the opportunity to apply.) These are all extracurricular and come at a cost, but we're talking about spending money on "experiences" rather than "things" or "high tuition." 

Sorry if this is TMI about a school that is absolutely not on your list. However: if you are intrigued and/or have questions about Saint Mary's, I would be more than happy to chat.

Good luck with High School admissions!

Corina Jump

I had one child graduate from O'Dowd and one from CPS. The one who went to O'Dowd was unequivocally happier with the high school experience. We are not Catholic, but never felt out of place vis a vis the religion aspect. Lots of messages of love, service, and respect. The school has a wide range of kids, a wide range of classes, lots of academic rigor if your kid wants it, but also offers levels of classes where your kid might not be as strong. We were big fans of the support and most of teaching was terrific. It was a very big change from the K-8 private school my kids attended, but we were very impressed in the end.

CPS is, indeed, a pressure cooker. And while it works well for a very specific type of kid, we knew lots of very smart kids who were dragged through with multiple tutors and had their sense of competence trashed. My main "warning" about CPS is that if your kid isn't super strong in Math, beware. The school's math program is a disaster for kids who do not come in with an ability to teach themselves math in a strictly problem-based socratic approach. Frankly, it was crushing to a too-large portion of the class population. There is a very narrow definition of success at the school presently (this has changed in the last few years according to people who had kids graduate 4+ years ago) and when there are no levels to choose from, a student is pretty much stuck if he or she is not strong at a given subject. We tried to work with the administration, but got no response. On the positive side, most of the teachers are wonderful, and all are willing to spend much time outside the classroom to provide extra help. I do think the school is unique & wonderful in that way. CPS students are treated with respect and are not saddled with a bunch of rules, which is also great.

The grading across the board is incredibly hard. We said that while most schools are criticized for grade inflation, CPS practices grade deflation. And that doesn't help in the end with college admissions for many kids.  My takeaway is this: there are some kids who LOVE CPS and thrive there. If your kid is one of those, it's a great, unique place. If your kid is NOT one of those, it's pretty awful, regardless of how enriching, kind, supportive they try to make it. It's hard to feel the kindness and support when you can't pass math and feel inadequate every day. I unfortunately heard too much of that from a fairly big group of wonderful, smart kids.

My wife and I ranked College Prep above the other independent schools for one simple reason. The school puts its considerable resources into the hiring and retention of a brilliant faculty. The facilities are quite nice but not spectacular (though some say the new 3D lab is). The teachers however are spectacular...and nice. We were worried that the school would put too much attention on prep for the SAT and AP's. But none of our kid's classes is so narrowly focused. She has had quizzes on the assumptions in a linear equation, the nature of randomness in a sample, the symbolism in a Toni Cade Bambara short story, and the economic and symbolic importance of rivers in Chinese civilization. She has joined cross country for fun, and been attended to by a coach who is a medical doctor and coached on breathing and race strategy. Her times have radically improved in months. She has plenty of time for music and rock climbing out of school with classmates and old friends at other schools. It's a new school, and she worries about how wide and deep her friendship circle will become. 

But she does not worry about math even though she was placed in Math II. She did quite well on the quantitative parts of the ISEE but not nearly as well as she did on the verbal parts. And yet math has been easier for her than English. Her English teacher has very high standards for writing mechanics, (comma splice?) and demands that answers be rich in content rather than empty. We are very happy about how seriously the Humanities are taken at College Prep (her acting teacher has a Ph.D., and has created an open space for expression and risk-taking).  

I don't get the concerns about CPS being a pressure cooker. If you get in, you are likely going to get into a very good college even if you are not class valedictorian or get some "B's". My wife thought that the concerns about GPA were absurd. That's a number. The point is that the kid will be prepared for college physics and math, and not discouraged off any STEM track by poor high school preparation. And even if the child does not pursue science, she will have a true appreciation of the beauty of science and the mysteries it has unlocked as every educated person should have. To deprive a child of that just to to prop up a meaningless GPA number seems absurd. The school is there for kids to think deep thoughts with other kids who could not care less about being nerdy and with faculty who could be teaching at a fine liberal arts college. 

We are very happy that our daughter was accepted. 

Your son sounds like ours, who also loves to make things, and was intimidated by the high school application process. The advice we gave him was: Why not you? 

We encouraged him to apply to Lick, even though he didn't think he could get in. We did have to encourage him to study for the ISEE (not his favorited thing - I recommend a site called Test Innovators, as the ISEE math section tests concepts that most 8th graders have not yet covered in class.) We are so glad that he followed through and applied. He absolutely LOVES Lick, as do all the other kids I have spoken to from his class. The school environment from the kids to the parents to the teachers is very warm and inviting. My son loves the creativity involved in learning the concepts taught in class. He actually also loves the commute, he feels very independent with his clipper card, and it is an excellent way to get to know other kids from the East Bay.

As for financial aid, I believe that the admissions process at LWHS is completely need blind, and they do have a very generous financial aid program.

All that being said, I think all the independent and parochial schools in this area are excellent, and I suspect your son will love whichever school he goes to. You may want to look at Bentley also, as it felt more relaxed than CPS during the open house tours. However, Athenian was our second choice, and I think their program is outstanding. The outdoor component of that school is pretty incredible, and teachers seemed very accessible.

Good Luck with this crazy process. I hear that applying to college is a lot easier than applying to High School. :)

If it’s any solace, Lick is making their classes bigger starting with the 2018 entry year (this was the first year so we are just seeing how that will play out.  I think they are adding 10-20 kids per class.  My daughter goes there and frankly, for the price (we are full pay), I’ve been a little disappointed.  Maybe I expected too much, but I feel like my daughter fell between the cracks.  She’s quiet so maybe she should have spoken up more.  Freshman year, they told the parents to but out and let the kids handle things.  I followed that advice to my daughter’s detriment.  There are a lot of things to like about the school, but honestly, I have some regrets.  However, my daughter claims she is happy there now even if I can’t see it day to day.  Good luck to him!  I hope he gets in if it’s his first choice and I think their flexible tuition works well for most families (I know it’s very important to the school).  If he doesn’t, there are lots of other schools out there.  He will find his place.

My daughter is at Athenian and she loves it. The community and the values they place in teaching the whole student and focus on meaningful contributions all resonated with us and we are happy with our choice. We feel like we've finally found a place that has the right combination of academics and values. The commute via the school bus from Rockridge is more than doable at this point with the only caveat that if your child does lot of after school activities either at the school or elsewhere it gets challenging. That's something you will need to work out based on your individual situation. Affordability is not easy for us but I think Athenian and CPS do need-blind admissions (but heard Bentley does not). The financial aid we got isn't much (15%) but ultimately we felt there is value in a good high school education especially since the public schools are falling really short. In the long run it might jeopardize college chances (being in a more competitive school) but we decided that an education that provides a better foundation (academic and for life) is worth the trade-offs (cost and college prospects).

We did not consider religious schools as that was for us a moral compromise that we weren't going to make. We applied to CPS and were wait-listed but we feel Athenian is a better fit.

Though we don't have the firsthand experience with Lick, we had a very good impression of the school when we went to the open house. We really like how the school incorporates its curriculum with a lot of hands on learning. If your son is a tinkering type, it will probably be a good fit. Having said that, we decided to send our daughter to CPS. Anyway, just wanted to give a balanced view of CPS. We like the school for its intellectual intensity, warm community, and its close proximity to our house. She has very much enjoyed the friendship and the learning in all the classes so far. While she has managed to maintain an A average, it is by no means easy. Yes, CPS is a pressure cooker. All the teachers are nice, pedagogically apt, and very accessible, but they also set the bar pretty high, not to mention the voluminous amount of homework they assign. For example, the Math 2 our daughter took in her freshman year (most freshmen test into Math 2) requires a 95% average to achieve an A standing. Since she was consistently getting around 94% in the beginning, the midyear progress report showed A-, and that caused quite a bit of confusion and frustration. In the end, she did pull her average above 95%, but seriously?!! I agree wholeheartedly that kids should learn for learning sake, and they should not study just for the sake of getting good grades. But still, it seems a bit extreme to set the bar that high. What is wrong with sparing these hard working, high achieving (and brilliant) kids from unnecessary stress? Besides school, most of the kids are also involved (and excel) in all kinds of extracurricular activities...so even though kids are very supportive of each other's endeavor, but because everyone is in so many "things", there is a constant reminder that "I might not be doing enough..." So it is not a school for everyone. But if your son enjoys being challenged and meeting all kinds of interesting kids with different backgrounds, it might be a good fit. Good luck.

Thank you for this thread. It’s been so helpful. I would love to reach out to parents about Lick as well. Especially the anonymous parent who wrote about her daughter at Lick I’m Oct 29. Please message me directly as I would really love to hear about your daughter’s experience. I have a daughter who is applying to Lick and we would very much welcome your comments and love to hear about your experiences. Thank you! 

My son has been going to Athenian since 6th grade (he’s in high school now), and the school has been VERY generous to our single-income (single parent) family. I pay 28% of everything - tuition, books, meals, transportation, etc. In addition, the school applies my financial aid to one major trip in the high school and one in the middle school (the other trips, if taken, would cost full price). I am so unbelieveably grateful to Athenian for making these opportunities possible. They go above and beyond just the tuition help so that students whose families receive aid can participate fully in the school’s programs and don’t “stick out” (for example, by eating school lunch). The financial aid has been unwavering, even though I’m not able to volunteer much, and even though my son’s grades and behavior are not stellar. There are still challenges associated with attending a school a decent distance away, but they are not insurmountable, in my opinion.