Berkeley Public Schools vs. Private School

Parent Q&A

Berkeley/Albany public schools or private? Nov 9, 2019 (12 responses below)
Anyone proactively pick BUSD over private school? Oct 25, 2017 (8 responses below)
  • Berkeley/Albany public schools or private?

    (12 replies)

    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!

    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.

  • I am trying to decide on Berkeley kindergarten for my 4 year old. I'm a single mom (widow), and I personally am more familiar with private schools, as that's what I had growing up (in a different area). I'm intimidated by public schools - the lottery, common core (?), bigger size classes - and I don't know if I'll be able to be an active PTAer given that I have a demanding job and have to keep house and parent on my own. (I've already missed open house, the parent teacher conference, and kinder info night due to work/travel... and it's only October!)

    That said, the public schools in NW Berkeley have such rave reviews, and the private schools, while good, seem to be more of a mixed bag - less ethnically and economically diverse, reports of bullying not being effectively handled, etc. My daughter is very outgoing, mixed race, a strong self-advocate, not easily intimidated or offended, so I wonder if BUSD might be the way to go for her, despite my uncertainty and unfamiliarity.

    Did anyone proactively opt against private school in favor of BUSD? Why or why not, and can you share your experience? Thanks in advance!

    Yes, we went through a similar process when choosing public vs private in North Berkeley.  Specifically we are two working parents with demanding jobs which limited our ability to get involved but wanted a quality education for our child.  Part of our process was visiting the schools in our zone and getting a feel if the environment/parents/students/administrators was a good fit for our child at either public or private.  We liked Cragmont and Black Pine Circle when we applied, and got into both schools.  In the end we felt comfortable with our child at Cragmont and have been happy with the experience/teachers.  My oldest is now in 4th grade and my middle child is in 1st with my youngest starting Cragmont next year.  Another benefit was convenience, Cragmont is a short walk from our home which means we could schedule extra activities (music, language, etc) to supplement when we can.  Hope this is helpful, good luck.

    My older child is still in preschool but I wanted to respond because I have been chewing on the same issue as you and I wanted to share how I've decided to proceed. I was raised in Berkeley and went to private school from third grade through high school. So I have a built-in bias toward private school. Despite this, we are planning to send our kids to BUSD schools. For one thing, I hear really good things about the district these days. All of the elementary schools seem good, and I have a hard time seeing the value proposition of private school compared to BUSD at the K-5 level. Secondly, I want my children to be educated in a diverse environment. I feel like the diversity of race, socioeconomic status, and culture in the BUSD will be of huge educational benefit to my children, and I hope our family will also be able to contribute in some way to the betterment of the community through their attendance. Finally, as a philosophical matter, I support public education and I want to act consistent with my principles. 

    I'm also leaving open the possibility that if BUSD is truly inadequate at some point for one (or both) of my kids, we will consider private school of it's financially feasible at the time. But I want to start with the assumption that BUSD will be adequate, and that it may in fact be excellent, instead of starting with the assumption that it won't be good enough. 

    Anyway, that's been my thought process and perhaps it will be helpful to you. Good luck!

    In the past three years we have moved both our children from private to public schools in Berkeley - one in 6th grade to start middle school, and the second in 4th grade. We have been very happy with our decision. The private school had a lot to offer that we originally thought we wanted (small class sizes, hands-on learning opportunities, more individual attention for our children, more creative and engaging curriculum) but in the end we decided that the public schools were a better choice. The quality of learning at the private school was very uneven and largely dependent on the teacher any given year, which varied a lot. We were never clear on what standards they were teaching to or what our children's academic weaknesses or strengths were in comparison to a broader peer group. It also felt like our children were being too coddled and isolated in a homogeneous environment. At the public schools, the downsides are just as we anticipated - big classrooms, large differential in learning levels in each class, and behavior issues in the classroom that take up a lot of the teachers' time. But on balance, we are happier now primarily because of all that the public schools offer: the dedicated and creative teachers we have found almost universally; the resources available to all students - great libraries, gardening, music, access to computers, etc; a talented school staff with deep knowledge of child development and education practices; a diverse peer group for our children; a focus on emotional learning alongside academic learning; emphasis on social justice and equality as a fundamental principle in all classrooms; an involved parent community; an environment where I feel like all involved adults care about my whole child and do their very best to make sure they are getting the best education they can, within the natural limits of public schooling. Berkeley public schools are a treasure and we are lucky to have our kids there.

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Private vs. Berkeley public school education

March 2014

Dear wise parent community, we are just about to find out what school our soon to be kindergartener will be in, and not sure how much ''value'' to put in our public school versus private. We live in Berkeley so we have great small class sizes. Is it worth the money and driving time to go private?

We are basically deciding between the good Berkeley public schools (Emerson, Malcolm x, John Muir ) or the private school Prospect Sierra? We loved the small class sizes of the public school and the idea that we can walk to 2 of them from our house, but we loved the curriculum and philosophy of Prospect Sierra. The drive is at least 25 minutes each way though, besides the cost. But how do you put a value on an amazing education?

I would love to hear from other parents who have gone through this decision and how you went about prioritizing basically the unknown affects of teachers, schools, friends, lifestyle, etc.

thank you! Confused Mom

Hi. I saw your post and thought I would share my current thinking on this issue. We are a Berkeley family, and when my child was off to kindergarten over 10 years ago I was hell bent and determined he would go to private school. He did do so through middle school, after which we sent him to BHS because he didn't get in to any of the private high schools we thought would be a good fit. I have only one child, so I can't impart wisdom on this to myself, but I can to others. Of course every child is different. However, I wish we had sent our child to public school right from the get go. He has some learning differences, which might have been better addressed in the public schools. But most importantly, he would have had a local community of friends. Now, in high school, most of my son's BHS friends don't seem to live in Berkeley, so he does not have a strong local network of friends and classmates. He is a very social person and I think would have had a great big pack of friends, but he was deprived of that by going to private schools where students came from all over. So there are my two cents on the public versus private route. Of course there are many other things to consider, but I think the social network is not an insignificant consideration. Wishing we'd done it differently

Hi, My experience is going from a private school to a public school in our neighborhood (not Berkeley, probably not as ''good'' as Berkeley schools), and I have to say our family never looked back. I hadn't even realized how stressful the drive was (and it was only 15-20 minutes each way) until we could walk to school and all of our school friends were no more than 5 minutes away.

I also really appreciate the true diversity at our public school (ethnic, language, socioeconomic, learning differences, etc.), and feel it is helping my children become more empathetic, and better citizens of the world. Prospect Sierra (not the school where we went) seems like a wonderful school and I still have moments of jealousy when I hear about activities, projects or trips kids get to experience there. However, my kids are thriving, getting a good education from some great teachers (and a couple not so great ones), our PTA does support some of the extras you get at a private school and we can supplement others, and we are part of a really wonderful community that is in our neighborhood.

I actually regret the money we spent when we were at a private school and think there is much value in the ''good enough school'' as long as kids and parents are happy. Also, there is a lot of movement that happens in the first couple years of school and if what you choose doesn't work, you can always move. I would encourage you to give public school a try knowing that you can move if it doesn't work. Good luck w/your decision--I know how hard it is. happy in our neighborhood school

Berkeley mom of 3 here. I have experience with both public and private. Prospect Sierra is a lovely school. We applied at one point for one of our kids and we have friends who love it there. Our youngest attended a private school 4-6 that we really loved. But I wouldn't say he was substantially better off than if he'd attended a BUSD school. IMHO PS is not worth the drive or the $$$ if you can attend a BUSD school.


1. Many (most?) of the kids from Berkeley who go to PS, end up attending Berkeley High. Why not save the $$$ and have the added benefit of establishing friendships K-8? Your child at PS will make friends with kids who live in El Cerrito, Richmond, Albany. Are you OK with driving all over the East Bay for playdates, birthday parties, camps, etc. ?

2. I have not seen any evidence that the curriculum at PS is superior to BUSD's. We changed one of our kids to BUSD in 3rd grade from a private school comparable to PS, and found our kid was half a year behind in math and writing. So I wouldn't choose PS on the basis of a theoretically better curriculum. In terms of the school's philosophy, I am not sure how well PS implements it, but be aware that philosophy is the other main selling point (besides curriculum) for private schools and in my experience, just because they SAY they do it, doesn't mean they DO do it. Many of the hot buzzwords (like 'differentiation') are already well in place in the public schools.

3. When you pay for private school you are mainly paying for the peer group. You are not paying for a better education if you're talking about the BUSD. How important is the peer group to you? My kids would complain about the bad behavior of some of the kids in public school, and maybe for your kid this would be a deal breaker. We did change from public to private for one kid just for this reason - he couldn't deal with it. But that was more than 10 years ago and things have changed. In terms of BUSD peer groups, yes there are poor kids and there are badly behaved kids, but you will definitely find as much smarts, creativity, money, and achievement in BUSD as you will find in any private school in the East Bay. local mom

My oldest son went to Prospect Sierra K-2 and then we moved to Berkeley and decided to put him into public school. He is now finishing 5th grade at Rosa Parks. My opinion is save your money and go to public school. We have been able to travel as a family, splurge on an extra dinner out every once in a while, enjoy activities that we otherwise wouldn't and all because we did not have tuition to pay. My son is happy, has done well academically, has made great friends and is empathetic, worldly, thoughtful, well rounded and as hard working if not more so than he was at Prospect. There is nothing wrong with Prospect Sierra but there is also nothing wrong with Berkeley Public Schools. You get more diversity in the public schools, you get teachers who care, you get a nice playground, fun field trips and friends down the street. The commute takes a toll on you not just on a daily basis but in terms of making sure that your child has a circle of friends who can all hang out together. While it is doable, it is a lot more work and sometimes very difficult to manage. My son is more than ready for middle school and is excited about meeting more kids once he starts at King. The programs there are top notch, he can walk to school and we feel great about everything that he is learning, academically and social-emotionally. This is just my take but we have been in your shoes, have had your concerns, have seen the amazing campus at Prospect, have had the great teachers and yet, I still think moving my son to public school was the best decision we ever made. Best of luck. Kelly

I know your dilemma. We started in BUSD and switched to Prospect Sierra and love it. My suggestion to you is to start in BUSD you might love your school. So many people love their public school and find that it is a perfect fit. That is what we were hoping for but it didn't work that way for us. PS is an amazing school, no doubt. But so many kids do incredibly well in BUSD. I don't think you are guaranteed success for your child just because they went to a private school. As far as the commute goes, it is a bit a of a drive (and we are closer to it than you), but seeing that view everyday is amazing. I never tire of it. And there is a bus and a carpools. Good luck! Former BUSD parent

First, I don't have children attending schools in BUSD, but I think I would happily send my children to any one of them (we have friends at almost every school in Berkeley and all are very happy). We do attend our neighborhood schools in Oakland where all 3 kids walk to their elementary school and middle school and walk to their friends' houses in the neighborhood and I can tell you, given your choices, I would never add a 25-minute car commute to my schedule if I didn't have to. Some days, my kids don't ride in a car at all! If you can build your school community in your own neighborhood then I highly, highly recommend doing that. Almost all of our playdates happen within a half mile of our house, and carpooling to birthday parties and soccer practice is easy because most of the other families are nearby. At the time we enrolled in our neighborhood school, I didn't even think of these benefits--now I can't imagine living without them. local, walking mom

What a great school - Prospect Sierra! We looked at this school, too, and loved loved loved the social program, the commitment to anti-bullying (huge amount of $ spent by the school on this), as well as the great Science building and program and music! If you could afford this, why not give your child this opportunity? Your kids could take the bus if the drive was a problem. We live too far to get to Prospect, and so applied to schools closer to us, but had we lived closer it would have been a no-brainer. You could always transfer back into Berkeley schools at a later date if you wanted to.

You said you are wondering how we ''went about prioritizing basically the unknown affects of teachers, schools, friends, lifestyle, etc. '' Since we chose to live in berkeley for the public schools, and we were paying extra in property taxes for the schools, we decided to try the public schools first and see if they would work for our kids. Also, we like to travel, and there is no way we could afford that if we also paid private school tuition. It is nice that there are choices, and we do not judge others for making decisions different from ours. The community does not need that division. Also many students are in private school for elementary and then move to public for middle school or high school. Many students from various school types get to know each other in sports or choir/theater or temple/church or summer camp... and then all mix at Berkeley High or St Mary's or at other high schools. So the friends and lifestyle is a braiding of families from many different schools and activities and the vast majority of folks are supportive of each others' choices. So pick what works for you (of course). For us, we picked public for cost, convenient location, small class size yet big school size (to make it easy to find like-minded buddies or allow for switching social groups), certainty of diversity, certainty of credentialed teachers, and sports. It has worked out great for our students. Please keep in mind that no school is perfect, you rarely get to pick a teacher, every school needs your parental involvement, and the whole school's membership is subject to change from its present make up (principal, teachers, families). BUSD Parent

Returning to Berkeley after 10 yrs - which school?

March 2009

We are returning to Berkeley in April after ten years away. We have two boys 12 and 7. We would like the boys to be in school for two months, then we go to Europe for the summer, and will return in August to put them back in school. We are open to all ideas: so far we are inclining toward either MLK or Prospect Sierra, for the older boy and either Windrush or several public primary schools for the younger boy: Cragmont, Emerson, or Arts Magnet. Can any of you advise us? We could afford the private schools, though it would be a financial stretch, but only if they really were considerably better. Are the public schools much more crowded and do they offer less of a ''family'' atmosphere? Our first concern is that our two boys be happy in a kind and caring environment and secondly that they get a good education. We intend to rent a home for a year near whatever school we decide to put the boys in. Would be very happy to hear your experiences along these lines. JM

Well, there are a couple of obstacles. First of all, you do not get to choose which public school you want in Berkeley. You need to figure out which of the three zones you live in first, because it is difficult if not impossible to attend a school outside your zone. For instance, Cragmont and Emerson are in two different zones. At this time of year, you will be assigned to which ever school has space for you.

The public schools are not more crowded in the lower grades than most private schools. In fact, the K-2 classes may be smaller than private schools.

In April, your choices in private schools will also be limited, especially for your 7-year-old. If you have a school in mind you should probably inquire now whether there are any spaces before you go through the application process.

As to public vs. private, it's the age-old question. There are a lot of excellent private schools here. There is also a lot of support for the public schools. Good luck!

You ask if the private schools are considerably better than the public schools - enough to merit the tuition. There was a long discussion recently on this digest among families who had experienced both options. The basic upshot, at least from the replies here, suggested that most people thought that the public schools [specifically in some districts - including Berkeley] were as good, if not superior, to many private schools. That said, most families also feel extremely connected to whichever school they choose.

We are at a central zone Berkeley public school, and are very happy with it. [From what I understand, most of Berkeley's elementary schools have similar qualities.] Our school offers our child an enormous amount of support [he needs some extra behavioral support], and a curriculum that is right on target for his class level. His class has 19 kids in it, a teacher and an aide, and many parent volunteers. There are several kids who get regular professional and volunteer help for whatever their special needs might be [academic or behavior].

The overall school dynamic is quite cohesive: the principal has been influential in bringing families even more together than they already were, and it has really made for a welcoming atmosphere. There is a school-wide effort to foster respect and kindness, and the staff is trained in conflict resolution methods, so that the school can work with kids who show early signs of behavioral issues.

Even with the state budget cuts, I still feel very strongly that we made the right decision. Berkeley's public schools do an outstanding job. -fortunate parent

Welcome to Berkeley. I hope you have a wonderful time living here, no matter what school your children land at. Few of us have had our children at both the public and private schools that you ask about, so comparing one school to another with first-hand knowledge and telling you which one is ''better'' is impossible for most. And please keep in mind that each child will of course have a different experience at a given school than other children (even in the same family). Also, no school is perfect. That being said, here is our particular experience and some suggestions.

- At this time in the school year, openings for 7 yr olds (1st grade?) may be quite limited. There may or may not be openings right now at the schools you mentioned. And there may or may not be a different set of openings in the Fall. You can get into one school and be asked to be put on a waiting list for another. You should check with the BUSD Admissions and Attendance office ASAP if you have not already, and calmly ask them all your questions. They will find a place somewhere for your 7 yr old (nd 12 yr old). That is certain. Here is a link: and They are presently assigning kids for the Fall and I'm not sure how having your 7 yr old begin this spring will fit with that assignment process.

I have one child at Cragmont and one at King. What I tell you about these two schools is likely the same for other public schools in Berkeley.

Cragmont definitely does have a family feel and it would likely be a great way to put down roots in Berkeley. The parents are, generally, very involved in the school, with many volunteering during the school day (in classroom, on field trips), in the after school program (science class, sewing class) or for other activities and events through the PTA (diversity committee, cultural heritage events, fundraisers, emergency preparedness). Cragmont values diversity. The the school is diverse racially and ethnically (can see data on line or ask BUSD). Many families are of mixed race, a good portion of parents who were raised in other countries (Netherlands, Ireland, Mexico, Eritrea, Germany, Nepal, Korea). Family structures are diverse, too, with some kids having two moms, or a single parent. Cragmont's academic and arts programs (visual arts, dance & music) are good, kids are engaged in school and most kids do well on stnadardized tests.

My 6th grader at King is having a great year. The academics are challenging enough. The school does fine with test scores. Most kids from King are quite well prepared for the rigorous classes at Berkeley High. The school feels fun and safe. Athletics are quite well-run. Swimming afterschool is offered by the City of Berkeley at King Pool, too. There are several kids from Europe who are here in Berkeley for just one year or less while their parents are in town on academic sabatical. They seem to do fine and the American kids seem to enjoy having the new kids around. The kitchen classroom and garden classes are amazing (google ''edible schoolyard''). The new lunch building produces fabulous nutritious lunches that kids love (believe it or not). Seems like the school is big enough for each kid to find others with similar interests. By the way, in Berkeley, many private school kids opt for Berkeley High. The public schools in Berkeley work well for us, and leave us with money left over for travel. Berkely Public School Parent

How are Berkeley schools at the 4th - 8th grade levels?

June 2007

We live in the Northwest zone in Berkeley and our daughter will be entering K in 2008. We're researching both public and private schools and have read with great interest most of the discussions on the BPN website about public schools. We've been able to chat with parents of current BUSD kindergarteners, and there is plenty of feedback available on BPN about the lower grades in BUSD. We don't know anyone with kids in higher grades, and we'd like to know more about the public school experience from 4th grade through middle school. Of great concern to us: the increase in class size at 4th grade and the BPN posts about the lack of a ''culture of learning'' in the classroom. Parents of current 4th-8th graders in Berkeley schools, are you happy with your child's experience? Are your kids motivated and engaged in the curriculum? Do you feel that your kids are receiving a great academic education? Our top priority is that our child go to school in a place that fosters a love of learning; will we be able to find this environment in BUSD schools in the higher elementary and middle school years? Obviously we have quite a few years before our daughter reaches 4th grade, but the classroom culture of the upper grades will be a factor in our decision process for K. Looking for a school where learning is ''cool''

I have a child who will be entering 6th (at King) in the fall. She's had an excellent experience at Jefferson in 4th and 5th grades -- good teachers and smart friends; (for a while some of the girls were even writing and emailing short stories to each other.) I volunteered in the classroom in fourth grade, and was very impressed with the thoughtfulness of the students. Generally the kids who work hard, and are creative thinkers are appreciated by their peers. As your child's interests develop, you may decide to supplement classroom instruction with specialized classes (though this could also happen in a private school as well.) Happy with Jefferson

Hello, I have two children in BUSD. One is completing 4th grade and one is finishing 7th grade.

I have been very disappointed by the upper elementary grades for BUSD. I think though, a lot depends upon your child's temperament and also the luck of the draw, in terms of whom they have as a teacher. There is no way to predict who your child's teacher might be 5 or 6 years down the pike. Also, it is hard to say about class sizes that far off in the future. Resources fluctuate and things change. At the moment, our experience of 4th grade has been only 22 or 23 children in each of the 4th grades. However, when my son was in 4th grade, there were 30 kids, and his 5th grade had 32. And although I would not say that learning is ''uncool'' in my 4th grader's class, the teacher is so unfun and angry that my daughter is counting the days to the end of school. What saved it for her (and us), was the BUSD music program. She learned to play the flute, and was challenged and engaged in learning music.

The sad part about this, was that it allowed me to see my daughter's potential for engagement in other subjects that was just not being tapped by her regular classroom teacher. So although her regular classroom teacher covered most of the required material for 4th grade, and my daughter ''did very well'' in all subject areas, I did not feel like this was a very positive year for learning.

My son's 4th grade experience was negative too, but in a different way, and for 5th grade he had a teacher who related very well to children of that age, but it was just too crowded for him. It makes me sad that those of us, who have limited economic options and must choose the public school system, along with those of us who believe that a strong public school system is essential to a functioning democracy cannot take for granted that our childrens' learning environment will be a stimulating and positive one.

PS: But my daughter's 3rd grade experience was just excellent.....! So we take it year by year.

PPSS: And my 7th grader is attending Berkeley Independent Studies, a BUSD structured, way to homeschool. And THAT has restored my faith in public education! --My son has had excellent, caring teachers and been exposed to another way to learn. Wishing Better for All Our Children

At my 10 yr old's BUSD elementary school there is a great learning environment in the upper grades. The upper grade teachers are fantastic. In class this year, my child worked hard on math and writing skills. The class also had many interesting projects which explored local history, world cultures, opera, visual arts, team work/respect and... (can't remember all of them). At the school, kids are proud of their ability to learn well. High achievers at the school come from a diversity of ethinic and racial backgrounds, including many mixed-race kids. Both boysa nd girls are high achievers and they all enjoy competeing with each other (it's mostly very positive). We wondered about how the kids would respond to the class-size growth, too. They generally respond quite well. By 4th grade, they know most of their classmates, and the kids know the school rules, and the teachers know how to work with the pre-teens to keep them in line, while keeping them inspired. Regarding King Middle School, we do not have direct experience with it, but we hear great things from our friends who have kids there. If you don't get a response on this page, post your question again on the ''parents of teens'' page that BPN sponsors. BUSD Mom

I appreciate your desire to find the ''perfect'' schooling option for your child starting in K and going through middle school. However, by the time your child is in the upper grades things could be different than they are today. And if something isn't working, regardless of whether you're in public or private school, and regardless of what grade your child is in, you can always make a change. Having said that, if you're confident about the lower grades in public school, why not start there? As a committed parent, you can be part of ensuring the quality of education remains strong (which I'm sure many would argue it already is) in 4th-8th grade. We all make the schools and the district stronger by opting in! Opting in to BUSD

We wanted to respond to the family looking for advice on Berkeley public versus private schools for K through elementary and up. All of our neighbors were going to public school and they seemed happy with it. Being good civic-minded Berkeley folk, we started there, but then switched to private after two years. The first year in public school was great (we were at Malcolm X), the class size was small and the teacher fantastic. But the next year the class size grew to 25, it was MUCH more active classroom, and there were no assistant teachers to help. Our child, who is a good student and quiet, was pretty much forgotten in the classroom. We sat through the parent-teacher meetings in disbelief; how could the teacher (who is well known and considered quite good) spend 6+ hours a day with our child and not have any idea who they are? The classroom curriculum was boring and our child just did not click with it, she was loosing ground and becoming depressed. We were concerned because in subsequent years the classroom student number would increase and things could get even worse. We looked at a LOT of private and public schools. The next year, we moved to Berkeley Montessori School (BMS). It took about 3 months to adjust to the Montesorri method of learning, but then our lives changed. Our child just suddenly BLOSSOMED in this environment, she has made a lot of friends,is completely engaged in incredibly interesting work, and loves learning.Another plus is that during the first 5 years of elementary education at BMS the children do not have significant homework (just some reading or a little spelling, nothing hard to handle at all), so GRACE returned to our house.We could play instruments, talk, read, go for walks, have quality family time. Really. We think that BMS is one of the best kept secrets in the East Bay. It is a gem, true to their mission of developing the ''whole child''. It is a very smart school. The parent body consists of really wonderful, involved families. They have a new head, Janet Stork, who is very impressive, and they continue to evolve, to make important changes to improve the school. You should check it out. happy parent

Deciding at the elementary level

Nov. 2003

Hi, These questions are really about the private/public conundrum, and public schools in general.

We live in Berkeley, in the Le Conte-John Muir-Malcolm X- Emerson zone. We've gone to the public school fair sponsored by NPN, and were impressed with how parents at each school were excited about their choice. I'm so happy that parents at all four schools in our zone feel this way; you'd think it would make our decision easy...just pick one out of four!

However, for us, it's not that simple. My partner and I both had some pretty miserable times in our respective public schools, for reasons both institutional and familial. And private school is not a great option for us. So, I have many, many questions about public schools in general, and I'm hoping to find answers here, or even some information on where I can find answers.

California public schools are consistently ranked among the worst in the nation, though I don't know how Berkeley schools on their own rate. Does anyone know how to find out this statistic? And do these rankings mean it's a good school, or a school in a ''good'' area, or just that the students are good test takers?

I'm concerned that ''learning'' will become, for my son, something that someone shows him while he sits behind a desk rather than something he does for himself (can you tell what happened at my school?). I'm unaware of what pedagogy public schools follow. For example, I know his preschool follows an Emilio Reggiano approach, and I can read up on it. How can I find out about the educational theories behind how schools teach?

Also, is course content subject to political shifts, such as when a new superintendent arrives on the scene? If so, in what ways?

For parents who've been financially able to seriously consider both public and private, why did you choose against the rejected option?

This is more of a personal question: we live on a block with many children, all of whom are friends with each other. The schoolkids all go to Le Conte, but I'm not sure Le Conte is a good fit for us. Has anyone experienced something like this, where the ''gang'' is all at one school but your child is at another? Should I try and pair him up with some of his preschool friends if he doesn't go to Le Conte? Neither of us experienced this growing up, so we can't relate.

These are a lot of questions, I know! I look forward to hearing the answers. Jodi

With my wrinkles, comes this wisdom. I have two kids in Berkeley High -- coming from King, Franklin, and Rosa Parks. In each school my children have had some world class teachers and some mediocre teachers. (Just like my own experience of fancy public schools in the 1950's and '60s)

This is what I have learned -- speaking as a white middle class parent, I would feel discomfort in a private school because I believe that my child's world would be too narrow and too homogeneous. Also, the comforting little private school class that one chooses for one's 4 year old is very confining when the child is 12.

On the other hand, the broad diversity of skills, income and race that is found in the public schools has its own discomforts. No problems that can't be solved at our dining room table, but there are some frustrations.

Overall, my kids have gotten a very good education with the skills they need to succeed academically and in their lives. I always felt that we could switch to private school if that became necessary but happily our whole family has benefited from being part of the BUSD community.

Now my son is applying to college so I get to revisit the kindergarten wisdom: there is more than one setting that will make your child happy. Don't lie awake nights waiting for the answer to be revealed by an oracle!


I went to 3 different private schools that had pretty landscaping and great architecture, but only one of them was a terrific experience. Two of them were torture.

People often speak of the public school system as if it's this huge machine that's will process your child into some sort of canned conformist vegetable. That's not how it works.

Each school is a community, and there are ways of getting a sense of what sort of community it is - by visiting, by asking around, and by going with your gut feelings. My children were thrilled to have the ability to walk home from a local school by themselves, and when I had to go back to driving them across town it was a hassle, but the time spent in the car was a great chance to talk, so again there's good and bad. Sometimes it's good to have friends at a different school.

Most schools are very open to anyone that has the time to spend and a voice to lobby for what they want. Parents make wonderful things happen at public schools all the time.

The California system is very bare bones at the moment - but the teachers are the same teachers and in my experience they are great. They care about the kids they teach and have lots to give them. It's scary putting a little child into the hands of a stranger, but other people are watching and caring as well. That's what a community is.

If a particular school doesn't work for your child or you, you can move them. If their sport or music program isn't what you want, you can change it, and send your child to something after school while you work on it. If your child isn't reading well, you spend time working out what to do about it.

My kids have learned an enormous amount from being with other kids from all sorts of backgrounds. They're not going to have the shock I had when I was taken out of the hothouse. They haven't missed out on anything educationally that they might have got from a private school - as with any school you have to keep an eye out for your own child. If the situation looks bad you may have to change schools which is a hassle, but not a catastrophe.

Basically, it's good and bad. Your child isn't really going away from you into the mouth of the machine, but you do have to stay involved and keep supporting them and helping out every step of the way. Public schools rely on this. They are OUR schools, not THEIRS. Fiona

Nov. 1998

RE: Berkeley public vs. private:

I'd have to say that overall my experience with Berkeley public schools has been good. I think most people sending their kids to private schools are throwing their money away. The school may be quite good, but then so are the public schools. It is the few people that have negative experiences who tend to make the most noise, and then their stories get repeated and amplified. Take advantage of opportunities to visit your local public schools' kindergartens and I think you will feel reassured.

- LeConte parent

Oct 1996

In general, Berkeley seems like a good place for kids to go to school. All the important bond measures for school improvements seem to pass easily, be it construction, smaller class sizes, enrichment programs, or whatever. A couple of years ago the music programs in the school were about to get the axe because of budget cuts, but the city rallied around, merchants contributed percentages of profits, etc. (I think one of the members of the Grateful Dead was involved in the campaign) and enough money was raised to keep the music going.

My kids have both gone to Berkeley Public schools since kindergarten, not counting last year when the younger one went to an "academic" private school in Berkeley. They went to Emerson K-3 and Malcolm X for 4-6. They've had some terrific teachers over the years, and that's what I like best about the Berkeley schools. I think Berkeley public school teachers get a pretty decent salary these days, so they can attract good people.

Another thing I like: public school really *is* tolerant of diversity. I didn't appreciate this until last year's private school experience. There, the kids were superficially diverse - they came in different colors and shapes - but on the inside they were expected to all conform to the same model - driven, obedient, and tidy. It's an awful thing if you have a kid that doesn't fit the mold. Sure I have to put up with some PC stuff in Berkeley, but I don't mind much anymore. (Except for my pet peeve Int'L Women's Day when all the kids are out of school while all us women still have to go to work.)

Which school?
There is a lot of variation among Berkeley schools. Don't believe any printed raves published by the school or the district - find out for yourself. But also keep in mind that what I look for in a school may not make you happy. I hated the computer program at Emerson, for instance, but it's a big hit with most other parents. The single most important factor in my opinion: parent involvement. It can make or break a public school. Here are some things you can do to find out about the level of parent involvement:

- Talk to parents of school-aged kids in your neighborhood. Where do their kids go? Do neighborhood parents support the local school?
- Visit classrooms, including grades your kid won't be in.
- Take your preschooler to play on the playground on weekends.
- Drop by the office, pick up flyers, read bulletin boards.
- Find out when the school has fundraisers and open house and go.
- Is the PTA active? Find out when meetings are, attend one.
- Are there fundraisers & afterschool programs organized by parents?
- What kinds of other projects have parents initiated? (garden, theater, athletic teams, Shakespeare program at my kids' schools)

The Principal
You don't have to like her as a person (usually a "her", in Berkeley) for her to be good at running the school. I haven't liked any of them so far. But does the staff like her? Or is there a lot of turnover in the faculty? Does the school seem well-run? A good principal wants parents to like and support the school.

The Downside
Public schools are big. The school district is a lumbering bureaucracy. You have to stay on top of things or you and/or your kid may get lost in the crowd. This gets really important around the 5th grade. If your kid is at either end of the smart-challenged spectrum, then he/she will be noticed and receive extra attention. But if he/she is average, or not especially motivated, then it will be up to you to make sure homework gets turned in and progress is being made. Public school teachers have kids with Real Big Problems in the class, and your own average kid will seem problem-free by comparison. This can be bad if your kid is doing progressively worse and no one notices. My younger son made it all the way thru 4th grade with all E's and S's, still counting on his fingers to add, and not able to write a complete sentence, due to his skill at work avoidance and my failure to notice it. He (we) had to do a year of private school boot camp to catch up. Believe me we are all so glad to be back in public schools again this year!