When to Start Looking at Private Schools

Parent Q&A

  • Advice on EBay private schools sought.

    (4 replies)


    I have a little boy who is currently 8 months old.  This may be a little early (which is part of my question), but we're already thinking about schools.  We want to try private schools since my husband was not happy with his children's experience with public schools (he has children from a previous marriage) and he himself had a positive experience at K-12 private schools when he was a kid.  So my questions are (1) How competitive are admissions for schools here in Berkeley?  I've been looking at Ecole Bilingue, Black Circle Pine, GISSV, and TRIS.  As the class sizes are small, are they selective?  Does it help/is it really recommended to start my boy in their preschool program just to get in the door so to speak?  (2) I'm thinking about this now in order to plan our finances.  Can anyone give me tips on how they made paying for private school more affordable?  I see that many of these schools offer "financial aid."  What does that really mean?  We are planning on trying for another little one in the near future.  Are depending on sibling discounts realistic?  


    You're really early (the earliest pre-k starts at about 2 1/2 years old) but it doesn't hurt for the planning process. I'm currently in the process of applying for admission for preschool for the next school year so I don't know how competitive it is but I get the feeling it's not a problem. My opinion (may or may not be correct) is that they differentiate who they want to come by how much financial aid they give out. Meaning if two families have similar incomes/expenses, they'll give more money to the family that best fits their school goals/ideals etc. In terms of attending preschool, I can tell you that Ecole Bilingue is almost required unless you're a native French speaker. They will admit non-native speakers for preschool and kindergarten only. For admission into the upper grades they have a language test to make sure the kids have enough of the language to keep up. I don't think it's a problem for non-language schools to attend the pre-school although it probably helps a lot. Most kids will stay in the school the entire time and they only admit new students based on how many kids have left. For financial aid, it's means exactly what it says. They will subsidize the tuition to help you afford it. It isn't a loan so you don't pay it back. To determine your need, most if not all all schools use a 3rd party who will analyze your finances and gives a number of what they think you can afford to the schools. The schools use that number only as a reference and can give more/less aid depending on their school goals, finances, number of kids who need $$ etc. And from what I understand you don't get sibling discount but you could get automatic addmission and obviously it'll 'help' when they determine how much you can afford.

    We felt the same way!  It is absolutely not necessary to start planning this early, but if you are, I'd recommend adding The Berkeley School to your list.  It's an amazing, sweet little K-8 school where every single teacher and staff member lives their values - at least that's how I feel as a parent.  They also have an Early Childhood Center (preschool from 2.7 years old to 5 - they have a TK "Explorers" group) and I think that the vast majority of kids from the ECC end up on the "big kid" campus.  Anyway, just to reiterate there is no need to start so early, but if you are, we love The Berkeley School!

    Eight months old?  You have so many challenges, phases and stages to  experience before your child starts elementary school, and you will exhaust yourself if you start worrying now over the universe of choices and decisions you will have to make for your child.  The schools you look at now may not be the same schools in five or six years -- teachers and administrators move on, there are curriculum changes, etc.  I also want to point out that while, like the children in Lake Wobegone, all our children are (way!) above average to their loving parents, they are not all equally abled when it comes to academics.  When my daughter was an infant, I envisioned at least an above-average school career for her because that's what my experience was and what my abilities supported.  It turned out that she was not me (surprise!), school was a struggle from day one, and her elementary through high school experience involved assessments, IEPs, tutors, one public school, one private and one charter.   When she graduated from high school, she chose not to go to college.

    So please enjoy your baby as she/he is, and deal with school choices as they come up.

Archived Q&A and Reviews

September 2007

This is for all parents with a child about to start K, or 1, or middle school, or high school or college in 2008/2009 or even 2009/2010. Plan ahead for transitions. Think about what educational settings meet your child's needs. It is very disruptive to try to move a student in midyear or wait for a child to fail before seeking help or a new school. If you can afford private education, make sure you will still be able to afford college.

Start setting up school visits now, the open houses and tours are being scheduled now and within the next few weeks. If you wait you may need to apply to a school sight unseen. The Bay Area is a very tight market for places in private school classrooms and there are limited need based scholarships which are often are handed out first come first served. If you are committed to Public Education there are a range of choices, and inter-district transfers options. And you can always move or rent an apartment to find that special system. All I can say is that we are finally entering college this Fall, and after about nine different school processes from infant care, pre-school, K, elementary, middle and (god save us all) high school, college was the easiest and best entry experience. Hope I say the same thing four years from now. Seeing the Light

February 2003

I'm looking for advice on WHEN I should begin researching, applying and visiting private schools in the East Bay for the 2004/2005 school year(Kindergarten)? Do many of the small private schools in Oakland and Berkeley have wait lists longer than a year in advance? Thank you in advance for your input. Maya

My daughter is currently attending a Growing Light Montessori school in Oakland which is full through 2004, and therefore taking names for the 2004-2005 school year. My guess is that it might not be too early to start calling and getting your name on waiting lists. And, I would highly recommend looking into Growing Light depending on her age. They accept grades pre-3.
good luck!
a montessori mom

To the parent wondering when to start checking out private schools for the 2004-2005 school year. My advice...don't knock yourself out before you need to. Wait till the fall/winter before (ie:for you, 2003-2004 school year)From my own experience, most private schools do not have a waiting list and usually have at least a few openings each year.

My kids didn't start in private schools in Kindergarten so it may be different than for the upper grades. You can make yourself crazy worrying about which school he/she will get into.

Call the schools you are interested in and ask if there's a waiting list.

Starting usually in Nov. or so schools will have open house visits for new families, followed by an application, sometimes an interview and the child is usually invited to spend at least a day or more in the classroom. Different schools do this process differently. Applications should usually be in by late Jan. or early Feb. and I think they all pretty much let you know by March.
Good luck, but take it easy and don't worry.
been there, done that

My girls will start Kindergarten in Fall of 2004. I fell into visiting schools at the information events last fall and I'm glad I did. There are so many choices and decisions on top of the required dates to apply and interview. Plus I used some of the info I gathered to visit and ask about my local public schools to compare. I encourage you to contact the schools you are interested in now and see if there are information events scheduled for the spring. The process is so time-consuming that it is well worth starting early!

It is never too early to start looking. I have met people who got on waiting lists for pre-school while planning to conceive. For some schools it seems to be necessary. It is not only a matter of what you can afford to pay that determines entrance, so you need more than one choice. I have found that it is the active state of looking that really helps you sort out your priorities. It helps if you have an older child or close relative or even friend who is an alumnus, but many schools do not honor sibling preference. Demographically a new baby boom is under way and schools are not adequately keeping up. If money and travel restrictions narrow your choice definitely put more time into the search. Make sure the admissions people have a favorable and strong memory of who you are - volunteer, participate whenever appropriate. Get the 'skinny' from those who know the details from successful applications. Within the public school system there are always more choices than people first realize unless they are up on it. Visit a classroom even for five minutes, look through a door window, or observe the playground, it will tell you a lot. I have been through several searches at this point, just completing high school. We always had one list when we started a search and another when we applied, luckily so far we have had a good sense of what is called 'the match' and our daughter was admitted to our top choice schools, and she has had much success. Best wishes to you.

There is no "wait list" at this point for the school year you are interested in. The process goes, roughly, like this:

September: Contact schools you are interested in and request information packets. October: Indepedent School Fair at UCB Pauley Pavillion: See all the possible school choices

October: Book school tours for those schools you are interested in.

Oct. - Dec. Tour the schools you are interested in.

Nov.-Dec. Submit applications for schools you may want to attend.

January: Child visits each of the prospective schools for an "assessment"; these are low key and done very well by all of the schools. Your child doesn't need to know this is an assessment.

First week of March: You are notified by each school you applied if you've gotten in/wait listed or not in. You have one week to commit to any of the schools. All schools have the same notification and commitment date.

Good luck!


In response to Caroline's questions about when to start researching kindergartens - now is the time if you are talking about entering school next year. We live in Richmond, and did not feel that the local school was a good place for our kids, so the decision to go private was an easy one. I don't know the rules in Union City, but you need to call the school district and find out what options you have with the public schools, and then go visit the schools and talk to parents and teachers. If you decide to look at private schools, I think they start having their open houses in October or November, but I'm not sure. Parents Press usually has all the information. As far as what your child should know, if they are enrolled in a preschool for this year, they are probably getting all the socialization skills and "academic" skills they need. Windrush, the private school my kids go to (daughter just started kindergarten and son in 3rd grade), does interviews for kindergarten, but does not test the children. There are some private schools which do test, and are going for the "smartest" kids possible, but we weren't interested in that kind of school. We were looking for small class size, quality programs like art, music, Spanish and computers, an excellent before and after school program, and a philosophy that is supportive and non-competitive, and we found that at Windrush. They probably expect the kids to know their alphabet and numbers, write their names, but are looking more for verbal and social skills. Good luck, I know this is a stressful time and the decisions are hard - but if you start now, you'll have enough time to figure out what you want in a school and then make well-informed decisions. Helen

We were lucky in that the day care center we had our son in also had a kindergarten class. But since the public schools in Oakland are not very good, we would have sent him to a private school regardless. We "shopped" around by calling Bananas for names of day care centers and visiting quite a few. Some were a real nightmare with kids screaming and hitting each other or the facilities in bad repair and/or just gloomy. I'd encourage you to start looking at least by the first of the year if not sooner. When we went to look for a school for first grade, I was amazed at the "circuit" that parents were on to get their kids into a good private school. I really had no idea there was such fierce competition to get into some of the better private schools. (With public schools, I think you're assigned by location unless you petition to go elsewhere.) We attended open houses, filled out applications, were interviewed by the schools, our son was asked to come spend time at schoold to see how he "fit in", etc. I really felt like applying for an Ivy League college would have been easier! Good luck! Kay