Berkeley/Albany public schools or private?

My daughter will turn 5 next year and we are looking for an elementary school starting next year (with Kindergarten). We have moved to the Bay Area from Europe, so are not too familiar with the American system. We are planning on moving to Berkeley/Albany in summer and from what I see, she would be accepted in a public school (but then assigned, and we couldn't chose which school, correct?). We also started looking into private schools but tuition is fairly high and with the generally good reviews I see for the public schools in Berkeley and Albany, I am not sure if it's worth the money. I haven't seen any open tours from public schools, which makes it harder to learn more about them. Any shared experience about public vs private school will be useful. Thank you!

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I can only speak for Berkeley public schools. Kindergarten tours run from November through January. When you apply, you rank your choices within your district zone. There is a kindergarten information fair in December, and I highly recommend anyone with an incoming kindergartner to attend. Representatives from all the schools and the application team will be there. Here is a link to the district FAQ:

Best of luck!

Hi, Iris. Welcome to the area! You are correct:  American public schools  are required by law to educate your child if you live in the city or town where they are located. You are also correct that, although you can rank order your choices, you cannot dictate which of the schools your child will be assigned to; if there isn't room at your favorite, or they need to balance out which neighborhood the children come from, or the genders, then that's what they need to do. However, all of the public schools in Albany and in Berkeley are excellent, and if the school they assign is more than 1+ ~ miles away in Berkeley, they will have a school bus for them to get there (K-5 grades.)

Most schools offer tours in the Spring; the tours are typically run by parent volunteers. You can check the schools' websites to find out more. 

My daughter attended Berkeley public schools from Kindergarten through high school graduation, and we often talk about how happy we are that we made that decision; there are many, many wonderful benefits to attending public school, and the education she received was excellent. She is currently a sophomore at a very prestigious university, and she never feels that any of the other students, many of whom attended renowned private schools, are either better educated or better prepared than she was by her public schools. In addition, it has been excellent for her sense of community, her perspective on the world, and her sense of gratitude for all that she has earned and received.

I wish you the best of luck in this process.

Berkeley elementary schools DO have tours scheduled for mornings of Tuesdays and Thursdays stating around NOW and ending soon. You can check for the flyers with all the information at the Berkeley USD website. December 7th is a Berkeley USD informational fair. Information for that is also available at the website of Berkeley USD. You should also be aware of the zoning in Berkeley: there are 3 zones and priority deadline for application to kindergarten. You can apply even after the deadline and they will give you a slot at a school (required by law), whichever one will have a slot available after assigning all the children who applied before the deadline.

I am responding about Berkeley public schools. Berkeley elementary schools are assigned by zone - you can read more about it on the District’s website under Admissions. Tours of Berkeley elementary schools usually start around now and run through January. You can call the schools directly to register for a tour. There is also a Kindergarten informational event in early December where you can gather info about all the schools. The individual schools also each hold an evening informational event for meeting the principal and teachers, I believe in January.

As far as public versus private: we have been very happy in our public elementary in the Southeast Zone and it is very hard for me to see the value proposition for private school if you are a Berkeley resident. Our child is having an amazing experience on every dimension: academic, social, emotional, arts education, enrichment classes (cooking, gardening, nature, dance, sports). The parent community is engaged and active and the school is diverse. We have zero regrets about not applying to private school. 

Berkeley and Albany public elementary schools have no "bad" or "dangerous" schools. Just wait until you move here and get assigned. Even if you were already here, you cannot choose your school in Berkeley or Albany, you just state your preferences (often based on location or school hours), and still get assigned. Really, it will be fine.

In my experience of public vs. private schools, my preference was free, however my daughter's preference was small class size no matter where she was, public or private. She ended up transferring once for smaller classes.

We live in Berkeley and toured both public and private schools. In the end, we chose Prospect Sierra, a TK-8 private school in El Cerrito for both of our daughters. For our family, it has been the right decision. Our girls have thrived with the low student to teacher ratio. There are two experienced full-time teachers in each classroom, with multiple specialists (art, music, drama, co-lab, science, physical education/movement, etc.,) also interacting with your child on a weekly basis. The significant individual attention that is made available to our daughters definitely helps balance the financial commitment. Hope this is helpful. 

Hi, Iris,

I'm a parent of two small children (both under 5) in Albany.

If you move to Albany, I believe the school available to your daughter would be the Marin School, which is highly regarded.  I'm not certain how the public school system works in Berkeley. 

I always thought I would send my children to public school, but after witnessing how public schools have changed over the past 20 (or so) years--more and more emphasis on standardized testing, more and more multiple choice, less time outdoors, less time playing, less time for art and music--my husband and I opted for private school, fully realizing what a privilege it is to be able to make that decision. 

We have chosen to send our children to a Waldorf school, specifically the East Bay Waldorf School.  I'm not sure if you're familiar with the Waldorf system.  I highly recommend this podcast, which does a good job of explaining the Waldorf approach--  The podcast addresses preschool, but is relevant for Kindergarten and the grades. 

In my opinion, the Waldorf classroom has a unique atmosphere of love and warmth.  The preschool and Kindergarten classrooms are especially simple and homey and designed to fully welcome the child.  I've noticed that Waldorf teachers embody a calm kindness, which rather than exciting the children, works to spark a sense of awe, wonder, and the desire to learn.  From a very young age, the children cook together and clean the classroom.  All of the tasks serve a purpose, which helps to instill a strong work ethic and builds a sense of community. 

The children spend time outdoors playing and hiking.  In fact, the East Bay Waldorf School is located on 80 acres of beautiful land in Wildcat Canyon.  The student body is diverse, and tuition assistance is available. 

I wish you luck in finding a school that is right for you and your daughter!



Choosing the right school can be difficult, especially if you do not know the American school system. We had exactly the same worries and questions when we came to the US from Europe. 

Although private schools can be expensive, we eventually  decided to go for a private school (Prospect Sierra in El Cerrito). Our kiddo is in first grade now and I can say it has been worth every penny. The teachers are absolutely wonderful, there are so much more resources for all kinds of activities and the community is amazing. You can probably also find this at public schools, but by choosing a private school we knew where our kiddo was going to go instead of relying on a lottery system. I also feel that there are more resources available at private schools to provide better schooling for the children compared  to schools in Europe. Although we do not have any experience with this, I know that some private schools also offer financial assistance. 
The best thing to do is visit all schools (both public and private), ask all questions you might have and go with what feels good. Good luck! 

We live in Berkeley and when my kid was starting K, we toured the Berkeley public school and many area private schools.  We registered at the Berkeley public school, and through the registration process, got a good taste of the bureaucracy of the Berkeley school system.  My kid was not assigned to a school for weeks because the school was too full and surpassed the class size limit set by law.  While they were trying to sort out the problem, we decided to go private, thinking that if any accident happens to the kid in school, we the parent would have a hard time finding anyone in charge, let alone trusting them to provide critical help on the spot.  We just did not have any confidence in the system.  We went to Prospect Sierra School and spent the full 9 years there, followed by another year in a highly ranked private high school, and later moved to Berkeley high.  So we now have experienced both private and public schools in this area.  In retrospect, we are very glad that we have gone to the private school when the kid was little.  The private school not only provided a great academic education in all areas (art, science, music, PE), but more importantly instilled good value in kids by focusing on social, emotional, behavior aspects.  In another word, the whole person education.  Prospect Sierra has prepared the kid so well in all aspects that the kid is ready to experience Berkeley high and is thriving there.  I should say that from our experience, Berkeley high can easily compare to any high ranking private high schools in the area and surpass them in many aspects.   The bottomline is, Berkeley public schools are great, but your kid (and parents) has to be ready for it, good and bad, the whole package.  If you can afford it, private schools give you a higher probability of her getting a good education at a younger age.  

Albany is tearing down and rebuilding 2 of the 3 elementary schools. While the schools are being rebuilt, they reverted to half day kindergarten and are making other elementary kids attend school at the middle school and high school, with the middle school and high school kids. 

thank you all very much for sharing your experiences! this already gives us a taste of how supportive parents in the Berkeley area are!