Evaluating Academics of Private Schools

Parent Q&A

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  • Dear BPN Community:

    We are wondering if there are current or recent Head-Royce or Redwood Day families who can provide an updated perspective on their experience at either of those schools - specifically their Middle Schools.  We have a 5th grade child who is looking at the Head-Royce and Redwood Day Middle Schools next year, and while we won’t hear admission results until March, at that point we would have only a few days to decide, so we wanted to seek BPN perspectives ahead of time.

    Specifically, we would like to better understand how much academic pressure there is, the expectations for kids and families to keep up vs school-provided support, and the social emotional well being of kids.  Some of the specific areas include 1) What is the homework level from 6th-8th grade like?  2) What kind of support do the kids get with homework, or if they are struggling with a particular topic in a class?  Our kid can need help with math specifically and with executive functioning in general.  3) What kind of support/intervention does the school provide when there is inter-personal conflict (our child is decidedly on the quiet side)?  In general, we are seeking a kind and gentle environment to give our kid some space to grow up/catch up while feeling good about themselves.  Does Redwood Day or Head Royce fit the bill?  Thanks in advance for any firsthand perspective that you can share.  Feel free to DM us if a quick chat is easier.  

    Hi. We have three kids, two of whom are currently at Head-Royce middle school and one who is in High School at Head Royce.  Generally speaking, I don't think that the academic rigor is that high in middle school especially.  This is a concern, as I think the High School is at a very different level with MUCH higher expectations - and I don't know that the middle school does a good enough job of preparing the students for a substantial jump between 8th and 9th grade.  I find the middle school to be quite gentle - you can retake any tests for either 100% of 50% of the points (depending on the teacher), etc.  The teachers are very, very approachable and can definitely help kids as they need more help.  The homework level is not that high and gently increases with each grade, but is very manageable.  Again - this changes drastically once in high school.  The goal of the middle school is to build confidence in the child - which is why it's, in my opinion, much 'softer' than it needs to be.  Generally we really like the school but think that the high-school curriculum and experience is of much higher quality (despite the level of homework).  I also love the ease of not having to apply to high school.  Btw, math teachers (with one exception) are terrific in middle school.  

    I would also consider St. Paul's, if they are still accepting applications. I have a middle schooler there and it addresses a lot of what you're looking for--sixth grade is heavily about executive functioning ("how to do school") and they have a learning specialist who supports diverse learners. They also have a staffed homework period at the end of each day for kids to work on their assignments in a space where they can (and it's expected/normalized that they may) ask peers or teachers for help. Not sure how it compares to RDS, but we have friends with kids at Head-Royce and there does seem to be more homework at H-R (and definitely a more traditional classroom structure--at St. Paul's there's less emphasis on grades, many opportunities to correct or sometimes entirely re-do an assignment or test if you didn't do well, a lot of group work where kids have to work with each other, more time spent on social-emotional vs. academic content, etc.) They're quite different environments, and will fit different kids. The families I know at RDS all have younger kids; based on their experiences, I'd guess the RDS middle school is more similar to St. Paul's than to Head-Royce--but each school has its own strengths and challenges.


    mom of a current 10th grader who attended RDS from 6th (when the pandemic began) through graduation, here. I cannot say enough good things about our kid’s and our experience at RDS. Truly, it was worth the high tuition and the drive to get there (we’re not in Oakland). 
    Our child also struggles in math and had identified social challenges. RDS was wonderful to work with on both fronts. They were fully in compliance w his accommodation needs (eg using a basic calculator for math and science quizzes and tests; sitting up front in those subjects, etc.) Our kid—and all students from what I could tell—were well supported academics and socially. In 6th, for example, all kids learn how to use a planner, how to sort school emails, etc. RDS provided a very well rounded and 21st century education, which included teaching kids about the dangers of vaping, drugs, social media and drinking as well as MS aged appropriate sex Ed. And these weren’t one-off lessons, either. They were built into the curriculum. 
    My kid had many (95%) amazing teachers and the head of school John Loeser? Chef’s kiss! He’s super communicative, on top of it all (the school’s pivot to distance learning was truly impressive) and runs the school beautifully and respectfully. 
    We found the community and school itself to be very welcoming and super supportive of DEI. They truly walk the walk and talk the talk!

    One other truly amazing thing about RDS is the incredible help given to 8th graders in deciding on and applying to (if interested) parochial, public and private HS’s. There is a dedicated staff member who walks you through the process and individualizes suggestions based upon your kid and their needs. That was crazy helpful.

    In conclusion, the only negatives I have about RDS are the price tag (though value for your $ is excellent) and that we had to drive a lot to take our kiddo to meet friends as they all lived in cities different than ours. 
    best of luck! I hope you’ll love RDS as much as we did (should you choose it). 

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  • ISO academically challenging schools

    (2 replies)

    My kids are above grade level and desire more academic challenge..I'm looking for any independent middle and high schools that are not afraid of pushing kids to excel (of course without sacrificing social emotional intelligence. But I am looking for schools that don't sacrifice academics* in the name of social emotional development). Thank you!

    The Academy in Berkeley (up to 8th grade), College Prep (high school) and Head-Royce (K - 12) are the ones that come to my mind as academically rigorous. Bentley (K-12) is another one that is rigorous and well balanced. We also have an academically advanced child (2 grade ahead in reading and 2 - 3 grades ahead in math) who is currently at a private elementary school that is focused more on social emotional development. We are a bit frustrated at our lovely private elementary school ignoring our academic concerns but we love the school otherwise and child is happy, so we supplement with a tutor and we are considering The Academy, Head-Royce and Bentley for middle school. For high school, we may consider College Prep or stay with Head-Royce/Bentley, if we get in. Our child is also creative and has several interests in performing arts, so they may check out OSA. 

    We've been happy with the academic differentiation at Prospect Sierra for our gifted middle schooler.

Archived Q&A and Reviews


How to judge academics of private schools

Feb 2011

In considering a parochial or private school, are there test scores you can use to compare academics to local public schools? I can't find API scores. It is assumed that private schools are academically stronger, but parochial schools seem a mystery. Any suggestions on how to make comparisons based on data as opposed to anecdotes? Thanks anon

Our child is in parochial school. They take the Iowa tests annually, at least at our school. I imagine if you called the Diocese, or even a neighborhood school, they'd either have the information you need, or be able to point you in the right direction as to how to get the collected data. Hope that helps! btw, we're pleased with our choice... happy mom

Only public schools have API scores. One of the best indicators are the schools the graduates have gone to, except that some of the schools such as Head Royce, Bentley and CPS are much more expensive than Bishop O'Dowd so figure there are going to be less going to Ivy League schoolsd at the latter. For instance, the website http://www.headroyce.org/page.cfm?p=2265 shows the colleges Head-Royce graduates have gone to in the past 5 years. You can find this info on other school sites. Check out he number of AP exams that were taken and the percentage of those passed. Look at the course listings to see if they are interesting. If your child is interested in sports some schools are more sports oriented.

Get permission to sit in on a class. That can tell you a lot. Sit in on Honors courses or AP classes if you think you child will be taking those. If your child won't be taking honors courses, sit in on the regular classes. KA

This is a great question, and one I wondered about as I evaluated schools for my now-4th grader when he was entering primary school several years ago. The parochial schools participate in standardized ITBS tests from IOWA. It is difficult to make comparisons based on scores, they are given in the fall and are not the same test. Our amazing principal here at Corpus Christi, a K-8 parochial school located on Park Blvd. in Piedmont, says you can probably ask the individual schools what the scores are for the eighth graders, and usually they can share at least a spread for them. At Corpus the ITBS is used more as a diagnostic test rather than as an evaluator test. They watch individual student scores and a class as a whole, and will track growth from one grade to another.

Something else you may choose to look at are the high school acceptance rates of the school's graduates. Here at Corpus, 98% of our graduating students have been accepted into their first-choice high school. I am sure your respective school administrations can report on this important measurement.

Lastly, you may want to ask about school accreditation. At Corpus we are reviewed and have passed both the public and parochial groups of WCEA and WASC. These demand rigor and standards of performance on a myriad of academic and non-academic elements, and also form a basis for comparison between institutions.

Ultimately, in my opinion, you can be well served by visiting the schools and talking with the administration, students and community. Evaluate the school on where you feel most comfortable in terms of the learning objectives and school culture-which will be the closest fit for your child. Trust your parental intuition, and whatever performance measures you can uncover, and ultimately you will make the best decision for your family. JR

This is a good question that not many people ask when they are looking at kindergartens. Many of the local private schools do conduct standardized testing beginning in 3rd grade (not sure about parochial schools). These tests are not the same tests that public school students take, and, unlike public schools, test scores are not made public, even though (or because?) they would enable parents to make comparisons among private schools at least. The testing seems to be used mainly for admissions to private middle schools and high schools.

It is possible that a private school might provide test scores to you if you ask, but I have never known of this being voluntarily offered during the admissions process. What they do discuss is the high schools that their students are admitted to, but this is not a very good way for a parent of a kindergartner to know whether the school prepares all its students well. If you look at ''top'' high schools there is a broad range of K-8 schools attended -- there are always students at any school, public or private, who do well regardless of the K-8 school they attended. So just looking at high school acceptances doesn't really tell you much about the academics at a particular k-8 school.

In the East Bay, there is a group of K-8 schools that are generally regarded as ''academic'' (eg., Head Royce, Bentley). The application process for these schools includes a fair amount of screening of 4-year-olds for ''readiness'', so the assumption is that high school admissions and test scores at these schools will reflect a student population that has been pre-selected for high performance. At the other private schools, there is a bigger range of student ability.

The important thing to know is that private schools, unlike public schools, have no requirements or restrictions on the curriculum they offer. They can choose to implement the curriculum du jour, and they do not have to answer to anyone. Since you have no way of knowing how a particular private school stacks up against other schools, private or public, you are basically going on faith when you choose a private school. Maybe your child will graduate 8th grade from private school with all the background she needs to succeed at Berkeley High, maybe not.

My own admittedly biased experience is this: not counting the few so-called ''academic'' private schools, the *public* schools are now much more demanding and rigorous academically than many, maybe most, private schools. Despite all the moaning and groaning about testing and standards, public school teachers are required to follow state guidelines for what children should know at each grade level. Private schools do not have this requirement. It is now very possible to change from private to public and find that your child is behind. I had this experience.  It didn't used to be like this, but it is now.

My kid goes to a private school, not one of the ''academic'' schools. His school, which is unconventional in that no grades given before 6th grade, nevertheless follows state guidelines for curriculum. I would like to see private schools giving their students the same tests that public school kids take, and publishing the results like public schools do, so parents can make more informed decisions. We really can't do that now. But at least I can make sure that my kid's school is meeting state-wide standards as opposed to choosing its own curriculum. Berkeley mom

Do private schools publish their test scores?

Sept 1999

Do private schools publish their STAR and SAT scores, percentage of students going to college etc? If they do, where can I locate those statistics? Or if the students are not required to take any tests, what other criteria should I use to evaluate the private schools? My daughter is in first grade, and I am planning to switch her to private school soon. I appreciate any recommendations regarding private schools in Easy Bay area. Thanks.

Private schools don't use the STAR tests. All good schools will release summaries of their SAT AP and College Admission Rates and even list the schools to which the students were admitted. I don't know of anywhere you can get summaries of these though. Please see the recommendations for private schools on the parents web site. Our three are all at Head-Royce in Oakland a K-12. Roger