CPS, Branson, Lick, Head-Royce, and Bentley-- what's the difference?

Hi all,

It seems that all these schools--CPS, Branson, Lick, Head-Royce, and Bentley--pretty much tout about the same things (diversity, inclusiveness, excellent teaching, sporting dynasty, academic rigor, etc.). Because of this, it has made our high school search difficult. If you have a kid in any one of these schools (or multiple), please share your experience/impression with us. What is the student culture like: Relaxed? Highly driven? Sociable? What is the distinct flavor you pick up when your contact the students of that school? And how tough is it at each school? If your child is really busy with schoolwork, do you feel that it's just busywork? Or is the work really meaningful in your view?

Tell me about your school, something that's uniquely your school. What does your school do really well than its peer schools?

Parent Replies

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Both of my sons have gone to Lick-Wilmerding High School, and it is very special. The motto Head, Heart & Hands has special meaning, particularly hands with the incredible technical arts classes (wood, metal, electronics, art & science of computer science, jewelry). Students come from all over the Bay Area (>60 middle schools) and almost 40% of students receive tuition assistance through flex sliding scale tuition (double that of other schools). My sons have both been very well prepared for college with thoughtful coursework, the athletics are fun and inclusive, and the community is very strong, particularly for a high school (dozens of different events put on by the Parents Association for parents, for example). More than 900 students apply for 128 spots, so it is very difficult to get in, and it has been a big commute from North Berkeley to Balboa Park BART. But we feel it has been well worth the commute. I encourage you to sign up for an open house and shadow visit early (August?) and visit to get a better feel for the school.

I have one child at Bentley and another at Urban.  We choose to send our son, who was admitted to both, to Bentley over Urban.  

We find Bentley to have very good academics without having quite the homework load of Urban.  There are definitely differences in homework load at the schools on your list! For example, CPS and Urban have more homework than Bentley.  At this level of school, there really isn't any busy work at all.  So those CPS/Urban students are actually learning more during those extra hours of work.  The question you have to ask is how much homework do you think would be good for your child. We find that Bentley has been much more willing to consider and often honor our requests in term of things like class schedules.          We find that Bentley is much more open to meeting with parents, while Urban insists that students advocate for themselves,  This sounds good in theory, but when confronted with a panel of teachers/administrators who have all the power, it is extremely difficult for a lone 14-year-old to argue with them.  (This occurred because the student wanted to take a higher level science course, not because the student had done anything wrong.)   There is also the issue of the commute.  Not only does this take time from the student's day, it impacts their social life.  My son gets to spend more time with his Bentley friends because they are all in the East Bay.  If you send your student to school in San Francisco, most of their friends will be less accessible. Feel free to contact me if you have more questions.

Traditionally, CPS is the toughest, followed closely by Head Royce. Bentley is much less selective and I've never heard of Branson. One thing that's changed since I went to CPS (a long time ago) is that O'Dowd now offers some seriously tough courses. It's not just a safety school anymore. At half the price, it's well worth a look.

These are all great schools, but despite the messaging, I think they have somewhat different characters or niches.  Probably most kids would be happy and do well at any of them. We toured these schools and my then 8th grader did the shadow visits.  I am not sure, though, how clear a picture a kid can get from one day.    So this reply is based on limited information: visits to most of these schools, kid enrolled in one of them.  However, kid has happy, thriving friends at all of these schools.  From our visits, we admired the teachers at Branson and CPS the most.  We loved the curriculum at HRS, CPS, and Branson.  We thought the arts at Lick were truly amazing, but the academic curriculum otherwise seemed less interesting to us (these are obviously very individual choices).  On the other hand, the students at Lick were extremely impressive. Branson has the reputation of being less diverse--of course it is in Marin which is less diverse.  Our impression was that they were trying very hard, and in very effective ways, to diversify the student body.  The faculty is already among the most diverse.  We decided not to pursue Branson because the commute form the East Bay seemed overwhelming.  We were unable to visit classes at Bentley, but have very happy friends there.

Kid ended up choosing CPS because it was the most academically interesting and rigorous.  The reputation for rigorous, extremely thoughtful academic work has turned out to be absolutely accurate.  The classes and teachers are outstanding; the expectations for the students are very, very high.  On the other hand, the student body has turned out to be kinder, more supportive, and more open than we could have ever dreamed.  The kids are just hugely nice to each other.  Likewise, the teachers devote time and energy to the students in ways that go way above and beyond.  My kid has met with teachers during lunch, after school, in free blocks, etc.  Every single teacher has been responsive and supportive.  But this does not mean that they are relaxed about grading or that they lower their expectations: instead, they really help the students meet their potential. Because the teachers are great, the students are excited about the material. I have the impression that many of the kids at CPS are truly intellectuals; they are not just good students, they are intrinsically interested in the subject matter.  

On surprise to me was that the kids come from a fairly far-flung geographical range:from Dublin, Hayward, Lamorinda to SF and Marin. I had expected a Berkeley/Oakland focus.  This is a good thing--brings wider cultural mix, but makes it a bit harder for the kids to get together outside of school.

I think the new block schedule has helped reduce the homework load somewhat.  There is no busywork at all.  I think there is stress about grades--at least at this time of year around finals.

Best of luck, it an be a draining process!  The good news it that all these schools offer a lot.

With three teens, we looked closely at private school options but decided, in the end, to send our kids to Piedmont High.  We have not regretted it!  Have you thought about public schools?