Seeking High School for Teen Son

My 15-year old son and I live in New York but I've now accepted a job in Walnut Creek and we'll be moving to the East Bay by Sept '21.  I need to find a high school that can meet his needs.  He has an autism diagnosis, though that was not confirmed until he was 10 as some teachers and docs suspected a mood disorder before then.  He is very verbal and quite naturally intelligent but his behavioral and emotional challenges have been a barrier to many school programs in NY.  He has a strong sense of fairness and can react strongly when he perceives himself to be the victim of unfairness, such as when routines are changed in a way which places more demands on him.  Change, transitions and unexpected developments can be difficult for him to process and he will often require support in adjusting to such developments.  Though he wants friends and has had some recent experience in developing and maintaining friendships, he has had limited opportunities to develop lasting friendships and to develop the social skills needed to maintain relationships.  He also suffers from anxiety, treated through meds (Fluvoxamine); one way in which his anxiety manifests is through anthropomorphizing, which means that he thinks of inanimate objects (e.g., a paper towel used in an art project) as having feelings and can become quite anxious if they are thrown away or lost (he usually wants to bring these items home, by which point he's calm and is no longer concerned about whether they're thrown away).

I have found it difficult to find an appropriate school for my son in NY.  Over the past 20 months, he has attended a residential school, so he sleeps at the school during the week and comes home on weekends and for extended breaks at holidays.  He has been instructed in classes with not more than 8 students and 1-2 adults and has required the assistance of a dedicated paraprofessional to remain moderated and on task.  While he is often conscientious about finishing his work, he can be disruptive and inappropriately provocative in class.  An FBA concluded that many of his behaviors are attention-seeking.

While my son's current school has been able to manage his behaviors, the school is not very academically rigorous and academics are not a priority for many students or their parents.  My son does not want to be challenged, so this creates a self-reinforcing cycle, and I worry that he will resist when the demands on him are increased at his next school.

(I have already been in contact with Springstone School and Orion Academy.  Both have been helpful but Springstone has already advised that they could not meet my son's needs.  I am continuing to speak with Orion, which sounds like a good program but again the question will be whether they can meet his needs.) In sum, my son is a smart kid with significant potential, but he has presented challenges which have proven a barrier to many programs in NY.  He has shown signs of maturing and progress in recent years and hopefully that will continue, but he can become emotionally disregulated and act out in physical manners when he becomes very frustrated, so I need to find a school that can manage such episodes and will not expel him if one occurs. Any suggestions re area schools will be much appreciated.  Thanks for your time and advice.

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Research Tilden Prep in Walnut Creek, they have "open houses" via zoom that are a good introduction. Also, Holden High in Orinda, they may haveboth in-person and zoom open houses. Both are very good private schools especially for kids with learning challenges. Good Luck.

Hi, welcome to the Bay Area! I toured the Springstone School in Lafayette for my daughter with learning differences and high needs. I know there are autistic kids there. It may be a good fit! I really liked the philosophy, the size, the campus. I believe they have gone through some huge transitions with directors in the recent past but perhaps it has found a new equilibrium. Good Luck! 

Check out Orinda Academy. It is a small school of about 100 kids 9-12th grade. Classes are small (6-10 kids), teachers are wonderful, and the environment is very supportive. My son is doing quite well there.  Best of luck!

You might want to check Star Academy in San Rafael. You wrote a very good description and they may be a good place for your son.

Good luck. 

We had the exact situation with our son when he was 15 yo. and opted to send him to a safe place (after vetting several schools in CA ) where he would be surrounded by true peers and trained staff who would understand the needs to connect and the deep struggles from being seen as different and aggressive bullying he'd endured at the middle school in CA.

Please check out Middlebridge School in Narragansett, RI. 

This school has literally saved our son's life and our sanity as a result. Can't put a price on that..

I'd love to talk with you about the school, my husband is still on the board though our son has since graduated from college.

He can answer your questions about the school and refer you to the admissions director to see if it'd be a good fit with your son's needs.


Have you considered engaging the services of an educational consultant? There's a firm based in San Francisco that has a sub-specialty in assisting with special needs students.  We found them to be extremely helpful with guiding us in finding the right high school for our son and know they've assisted families with other placements.

We found it very hard to assess whether Orion Academy was right for our child, who also has a complicated profile. We enrolled one year, but it didn't work for us. I think that the school should have recognized this earlier, but I suspect they were willing to give it a try because they had many open slots that year. Before deciding to enroll, I talked to some parents. After our child started and we got to know them, these parents explained they were not comfortable being candid with us because it's hard to be anonymous in such a small school. However, they had wondered from the start whether our child would fit in based on what I had to say. From the first interview visit, our child consistently told us that it didn't feel right -- we should have paid more attention to that than to anything else, but we were desperate to try an option close to our home. Our eventual choice is no longer an option for high school. I wish you the best in finding a good placement for your son.

Fusion Academy may be worth checking out.  The most local one is Berkeley (we really liked taking a music lesson there 1x/week, not enrolled in classes).  They have a website.  Good luck!