Academic vs. Non-Academic Schools

Parent Q&A

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  • Our 4th grade son is about average in his public school class, but there are some things he struggles with. At his public school (even pre-Covid), this means he is "good enough" and so he doesn't receive too much attention from the teachers. We'd love for him to attend a private Middle School that can offer him smaller class sizes, more resources, better sports, and more academic support. After asking around, however, it sounds like the strong private schools test incoming 6th graders, and those who are academically weak may not be accepted. This seems like a catch-22, as we'd like him to go to a better school for better academics, but he can't get in unless he is strong academically. I'd love some advice on what private middle schools look for incoming students, and which schools you'd recommend that we reach out to. We obviously think he's an awesome kid, and we'd like to find a school that thinks so too. We are looking on the East Bay but are open to looking farther. Thank you!

    Roughly 30 years ago I was in a similar place. As a fifth grader who did ok in school and was well behaved I was mostly ignored in my large public school class. My parents knew I needed smaller class sizes to thrive. My mom applied to a few competitive, private college prep schools. Knowing that my teacher barely knew my name, she wrote him a sample recommendation filled with tons of positive details about me. He must have used it. It worked and I got into a great, small middle school and thrived. Good luck!

    Is a personal tutor an option as I would that would provide the personal attention and help without the heavy cost of private.

    I always wondered why many parents in Berkeley/Bay Area see public and private school as an either/or option rather than supplementing with a personal tutor. Wouldn't this help achive your stated need?

    You should consider the Athenian School in Danville. It's a wonderful progressive school that emphasizes whole child development. By progressive, the school truly wants to support your child's interests and development, not necessarily what parents think are best. The highest test scores will not necessarily gain him entry there but weaker students will be competing with more academically prepared students for admissions each year. The Athenian School has a Middle School and Upper School.

    We found the Middle School to be extremely supportive and thoughtful in its teaching philosophy and practice but slackers should not apply. They do expect the kids to do their work at their highest ability. They will challenge your child in areas where they're weak and push them to thrive in areas they are strong. Our child's favorite subject in middle school was actually their most difficult. Also, a lot of students coming into the middle school may have been strong in elementary school now find themselves with extremely talented classmates so a shift in mindset and new skills will need to be developed. Because the school emphasizes whole child development, the new skills to learn may actually be social in addition to academic. Your child could be the best writer or math student but if no other child wants to work with him, he won't last long at the school. It's a highly cooperative learning culture so being the smartest isn't always the only valued skill/criteria. Our child said there were some really challenging classmates in 6th grade but by 8th grade, everyone learned to be cooperative and contributing members of the community. A great test of a successful student there would be: could your child influence and move their peers to do something on a project? Personally we think that's the key to success as an adult.

    Likewise, families that only want top scoring peers for their child should not apply until they seek to understand the school's mission. However, there are many top academic students at the school. Academically gifted students will be challenged. In the Upper School, there is another jump in the social and academic expectations for students. Our child has thrived there and we are continually surprised to discover their new talents each year. We're humbled and grateful for the educators, other families, and our child's peer groups at the school. It's seriously a gem of a school at the base of Mt. Diablo. And yes, it's far and very expensive.

    I don't believe attending a private (or public) school in which he stands out the only "average" kid would end in positive results.

    It's most important to consider where your child will benefit EMOTIONALLY while learning. Let me explain.

    I have an ADHD child who struggles academically and needs a lot of attention and tutoring.  She stands out among her peers. Comparisons take an emotional toll on the child in ways you'll never see. My daughter had stress so extremely that she'd hide, crying under the desk at school feeling shame, feeling she didn't belong. I ultimately felt it would make her life easier to put her back one grade level (and to a different school with new faces). It was a good and beneficial decision. Many successful adults today were held back a grade during elementary school so, I wasn't worried.

    If ever your child feels he/she/they do not "FIT IN" with most peers then a strong chance that he/she/they will begin to fail. Tell your son the various choices you have in mind, stating scenarios he might face at each school. If HE gets say in the decision, it will help him to understand that HE is accountable for some of what results there. If he knows it will be challenging and sometimes face humiliation, will he be able to overcome that or ignore it?

    Your child might be happier to instead be "the smartest kid" at school. Find a school that offers "advanced" classes or material for those kids who need more challenge. If your son is smarter than most others at his school, he will likely be asked to lead and assist other kids. Which is a HUGE confidence builder. EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT is of primary importance from 8 y.o. to 18 y.o.

    I personally attended a K-12 alternative school in Gainesville, Florida which was an educational department of the University of Florida, called P.K.Yonge. P.K. Yonge was one of the first schools to install computers in all the kindergarten classes, back in 1980! Yes, a PUBLIC school. So, focus on finding the school that will offer YOUR CHILD the opportunities that SUIT HIS NEEDS, not to suit your desires. A school with good balance of peer academic levels, sports, creative activities and alternative learning (advanced levels).

    There are local public/charter schools who have an amazing records. LIGHTHOUSE Community Charter is run very similar to private schools. Kindergarten through 12th Grade schools like Lighthouse Charter, allow your child to bond with peers, develop a foundation of confidence, and have highly coveted life long well-balance relationships. That alone is more than any SHORT TERM public or private school could ever offer. 

    Whatever choice you make for your child, I recommend getting good TUTORS as well. A couple of tutors can help him stay organized, on task and help find where his talents lay.

    Tutors will give your child that edge. BERKELY YOUTH ALTERNATIVES is a program offer affordable tutors who are UC Berkeley college students.


    P.K.YONGE   ~

    LIGHTHOUSE Community Charter School ~

    Be sure to read the fine print before accepting an offer.  Some private schools with strong academic reputations reserve the right to expel students for underperformance.  I don't know how often this happens as we avoided such schools.

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Private school that is not trying to prove itself academically

May 2010

Hi there, We have a son who is in 3rd grade. He is at grade level for writing and reading but is below grade level for math. He has some learning differences (not dyslexic) and is a well liked and very kind boy. It has been suggested to us that we start looking for another school next year because the curriculum at our school is geared for kids who are at or above grade level and would be too stressful for our son. Can anyone recommend a private school that is middle of the road - not one that is trying to prove itself academically and where it is okay for kids to not have to excel at everything? Our son will likely always be at or below grade level. Is there a kind, loving and accepting private school out there in the East Bay for a kid like this? Thank you!

Take a look at East Bay Waldorf School . Kids progress at their own pace, with lots of gentle creative and outdoor time. it worked for us

There are lots of schools in the East Bay that fit the description of ''a private school that is ... not trying to prove itself academically.'' In fact there are only a handful that are! But I can personally recommend taking a look at Walden School in Berkeley. We are starting there for 4th grade in September after realizing we mis-judged our previous private school, which turned out not to be a good place for our kid. We are very pleased with the decision. Our nephew went to Walden and is now in high school. He was very well prepared academically, though he was difficult as a young kid, and I think he would not have succeeded in other schools. He LOVED Walden. In my opinion, Walden is a small enough school that every child can be met at her/his own level, but at the same time the bar is very high, and the teachers, most of them long-term, seem to be outstanding. Plus, the emphasis on arts makes school fun and challenging for kids. Check it out! Walden newbie

Consider Walden Center and School for your son. At Walden academics are important, but they are part of a wider curriculum that is developmental and high individualized, because, well, academics aren't enough. The emphasis at Walden is on helping kids love to learn and helping them develop fully.

The curriculum is both rich and deep, and fully integrates the arts, helping kids find the ways they learn best. Walden kids are confident, self-expressive, and respectful of diverse ways of being. They go out into the world and become passionate, compassionate, and accomplished adults. Walden graduates are an incredibly diverse bunch of people and include foresters, theater directors, teachers, engineers, carpenters, entrepreneurs, midwives, musicians, professors, and yes, Harvard alumni, to name a few. At Walden achievement goes beyond academics.

Our daughter is thriving there and we are very happy. Walden is small, so all the teachers and students know her. She is part of a learning community that values diversity, respect, and creativity. At Walden you'll find a wide range of learning styles and levels because Walden reflects the world in all its diverse glory. Feel free to contact me if you have questions. Vicki

There is a very interesting myth on the west coast it seems that private schools in general are (too) academic. I found that when we went looking for a private elementary school for my sons that few really were too academic. I found there were at least a half dozen great schools that balance academics and social development in very creative ways. The trick was in HOW they taught academics -for all kinds of minds? for the kids? for the scores?... Kids coming into private schools, like any schools, bring a mix of abilities and interests. So you might look to see which of the privates you'd consider are able to keep the ones struggling in any topic engaged, progressing and confident while the 'advanced' ones are also engaged, progressing at their level and confident to take risks for the next level. We chose Redwood Day for a ton of reasons but also I think you'd find 'differentiated learning' at Park Day and St. Pauls, Prospect Sierra, etc. (so many others) too. Heather

Hi, I'd recommend that you look at Crestmont School in the Richmond hills. -- It is a very community oriented school with a multi-age format. It is a parent-owned co-op but the staff are credentialed teachers. It is the only cooperative elementary school K-5 in the East Bay and the children are taught to be and actually model being loving, responsible, and accepting members of their community. The multi-age format of the school can support kids who are struggling in some areas and are at or above grade-level in others. The school also has a learning specialist who works with kids who need extra help in some subjects, in small groups during the school day. The curriculum is based on an integrative model in which a subject is examined through many lenses reading, research, math, science, and art. It can provide deep linkages among the academic disciplines and help open up kids to doing things like math without even realizing it. There is great attention to the whole child. My son has been there for three years and it has been a satisfying choice for us. A bonus to the co-op is that the school is about half the price of other private schools in the EBISA network. The workload as a parent in the co-op is honestly about what my sister-in-law commits to the public school where her children attend. Good luck in your search. Carol

I am not sure what you mean by ''not too academic,'' but I assume you mean that learning should be fun and should foster a love of learning rather than just concentrating on rote memorization and fact-gathering. If you are looking for a school that can foster inquiry and curiosity, as well as establish a solid foundation for your child to be able to formulate questions, understand and process information, and apply those skills to their daily living and long-term learning, then you may want to look at The Berkeley School. TBS offers a visionary education where each child is truly known, and can go on to succeed at the high school of their choice. For me personally, it's refreshing to be at one of the independent schools that teaches students the importance of how to think for themselves. Paula

East Bay Waldorf School , though it is academic, recognizes that children learn in different ways, so we teach to all different types of learning styles be it auditory processors, visual processors, kinesthetic processors. We also relate the curriculum to the human being, so nothing, even complex mathematics processes, seem arbitrary to a child. Our human centered approach creates interest in the child. We also work very hard to develop a child's ability to form inner, imaginative pictures. This ability to form inner pictures enables a student to picture complex mathematics, physical, and chemical processes as they move through the curriculum. One more unique quality about the Waldorf approach is that a teacher moves with his or her students for as many years as possible through the grades, which allows a teacher to really know a child including their individual learning styles, strengths, and weaknesses. Because the curriculum is so rich -- academics, music, foreign language, fine art, drama, practical arts, movement -- every child has the potential to find their place and be celebrated for who they are as an individual. I have a feeling your son is very bright and talented, maybe he just needs to be in the right environment to grow into the amazing human being he surely is? Best wishes in your search, Jodi Casey (Admissions East Bay Waldorf School and Parent of 3 Waldorf High Schoolers)

I hope I'm not too late to reply to your post...your son sounds like a perfect fit for Archway School . Please come visit! My son has been there since kindergarten and is now in 3rd grade. We are diverse, welcoming, small, and we have outstanding, caring teachers that are the heart of the school. My son has learned SO MUCH in his time there, but it has never felt like a pressure-filled hyper academic environment. So much learning by doing and critical thinking goes on--and the kids seem to relish the opportunities they get to take charge of their own environment (student government in 3rd grade, camping trip planning and execution, conflict resolution, cross-grade buddies for reading). I am so confident that my son will be ready for high school when he leaves Archway, but it won't be because he has competed or has been tested to death, but because of the richness of the curriculum and the amazing teachers he has had. Full disclosure--had my son tested this fall for suspected learning issues, and he has some, not big ones but they have been particularly evident the last two years (processing speed and associated anxiety). Great help from teachers and specialists. Laura

As a parent (and ex-teacher) with two happy school kids, I would suggest that you consider Archway School . I think you might find that it offers just the right balance of being academic without the stress and competitive nonsense. The small class sizes, hands on approach to learning, and rich curriculum keep kids engaged and makes learning fun. You can contact Archway School at 510-547- 4747 or 510-849-4747. Good luck. happy archway parent

Aurora School in the Oakland hills is a small, progressive K-5 school that focuses on each child's learning style and needs, with great attention and kindness. My now-fourth grader began there in third grade. I am very happy with the welcome he received and the continuing support he gets from the Aurora community. Deborah

I would encourage you to visit Archway School . The small class size, emphasis on experiential learning and commitment to meeting the needs of each child make it a supportive and safe environment. At Archway, being kind and supportive of each other is every bit as important as academics. Children are taught to love learning for it's on sake and all efforts are supported. In the last five years I have seen many children who struggled in other schools thrive at Archway School. Teachers work closely with students and families to support learning at all levels. They also build relationships with students that encourage curiosity, participation and best efforts. Over and over I have seen a child arrive in the morning to shadow a class looking scared and uncertain. At the end of the day that same child is laughing, playing and eager to stay. Jackie


Which middle school for CPS students?

Nov 2009

Hi, Could parents of College Preparatory School (CPS) students please share with us which middle school your child attended? Do you feel that the middle school did a good job preparing your child to succeed at CPS (succeeding with one sport and one musical instrument commitment)? How does the CPS homework load compared to that particular middle school homework load? Are there any academic areas that your child felt he/she wasn't well prepared for CPS? Did the middle school prepare your child for study skills needed at CPS (or any high school for that matter)? We're not sure we are a fit for CPS but would like to keep our options open... Thank you! Anonymous

You asked ''which middle school your child attended?'' Bentley . ''Do you feel that the middle school did a good job preparing your child to succeed at CPS?'' Yes, but I think it was more her than anything about Bentley. ''How does the CPS homework load compared to that particular middle school homework load?'' She felt the workload was actually a lot less her freshman and sophomore years than she'd been used to at Bentley; then it ramped up. ''Are there any academic areas that your child felt he/she wasn't well prepared for CPS?'' No. Did the middle school prepare your child for study skills needed at CPS (or any high school for that matter)?'' Absolutely.

FYI, for my own amusement, I used to keep a tally of which middle schools the incoming CPS freshman came from. Last time I did this was for the class of 2011 (this year's juniors). There were 40 different schools represented that year. Bentley, Head Royce, Ecole Bilingue, Dorris Eaton, Black Pine Circle, St. Paul's, Redwood Day and the like tend to be well-represented every year (and were that year), but well over half the class of 2011 came from other middle schools. I'd worry more about whether the middle school is a good fit right now.

My daughter just graduated from CPS and loved it. It is, however, not for everyone. Most of the kids are very bright and academics are everything. My daugher attended the Academy for middle school and they, at the time, did an adequate job preparing her (she is in college now). My son now attends The Academy and it is much better now than it was five years ago. They have beefed up the science and math programs tremendously, as well as French. They have also hired a teacher to come in exclusively to help with writing(one area that has been a bit of a concern to parents). I would highly recommend the Academy. CPS, in my opinion, is the best of the private schools in the area and one of the best in the country. sc

Short answer: I have a freshman at CPS who went to St. Paul's . He says he has to stretch intellectually much more than in middle school but is very happy and enjoying the academic rigor. He summed up: Success at CPS is more about motivation than academic preparation. I am happy to talk specifics if you want to contact me directly. leslie

Students come to Prep from a wide variety of middle schools--private, public, charter, alternative, parochial, homeschool. As the parent of two current Prep students, I would say that the main factor in success at Prep is not a specific middle school as much as the characteristics of an individual student. Prep is a great fit for energetic teens excited about learning in all its many guises. Some children, notably those from very academic schools, do come better prepared in the mechanics of grammar and mathematics as well as in time management. Yet, in terms of overall happiness, intellectual engagement, extracurricular involvement, social interaction, and connection with faculty and staff, most students seem very successful no matter where they went to middle school. Even if ''success'' is defined strictly by grades, students from every type of school background have the chance to do well at Prep.

The homework load can be challenging at first for students who did not attend a highly academic middle school. My two students, who attended an arts-based alternative school, needed to refine their time management skills--they both play sports and musical instruments and had to figure out how to incorporate homework into the mix. That said, their homework is generally very engaging and even exciting. My kids will often say how much they enjoy what they are studying, even if it takes longer than anticipated to complete assignments.

If your child is enthusiastic about learning, Prep can be a great place no matter where s/he is at school presently. Prep parent


Academically strong and liberal private school

Feb 2006

Hi everybody:
We are considering moving to Berkeley and I am looking for a private school (elementary) for my son. I would like a school where the academic program is strong and the atmosphere/families of the kids attending tend more to the liberal side. I do not want a place where people are too conservative and the kids talk a lot about money or the moms look like Barbie dolls. I am not sure I am explaining myself well...:)) Any input? Thanks in advance.
Looking for school


Seeking a traditional, somewhat conservative school

Nov 2003

We are seeking a traditional, quality, if somewhat conservative private, education for our young child. We are located in North Berkeley, but the location of the school isn't as important to us as the curriculum. We are interested in a prep environment that focuses on core subjects. What we aren't interested in is modern approaches to subjects or deviations in history or English, which is often the case with public education. We welcome all suggestions and comments. Thanks! lh

To the person who inquired about traditional conservative curriculums in private schools, these 3 come to mind from our searches last year, though we were looking for something different so I can't give personal experience

1. The Academy, I think in Berkeley, describes themselves as a rigorous, academic traditional private school.

2. The Ecole Bilangue in Emeryville follows both strict French and American curricula and seems on the conservative side in terms of structure, teaching methods, etc. Your child can attend not having had French, though they may recommend you enroll him/ her in their preschool program in Jan. to begin exposure to the language.

3. Athenian School, Danville may be a good fit, I'm pretty sure they begin in Kindergarten but not certain. CS


Seeking a rigorous middle school

Nov 2003

It seems that in Oakland and Berkeley there are great K-5 schools (both public and private) and there are great high schools (private), but I can't seem to find a great middle school in this area. Where do the kids who end up at high schools such as College Preparatory School go to middle school? I'd like to know which middle schools in Oakland or Berkeley are doing a good job of preparing kids for a rigorous high school. Thanks!

There are some great ones out there, not a dearth at all, that fully prepare kids for the rigors of a school like College Prepatory: Black Pine Circle, Bentley, Head-Royce, The Academy, Windrush, Prospect-Sierra, Tehiyah, Julia Morgan, Redwood Day, St. Paul's. I'm sure there are others I've missed. They're all having info days - check them out.
A believer in private middle school

To the parent who wrote: Where do the kids who end up at high schools such as College Preparatory School go to middle school? My son and two of his friends, all now Seniors at CPS, were well- prepared at Black Pine Circle. Colleen

For competitive, high academics for middle school, in the east bay, check out Prospect Sierra. Contact Lily Shih 232 4123 (510) or lily at

In response to the question: '' I'd like to know which middle schools in Oakland or Berkeley are doing a good job of preparing kids for a rigorous high school. '' My boys both former CPS graduates both matriculated from the Academy. The older entered the Academy during 5th grade and the younger 4th grade. Former CPS parent

In our family we have collectively attended Prospect Sierra and Windrush and King. I would have to say that in terms of ''rigor,'' meaning that your kid is ahead of the game, King has the most comprehensive English (they have something called the Writers Room) and challenging math--a lot of the King kids end up taking honors geometry at Berkeley high as eighth graders early in the morning (yikes!). The private middle schools cannot rival, I believe, what King is strong in. Our experience, as well as a lot of close friends' experiences, is that King is lot more challenging, likely because they are tethered to state and national standards, than a lot of the private middle schools. Of course, getting into King is another story and you also have to consider the psycho-social match of a school like King for your child. Some kids flourish in ''big'' while other kids ''crash.''

One of our children also attended and left CPS, feeling that while she was maintaining an A/A- average, she was ''insanely overworked.'' She is now at another well thought-of independent high school, but to quote our daughter, ''I now have a life.'' The most rigorous is not always the best, and CPS, while undeniably academic, requires an unnatural commitment to schoolwork. My child's destiny is not changed by her exodus from CPS, and she is happier. Good luck Moderation Mama

Someone asked what schools do the best job of preparing kids for College Prep. A lot of them, judging from last year's entering class (88 kids). The largest contingent came from Bentley (10), followed closely by St. Paul's (9), Julia Morgan (5), Prospect Sierra (5), Tehiyah (5), Head Royce (4), Dorris Eaton (4), Academy (4), and assorted others (like Ecole Bilingue and Pacific Academy), including about 14 kids from various public middle schools. Don't hold me strictly to these numbers but they're definitely close. Perhaps the administration can provide more detailed information if it wishes, but they're obviously looking at the kids and not the school.