What to Look for When Choosing a School

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Choosing among public kindergartens

Dec 2015

RE: Jefferson vs Thousand Oaks Elementary in Berkeley

In my view, the kinder school visit is just a start if you're uncertain (I transferred my child after a few years from one Berkeley elementary to another.)

There's a lot you can do now. Eg: Experience the morning drop-off (or walk through the school bus timing etc.), talk to regular parents of the older children that morning. (Parents who hold PTA jobs who by the way deserve tremendous appreciation, tend to be 100% positive.) In experience of regular folks, any sub-par teachers or stellar teachers? How's the school climate, the principal, after school? Is anything coming up on the horizon? Don't let things like the people on your tour, the rowdy child, the school secretary, or the current size of their fundraising overly color your view of the school.

After the lottery, know that there's the waitlist system, that any school can be boosted b there's the waitlist system, that any school can be boosted by your involvement, and we are lucky that in general teachers and families here are wonderful.

-Trusted my gut but asking more would have helped

Finding a school that is a good match

Nov 2014

This may be similar to other posts, but here goes. We r looking for an elementary school for our child who is pretty typical, at grade level (typical in that at this point, there are no obvious issues in terms of academics or socio emotional functioning-but still a kid with plenty to learn in both areas). As parents, we are interested in some of the more ''progressive'' schools that definitely are academic, have creative teachers and project based learning, work with all kids at their individual level, but also have a structured and well thought out social-emotional curriculum integrated into the school. The issue we are having from talking to parents and visiting is that the schools that seem wonderful to us, seem also to have a lot of students ( no judgment here, at all, our kids are who they are!), who seem especially shy or timid, or need extra help with transitions, are slow to warm up, are ''quirky'' etc. , (which doesn't seem to be our child) and who during free time choose to do art or more quiet, creative, imaginary play activites rather than choosing to be outside running around or in an organized game or sport (which does seem to be our child, even knowing that people r more complicated than that and change and grow).. The schools that seem to have kids more like ours, don't seem to be a match for us, in that they seem more mainstream and very academic, without much real emphasis on the social emotional. I know that there are many nuances that are missed during tours, so am partly going on how the tourguides talk about the school, parents, and observing the kids, and ''reputation.''I know that obviously there is going to be a mix of kids, and want our kid to also develop and be more comfortable with his ''creative,'' introspective side by being exposed to many types. I am curious to hear from parents who have an outgoing, athletic kid, but also want progressive ed and a great chance for their child to have lots of experience with kindness, empathy,working things out with others, talking problems out, social justice etc. Is there such a school amongst all the great schools that has a diverse group of kids (shy, outgoing, artsy,athletic) for a pretty ''stereotypical'' boy whose parents want progressive education, a great group of pals, a really great school community for the family, and a strong focus on socio emotional? We have already visited our public school, so at this point need help navigating the world of private schools. Also, are there people who as their job know the nuances of the area schools and help parents find the right fit when it seems a bit more complicated? Phew, what a post! Sorry! Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks!

I take it you're talking about kindergarten? It sounds like you are really overthinking this and almost like you WANT this to be a complicated decision. Your son sounds very normal and like he would thrive in many different kinds of school environments (this is a good thing--you don't have a problem that I can see). Lots and lots of public schools meet the criteria you deem to be so important (and it is), and that is the social-emotional learning. But it seems like you are assuming that the public school does not offer this piece and so want a warm, fuzzy environment for your son, but then think he does not fit in there? In my experience you can have it all with public school: warm, fuzzy, academic, project-based learning, social-emotional learning. Your son sounds like this would be a perfect fit for him! Don't overthink it

How to choose the right school

Jan 2014

Hello all, I am feeling really overwhelmed about choosing the right elementary school for my 6 year old son. he currently goes to a private school (as he did not meet cut off for public). Any guidance from experienced parents here on how you went about choosing the right school for your kids would be greatly appreciated. Our son is more on the creative side and also thinks out of the box, but is not too inclined towards studies (complains that he does not like math and studying in general), so I am torn as to what kind of school setting will bring out the best in him while also teaching him the required curriculum in a fun learning environment . Any feedback on private or public schools would be greatly appreciated. Concerned Parent

I related to your post. My husband and I are both artists, and although our son is more of a science guy, he is a very out-of-the-box fellow, a square peg. After several years in public school, he was clinically depressed. He loves knowledge, but was suffocating in his elementary school, where everyone had to do the same thing at the same time, the same way. For him, we needed a place that allowed for and even supported different approaches, differing pace, and creative, innovative solutions to the same challenge.

I had worked at a Montessori afterschool program as a young person, and knew that Montessori was about ''following the child.'' Meaning, the child approaches integrating the curriculum independently, based on his strengths and interests, and at his own pace.

Our son is now at Montessori Family School. He is thriving socially, emotionally, and academically. In all of his years, it has literally never once happened that he *wanted* to go to school. He now asks to stay in afterschool because he loves it there so much. It is certainly a place for creative, innovative kids. Instead of saying ''I'm weird,'' our son now feels he is bright and an original thinker. We know these are strengths, but they did not fly at his particular public school where ''sameness'' and test scores were the message.

My suggestions in general: - What does the school put out there most prominently? ''Academic rigor'' ''individuality'' ''the arts''? Many independent schools sound the same until you read between the lines. Are they about your kid's emotional health and happiness, or about scores? (And by the way, these are *not* mutually exclusive. In some subject areas, our kid is learning what I would consider to be high school level material in 4th grade\xc3\xa2\xe2\x82\xac\xe2\x80\x9d and loving it.)

- Ask if the school practices ''differentiated education'' in some form. I.e. does each child learn material at his level, which could be 5th grade math, 8th grade language arts, and immersive, sophisticated visual art. No two kids are the same.

- Crucial: ask how much homework there is at each grade level. Believe me when I tell you that the amount of homework will be an essential factor in your family life, and the joie de vivre of your child, for the next several years. Also ask whether the homework is tailored to skills your particular child needs to learn, or whether the same assignment will be given to the whole class.

- Ask how much of the classwork and homework is comprised of worksheets, and how much is comprised of kids making things -- writing stories, building models, making presentations, etc.

- Ask if there are parents who would be willing to talk to you. If public school, ask neighbors and friends who they know who might know someone whose kids go there. Interview as many as you can. This may be the best way to get a good sense.

- Finally, don't over-stress. You can change schools if it feels like the wrong fit! Kids really are resilient. Good luck! Jasmine

I have 3 kids, the youngest now in middle school, who have attended a variety of public and private schools over the years. At least twice I have put a kid into a school that was terribly wrong, where we had to make a change after a year or two. Here is my advice about how to avoid some of the mistakes I made:

  1. Pay no attention to the buzzwords you hear on school tours, for example whole child and differentiated instruction and progressive. The schools know that some parents want to hear these buzzwords, so they say them. Just because a school SAYS they use this or that approach doesn't mean they really do, as I learned the hard way. It's a bad sign if most of what you hear is buzzwords and abstract philosophical discussions.

  2. Pay a lot of attention to student and teacher turnover. Big turnover means the director or principal is making a lot of people unhappy. This could be YOU in a year or two. The best schools, both public and private, have happy teachers and happy parents. And I don't mean just the teachers and parents that the school trots out on visit days. How can you tell if the school has a lot of turnover? Ask, when you visit the school: what percentage of kids who start kindergarten stay through 6th or 8th grade? What percentage of teachers have been at the school longer than 5 years? Look at the school's website - does it say how long teachers have been at the school? If not, that could be a bad sign. Does the school have very small classes in upper grades compared to lower grades? Are there lots of openings in upper grades? This can mean families leave after kindy or 1st grade.

  3. Don't let the physical buildings and grounds influence your decision disproportionately. I made this mistake. Beauty's only skin deep. If your child is unhappy, he/she is still going to be unhappy in a beautiful setting.

  4. Don't base your decision on a family or friend who goes to the school. Another mistake I've made. If they leave, will you be just as happy with the school?

  5. Location and convenience count for a lot. If you have to choose between 2 or 3 schools that mostly have what you want, choose the one that makes it easiest for your family in terms of commuting, kid friendships, cost, childcare, etc.

  6. There are no schools that are perfect, and there is no school that is best for every kid.

  7. Don't worry too much about making a mistake! You can change schools if you need to. Kids are very resilient and adaptable.

Hope that helps!

Choosing a K-5 vs. K-8 private school

Nov 2011

Our child will enter kindergarten next fall and we are considering several private schools. Some of the K-5 programs appeal to us, but we're somewhat concerned about transferring to another private school for grade 6. Does anyone have experience with this situation or advice about choosing a K-8 program versus a K-5 program? Is the 6th grade transfer process so competitive that many applicants aren't accepted? For a variety of reasons we don't think our public school would be a good fit, so we don't want to be stuck without options come 6th grade.

We know each school varies, but how competitive have parents found the kindergarten application process in recent years? Can we apply just to our to our top choices or is it best to also apply to ''safety schools''? It seems ridiculous to ask these questions about K instead of college, but we'd appreciate any feedback. Thanks! -Anxious Kindergarten Applicants

It's not a bad thing to consider middle school when you are looking for kindergarten, but you have no way to know what your preschooler will need or want when she's a pre-teen.  My experience is that many kids tire of their elementary school by the 5th grade and are ready for a different experience for middle school. My youngest attended a K-8 private school where many kids left after 5th grade to go to the local public middle school, or to attend a different private school. I know one family that attended a very small private K-5 school, then tried out two different private middle schools, and was accepted to a very competitive private high school. 

As to trouble getting into a private middle school later, this is not a big thing. There are a lot of options. Many K-8 private schools add an additional class for 6th grade because they have kids coming in from other schools. The most competitive middle and high schools are competitive starting at kindergarten, and even the kids who went K-5 often are not guaranteed a spot in middle school. You'll have a much better idea of whether you even want a competitive school by the time your child is in 3rd or 4th grade.

Regarding safety schools, it's always a good idea to have a backup plan!

I think the competition varies a lot year to year. I have 2 children at Redwood Day School. One in K and one older. When our older son was going to in to K a couple of years ago, we applied to Head Royce, Bentley, St. Paul's, Corpus Christi, and Beacon Day School. We got in to half of them and wait listed for the other half. Luckily for us, Redwood Day was always our first choice.

I love that it is K-8 and that we don't have to make any more decisions until high school...but then again, it is a GREAT FIT for both of our children and for our family and I think that that should be your driving motivation in finding the RIGHT SCHOOL FOR YOU.

I do understand that people are starting to apply in 4th grade now so that they will be able to be in a private middle school. I don't know how common this is across schools; it is a good question to ask when you go on the tours. Good luck, it is a tough process

You're basically asking a question regarding something that won't happen for another 7 years. SO many things could happen that could change the scenario: money, health, environment. Anything from your child being tired of the same kids for 6 years and wanting a change for middle school to any number of more drastic changes (job loss/change, school closure, other far more serious issues). If you are fortunate enough to afford private, go with where you want to be now, where you want to spend your time and money NOW. Elena

Kids will change as they get older and what looked like a perfect fit for kindergarten may turn out to not fit by middle school, or even earlier. Also schools change administration and teachers over time. Having seen 2 kids through private schools, I'd pick the school that fits now and not worry about middle school or high school. One kid had an excellent experience at Montessori Family which was k-6 at the time. He had no problems getting into a middle school program at another school and no problems transitioning. As far as k-12 goes, a lot of kids are ready to move on by high school and ready to move on from their elementary and middle schools. Getting into K programs is much more difficult than moving later on. been there

My son has been at a K-5 and we've really liked feeling part of a smaller community, where the focus is all on elementary school. I think it's kept even the ''big'' kids seeming younger, gentler. And at the same time, at a K-5, the 5th graders get a chance to be the biggest kids on campus, which is a nice leadership opportunity. Now we're looking at middle schools for the next phase, and yes, it would be nice not to have to look, but from what I hear from others at K-8s, often kids feel like they've outgrown their school by 6th grade and want a new experience. I feel like I really know who my son is at this stage and have a much better sense of what kind of middle school will work for him, something I would not have known when he was in Kindergarten. And even though it will mean doing the search all over again in three years for high school, I'm really only looking at 6-8 or K-8 schools for middle school, rather than 6-12s or K-12s. Again, I want him to have more leadership opportunities in 8th grade, rather than having to compete with older kids for student council and the school play. I think smaller schools can focus on getting things right for kids at their own unique developmental stage, rather than trying to cover a really wide age span. K-5 mom

To answer your first question about the 6th grade application process being competitive, I would say that if you have a strong student, you probably won't have any problems. Two years ago my daughter applied to 5 independent schools for 6th grade (she came from a private Christian school) and got accepted to 3 and waitlisted to 2. Only 2 were financially feasible so we chose from those.

There are a LOT of private schools in the East Bay, especially if you are willing to commute a bit. Also, some of the schools have bus transportation. If you don't limit yourself to one or two schools, you should be fine.

As for the K process, I went through that last year. We applied to 3 schools. My daughter was accepted to 2 and didn't get into 1. I could have applied to more, but I wanted to right ''fit'' for her and we definitely found it.

Again, there are a LOT of great private schools in the East Bay. I think you will be fine if you don't limit yourself. Good luck! Been There

I have a 5th grader and also two older children who've done a variety of public and private schools. My advice is: don't worry about this. There are so many more important things that affect your and your child's school experience than what happens in the 5th grade. In fact, you may find, like we did, that the K-8 school that was so perfect for our 4 year old was not a good fit for our 9 year old, so you just change schools. There are a lot of openings in private schools at the middle school level. Yes, some schools are harder to get in to, but others are not, just like kindergarten. And you also may find that your child is ready for and wants to go to public middle school with the other kids in the neighborhood! Go with your instincts for kindergarten and then be flexible about what happens after that! anon

What to look for in a school

Jan 2010

In reference to the discussion a few months ago about elementary school choice ... I just completed a school search for my elementary school kid, and did an extensive search for kindergarten just a couple years ago. My three children have attended a total of 6 different public schools and 3 different private schools (!!), so I thought I would write up a few things I've learned. Some of these apply only to private school, like tuition, but most of them apply to any type of school. It's really important to consider factors beyond academics that will affect your long-term happiness at a school, so I am mostly addressing these non-academic factors:

1. Think beyond kindergarten!


  • When you are looking for a kindergarten, you have a 4-year-old child in preschool, and you are probably not thinking about how this school will work for your 3rd grader. You are thinking more about how your tot will adjust to real school. Moreover, it is very hard to tell what sort of school will best suit your child when he/she is only 4. But you have to force yourself to take a good look at the upper grades at every school you visit. Your child will most likely have a good experience in kindergarten regardless of which school you choose. But you really don't want to be looking for another school in three years when it turns out the school was not such a great fit after all once your child hits 8 or 9.

2. Do your homework ahead of time

  • School Website: Read the school's website and get as much info ahead of time as you can. For private schools, the websites are mainly intended to promote the school, and the really useful bits may only be accessible to school staff & parents. But you can still tell lots about the school - see the following suggestions. Public school websites are usually run by the PTA or parents at the school. You can tell a lot about parent involvement from a parent-run website - is it up to date? Is there useful information about staff, hours, after school, etc.?


  • Location & logistics: How hard will it be to get your child to and from this school every day for 6 or 8 years? Is there a bus? Can you walk? Is it on your way to work? Do most of the families at the school live near you, or do they mostly live farther away, making it harder to set up a carpool?


  • Tuition & fees: If this is not posted on the website, that's a bad sign. Are there fees and charges for additional items that boost the tuition substantially? Are payment options and financial aid described?


  • After-school program: If you know you'll be using before or after school care, check the website to see what the program looks like. Are there current announcements about interesting classes? Does the school have more of a babysitting service or a structured afterschool program with classes and activities? How flexible is the program? Can you drop in, or do you need to sign up for a regular schedule? Will you need to pay extra fees for classes? Is there homework help for older kids?


  • Philosophy: Unless you are looking for the two extremes of academically rigorous vs. anything goes, most schools in our area have very similar approaches. Don't get too wrapped up in philosophy. Instead try to determine if the school fits your family!


  • Teachers: many schools have staff bios on their website and you can often determine useful info. Does this school have a higher than average staff turnover? One indication is a large number of very young looking teachers, say more than half of the staff. What is the average number of years of teachers at the school? You may be able to find out on the school's website. If not, ask. If most of the teachers have been there fewer than 3 years, and it's a school that has been around for a while, this could be an indication that teachers are not compensated adequately. Or worse, there may be a lot of conflict between teachers and administration, which may point to trouble ahead for you, too.

3. Go to the open house or informational meeting

  • The director or principal: Does he/she come across as a leader who inspires confidence, but still seems accessible? Most good directors are more politician/marketing rep than educator, but you should look for straight talk on the important issues.


  • The pitch at the open house: Does it seem intended to please anyone and everyone? Is there a lot of educational terminology and jargon that is not explained? Are you given specific-enough info to determine if the school is a good fit for your family? It's a good sign if the director mentions some aspect of the school that may not appeal to every parent.


  • Are subtle scare tactics used in the pitch? For example, is it implied that only this school sends kids off to the best high schools and colleges? Is there a lot of verbage about keeping children safe? It's not a good sign if the school has to use this kind of tactic to attract families to the school, and it also tells you that the administration is willing to exploit common fears among preschoolers' parents in order to bring in new students.


  • Read between the lines: If there is a Q session, pay attention to how the director responds to questions from other parents that are naive, awkward, or confrontational. Answers that are too vague, or defensive, or that are brushed aside, can give you a lot of insight into problems at the school.

4. What to Look for on a Visit


  • Visit as late in the year as you can. If you visit in September, you are going to see kids still adjusting to a new class, new teacher, and new material. Mid-December or mid-January is good.


  • In addition to a scheduled tour, try to visit the school as parents are picking up or dropping off. Are there opportunities for parents to chat and hang out? Is there cameraderie? Do the kids look happy in the morning? Or resigned? For schools that you are particularly interested in, visit a school-wide event, carnival, or assembly so you can observe how the school works in a big gathering.


  • Try not to pay too much attention to the physical plant. It's nice to be in a shiny new building with the latest technology and beautiful grounds, but a nice building won't make you feel better about so-so teachers or difficult administrators or an unhappy child!


  • Imagine yourself at this school. is it comfortable to you? Do you feel like you would fit in? Would you like to spend time here, over the long run?


  • Visit a kindergarten class:
    - Can you picture your child in this class?
    - Is the teacher sweet and mommy/daddy-like?
    - How much of the day are children expected to sit still?
    - How often is recess? What is recess like?
    - Is there a bathroom in the class or nearby?
    - Is there a comfy chill area, where a kid can have alone-time?
    - Are there interesting and age-appropriate activity areas?
    - Do the kids seem happy and engaged?
    - If you are lucky, you'll see a disruption: how does the teacher handle difficulties?


  • Visit a 3rd or 4th grade class:
    - Look at the books in the class. Are there a lot of books or only a few? Do they address a variety of interests? Or are they mostly serving academic requirements?
    - Look at students' current math work. Is it on par with what you are seeing at other schools? For example, are students at this school still doing addition and subtraction, while other schools are teaching multiplication?
    - What kinds of projects are on the walls? Are they interesting to you? Does it seem like a kid would have fun doing a project like that?
    - Observe the students. Do they seem engaged? Are they listening to the teacher? Do you see collaboration among students? Are all the kids working at the same level? Is the classroom atmosphere conducive to thinking and learning, or is it too chaotic or noisy? (But keep in mind that the 5 minutes you are there may not represent the usual classroom atmosphere!)
    - Observe the teacher. Does he or she seem interested in the topic? Does he hold the attention of the students? How much time is she spending on classroom management as opposed to teaching?


5. Important things you should know about a school


  • What is the homework policy? Does the school provide specific information about homework expectations for specific grades? If not, and it matters to you, then ask. You could run into trouble in 2nd or 3rd grade with unexpected demands. If possible, ask kids at the school about homework when you visit classrooms.


  • Behavior and discipline: Are there clear rules and policies, or is discipline left intentionally vague to give staff more flexibility? If the latter, then you should ask how the school makes sure that rules are applied fairly and consistently. Ask for examples of how the school handles various situations such as namecalling, exclusion, repeated teasing, bullying, physicality. What is recess like in higher grades? Is it structured, so that there are fewer opportunities for teasing and bullying? How does the school handle excess physical energy, especially in boys? Is there a school psychologist? If not, how are behavior problems identified and addressed?


  • Communication: How does the school communicate with parents? Is communication mostly oral, or on paper, or by email? Is there a weekly newsletter? If so, look at a few issues. Is it mostly promoting the school? Or is it more directed to families at the school? Do the teachers send weekly updates to parents? Is there a discussion board for parents? What kind of information is available to parents on the school website? Grades? Rosters? Calendar? News about projects, field trips, presentations, accomplishments?


  • Collaboration: Does the principal or director regularly meet with parents? What about with teachers? How often does this happen, and what kinds of things are discussed? How does the administration get input from parents? To what degree do parents participate in major decisions such as building projects, staffing, and policy changes?


  • Family support: What kinds of structures does the school have in place to support single parents? What about parents who both work fulltime? Are siblings automatically admitted? If not, what is the typical acceptance rate for siblings? Are there events at the school for the entire family, such as carnivals, BBQ, field day, etc.? Are there opportunities for parents to socialize with each other? Is there a school directory?

Your hindsight about your elementary school choice

Nov 2009

I am not asking for specific information about schools in this question. Rather, I am curious to know how people (who are a few years into their children's elementary school) feels it fits into their families and their lives. For example, did you choose a school that was more academically rigorous, but now wish you had chosen something more ''progressive''? Or vice versa? Did you chose something far away logistically and wish you had picked a school closer to home? Is your child not in his/her neighborhood home and now you feel like that affects your participation in the community? Etc., etc. Basically, what do you wish you had done differently or evaluated differently during the process? Are there things that were really important to you and factored into your decision that now seem less important? It's feeling hard to weight all of these different things, so I'm wondering if people can share their hindsight/insight about it. Thanks! Searchin'

My spouse and I chose our neighborhood OUSD school a few years ago. Because we thought it had talented teachers, a wonderful principal, and nice families, we did not consider going anywhere else. It is not a ''hills'' school and was not generally considered one of the ''best'' schools, but we had a good feeling about it. We are extremely happy with our decision. Walking to school is awesome (and does not contribute to global warming the way a car commute does). It is great to be so close to school and friends. We know that we are improving our neighborhood and our city by actively participating in our local public school. Many of our child's friends' parents agonized over their elementary school choice and ended up at costly schools with long commutes. While many are generally happy I have also heard complaints about the expense, teacher quality (there is no teaching credential requirement in private school), and having to drive long distances for playdates and birthday parties. While there are things I would change about my child's school I definitely feel the good outweighs the bad. She is happy, making lots of great friends, learning a lot, and has had wonderful, caring teachers so far. I have tried to understand why people won't even consider our local public school and can only surmise that it is based on having an entirely different value system than my family's. My child feels like this school is home, and it is. It's a really nice feeling. anon

We chose our school based on its small size, good reputation, and proximity to our home (pretty close, but the kids still get bused.) Our kids are in 4th and 2nd grades. In retrospect, we're very happy with our choice, and those details all figure into our satisfaction. The #1 thing we are glad of is the closeness to our house. I'm very active at the school, and if we were far from our school, I would not be nearly as involved. There are many families who don't come to any or many events, and I believe a main reason is that they live across town. This is a big problem, as we need those families to make a cohesive community for all the kids, and this limitation makes it tough for them to get involved. I'd go for a school close to you, if that's an option. heidi

In hindsight (my daughter is now in the 4th grade), I am so glad I chose a public school one mile from our house. The geographic proximity is very imporant. School events and playdates are convenient; and she is never late, nor am I late picking her up because of traffic. We feel very connected to the community, we frequently run into schoolmates at local stores, parks, and sports teams.

Further, the public school curriculum is well-paced for most kids, not too slow or too fast. Even if a student is advanced in one or two subjects, there is still hands-on science and social studies projects that are new and exciting for all. With the money I saved with public school, I don't feel restrained in paying for enrichment classes outside of school. -- no stress mom

Wow, what a great question.

My son is at a private K-8 school in Oakland. Although in general, I'm OK with how this is going, here are things I wish I had done differently:

Not been so intimidated by public school. I wish I had looked into it more thoroughly, instead of relying on what I thought I knew about it. Part of the problem is that when you start looking at schools, your child is 4 years old, and you just can't picture sending your kid off to a big urban public school.

Similarly, I wish I had not focused so much on kindergarten. When you are touring, you hear from kindergarten and first grade parents the most, who are all still in the honeymoon stage with the school. I wish I had talked to more parents of older kids - fourth grade and up - particularly since one of the reasons I chose the school was so that I would not have to deal with applying to a new school for 6th grade (i.e., I was planning to stay). And I would have made sure to find out what people DIDN'T like about the school. Don't believe anyone who says their school is perfect. The key is to find the things that are wrong with it that will bother you the least.

Really drill down on teacher turnover. Some schools will outright lie to you.

My son's school is very progressive. All the p-c stuff and the helicoptering on social issues consumes a LOT of time and energy that I think could be better spent on academics. Thanks for asking!

This is a really good question. We chose one of the better (but not best) Oakland public schools, mostly for financial reasons. I, like many parents, focused on whether the academics would be good enough. What I have found is that the academics aren't bad. Yes, the assignments seem a little less creative than the ones in private schools, and yes there are worksheet homework pages. But basically, I think the academics are pretty good. What I didn't concentrate on was how the children are treated during the day. How does the school deal with misbehavior? How do they keep order? At the school my son attends there is a lot of ''benching'' and heads down and even some yelling and belittling. I don't know that the private schools we looked at would not do this, but it seems they don't. I have heard that some private school classes spend the first few weeks getting the kids to decide on rules and consequences. That doesn't seem to happen much in the public school my child attends. The adults decide and then enforce. My son is obsessed now about whether he is doing things right, whether he is going to get into trouble that day, and whether the teacher will get mad at him. That said, we are staying with the school and the principal has taken my concerns about this seriously. Just take this aspect of school into consideration when you look around. Ask the school how the adults deal with behavior problems. I know that private schools can get rid of troublemaker kids and public schools can't, but I don't think the kids are entirely to blame. I think a culture of working with the kids to establish rules and expectations can work in any setting.

We didn't make the right choice the first time around. For varing reasons we were seduced by the private schools and felt that if we could swing the tuition it was completely worth it. In the end, we had two so-so years at a private school and decided to switch to public this year. We don't love that we had to switch our child, but we do love the school. We love it in a much more passionate way than we did with the private school. Part of the problem with private school was that we constantly wanted to know what we were getting for our money. At public school our mind set is extremely different -- we are amazed they can do so much on so little -- and the teachers have to navigate the achievement gap -- which is considerable. We also never felt fully at ease with the homogenity of a private school -- mostly from a class/cultural standpoint.

I'm sure somebody could write the exact same post - switched from public to private and am loving it! Obviously it is a very personal decision (if you are so blessed to be able to choose between the two) and there is a lot of difference in terms of quality of school within the general category of public or private. But my advice having gone through it is to give the public schools a chance. It has been somewhat difficult for our child to socially navigate the change and I wish we could have avoided the switch. But looking back we didn't see the journey very well and couldn't quite imagine our 4 year old in a large, boisterous public school. I wish I had the hindsite I have now or wished somebody shook me and said ''what are you so afraid of?'' anon

Good question. We looked at a bunch of private schools as well as our local public schools and settled on the private school that looked (superficially) the best to us - organized, progressive, proven track record academically. It talked the talk we wanted to hear: differentiated instruction, diversity, community service, blah blah blah. After a few years at the school we realized it was not actually walking the walk that we thought it was walking. We have moved to a public school now, for a tenth of the cost (joke). There are pluses and minuses. We may end up back in private school.

I have asked myself: how could we have known? I don't know. We wanted the best, the very best, for our kid, just like everybody else. But it's impossible to tell what a 4-year-old will need when he is 9 or 12. And you really cannot see what a school is like in one or two visits. So you are attracted to the superficial aspects. Private schools put on a good show because they need to get a certain number of new kids every year to meet the payroll, preferably smart, easy-to-deal-with kids who ''have a diversity'' and don't need financial aid. Public schools do not have this motivation. The picture at a public school may be less appealing superficially, but you are seeing a more realistic picture of what the school actually will be like. On the other hand, public schools accept all comers, so your kid may be spending all day every day with kids who are disruptive, verbally abusive, developmentally delayed, and all round bad influences. Also, really important: not all the public schools in your district are equal. In Berkeley, there are public schools that are more like local private schools in terms of quality of instruction, classroom environment, and parent participation. And then there are the schools that no one puts down as their first choice. Sit in on classrooms in the upper grades at these schools. Talk to other parents. Figure out if the worst school in your zone is acceptable to you.

You cannot really know a school, public or private, until you have been there a few years. I believe it is safe to assume that with very few exceptions, your child will be academically prepared regardless of the school. So in retrospect, things that matter to me are mainly non-academic: #1 is proximity to where we live. Very important. You are talking about every day, for 6 or 8 years. Do you really want to be driving, carpooling, etc, day after day for the next decade or so? And think about ease of making playdates. #2 consideration is also not academic. For working parents: how is the after-school program and lunch? Visit the after school program if you are going to be using it, and take a good look.

Other considerations:
Teachers - there are good ones everywhere, and bad ones everywhere. Would you prefer to pay out the wazoo for a bad teacher or would you like to get him/her for free? Do teachers stay at the school? If more than half of the grades have a teacher who's only been there for a yearr or two, this probably indicates a problem with administration that is causing teachers to leave.
Peer group - some people say that what private school tuition is really paying for is the peer group. Are you OK putting your kids in a school with kids who have vastly different backgrounds or values from yours? For some kids, peer approval is so important that they will absorb values and outlooks that you may prefer they didn't. If you are looking at a school that goes to the 6th or 8th grade: by this age, kids start to choose friends based on compatibility. Are there enough students so your child will be able to find kindred spirits?
What about the other parents? Would you feel comfortable hanging out with them for an hour or two? How hard or how easy is it to communicate with other parents at the school? Is there a directory? Are there get-togethers for parents and families? Is there an active parent association?
Academics - for all the bad karma around No Child Left Behind, there are actually standards now that your child's public school teacher will be trying to teach. These standards are often higher than in private school (in our case this was true, despite PR to the contrary.)
Extra-curricular activities - ask about art, music, PE, field trips, etc. Be sure to look at the grades above kindergarten.

Don't sweat this too much: you can always move to a different school if it doesn't work out! Happy in school

I'll echo the positives of a great public school near home. We started at a great private school. The main reason that we switched schools had to do with my son's learning disability (which wasn't identified until first grade.) The private school just wasn't set up to meet his needs but the public school is. The other thing that I didn't fully anticipate was that tuition seems to go up every year as did the cost of the school bus. Lunch at private school cost more than double the cost at public school (and was probably much, much better...). After school classes cost money at private school, and are free at our public school. Good luck with your decision. I wanted to choose the ''right'' school so that we wouldn't have to change, but it turned out that making a change worked out well in the end. Happy OUSD mom

I couldn't resist chiming in on this topic that I was (and still am!) a parent who only wanted the very best for my children. That said, we chose private over public for the first two years, until we saw the light and now LOVE our local Oakland public school. Our children are thriving socially and academically, and it's so much better in so many ways. Of course, the private school was quite prestigous and is well-regarded for their academics and community feel, but our local public is actually more challenging and offers much more in the way of enrichment, social/emotional education, differentiation in subjects like math/science/language arts, etc. Who woulda thought??? It is also life-changing (in a good way!) to have our children's social network all within a couple miles of our house, unlike the 20+ mile spread we experienced at the private school... My biggest regret is not having the courage to try the public school in the first place-- we would have saved a lot of money and stress! yet another happy OUSD parent

Choosing the right kindergarten

Nov 2007

My daughter will be entering kindergarten next fall. With all of the different choices out there, I feel overwhelmed. Does anyone have any good suggestions of how I can find out more about my options and find the school that's the right fit for my daughter? I've done some research on my own and will do observations etc., but I'd like to know if there's a place or publication that will give me more information about finding the right match. We live in Albany, I teach in Berkeley so I have both public and private school options. Help?? Anon.

Our family is also going through the agonizing process of choosing a kindergarten for our daughter. We still aren't sure what we will do, but we got some good direction from attending a workshop by Anne Bauer which covered public vs. private, educational approaches, temperamental factors, and gave a lot of specific info about the application process. It really helped with our anxiety! She will be offering more workshops as part of Grassroots Support for Growing Families. I don't know the dates, but the number to call for more info is 510-395-4221. The other women who make up Grassroots are also really terrific. Good luck in your search, also searching