Progressive Schools

Parent Q&A

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  • Our son was going to attend Crestmont, but we moved out-of-state.  He currently attends a Crestmont-like school here in Ohio and though he had a wonderful kindergarten experience, some issues have come up this year in his new group, which is kids aged 6-9 years.  Most of these issues are in regards to physical safety, and I'd like to learn how other progressive, child-centered schools handle safety while also encouraging exploration and independence.  I'd like to offer our school constructive solutions that are in practice at like-minded schools.

    The kids are given more independence than in K, and with that comes a lot more unsupervised free play.  During this free play time, we've learned of children being hit, punched, pinched, having their arms twisted, getting hit with sticks, being excluded from group play, name-calling, etc.  It is such a far cry from the nurturing and inclusive environment of K that many parents are bewildered by this shift.  When conflicts arise, children are supposed to get a teacher and hold a "meeting" between the affected parties, but not all of them follow this process.  Thus the behavior continues unchecked, and some parents are concerned that a child may get seriously hurt. When we have expressed our concerns to the teacher and school manager (it's a democratically-run school so technically nobody's really "in charge"), they have said they would keep a closer eye on the kids during free play time, but still the behavior continues.

    At your child's progressive school, are there parameters on how playground equipment is used, i.e. don't stand on top of the monkey bars?  Also, are there rules regarding playing with sticks so nobody pokes out an eye or gets hit?  

    Any insights you can share into how we can create a safer and more inclusive school environment while still nurturing independence would be appreciated more than I can tell you...thank you so much!

    My child went through two different progressive schools, the first being one that was teacher-run through a non-hierarchical structure (like your current school sounds). What you’re describing is not about progressive education; elementary-age children always need clear limits and constant supervision. What we saw at our first elementary school sounds in the same vein as what you’re describing. The commitment to being non-authoritarian translated into giving the kids way too much independence way too early, treating them as if they were much more mature than they were or possibly could be. It’s not developmentally appropriate. The kids were exuberant, but also could be mean, violent (as you mentioned), bullying, disrespectful; and it got in the way of learning more and more as the kids got older. We left and moved to a progressive school that was well-organized, nurturing, and safe (physically and emotionally); hierarchical, yes, but in a very functional and cooperative way. 

    It takes a *lot* to make a non-hierarchical school structure work well and serve both teachers and students in the best possible way; in the absence of that kind of conscientiousness diligence, it turns into a lack of accountability and some level of chaos and dysfunction. What you’re describing sounds worrisome. I would suggest looking for another school now.

    This sounds like Lord of the Flies Jr. - there is no WAY I would keep my kid in a school like that, progressive or not. 

  • We currently live on the east coast but are looking at schools in the bay area for our daughter who will be entering 4th grade in 2018. She is not particularly interested in 3-D printing or tinkering. She likes theater, drawing, writing, horse-riding, handwork, piano, reading... but in spite of repeated exposure, has shown no interest in 3-D printing or tinkering with wood and metal. When I asked her the other day about it, she told me blank-point that she is not. On the other hand, she spent all morning today drawing and writing a story she is working on, and she is always putting on plays with her friends... so she certainly is creative in her own way.

    There are schools that are of interest to us - like Park Day or Black Pine Circle, but I'm a little wary of their strong 'maker culture'. Will she be a fish out of water at such schools? Which progressive schools in the area might be a good fit for a non-maker creative child? (To be honest, I'm not really clear myself on what the 'maker culture' entails.. but we will be visiting the schools in January when we will learn more)

    Have you considered the Walden Center School? They have an amazing art room, music, dance, theatre. 

    HA! This post made me laugh out loud.. as a parent from the east coat with kids in private school. Basically "maker culture" is a very hip bay area term appealing to young parents who work in tech. The private schools are marketing to those parents because currently in the bay area, those are the people who can afford private school.

    A "Maker" is a creative self starter, who may or may not be an artist, who likes the challenge of building something.  They like to "tinker".  "Maker Culture" is the non-corporate way to refer to what I think has become very, very, corporate tech culture. The term comes, I think, from the "Maker Faire" which was an event created by Make Magazine, which, 10 years ago was a bit of a bible for the hacker-make-it-yourself culture of the tech world.

    While the East Bay and Berkeley have managed to stay a bit weird and out of San Francisco-Penninsula takeover of corporate tech, the area is still changing a lot. Historically, Berkeley and Oakland have been very much on the edges of creativity, pushing artistic boundaries. I would say the older private school parents I have known here in Berkeley have been the "burning-man-build-your-own-bike-and-ride-it-on-the-playa" sort of "makers" who 20 years ago were going to raves in the Mission. The younger generation of private school parents seem to work at or with tech companies. With 2 bedroom fixer-uppers in marginal neighborhoods going for 1M in Berkeley, that's who can afford to live here now.

    I would encourage school site visits. You'll get a much better sense of what's happening on the ground every day in the classroom by visiting than you will in the marketing that is put out by the school. Visit The Berkeley School, Park Day, Black Pine Circle, Prospect Sierra, and Redwood Day. 

    Prospect Sierra.  My daughter graduated 1 year ago and she had a great experience.  She shares many of your daughter's interests. She was mildly annoyed with PS new COLAB, which is their maker thing, but it had a very small effect on her school life.  On the other hand, she adored her teachers, loved her projects in humanities and science classes, and had a great experience all around.

    best of luck.

    Have you looked into Waldof education? The East Bay Waldorf school's handwork curriculum seems outstanding. Our daughter who loves art had a great time with the Berkeley Rose Waldorf for her early years. If we could afford private school, we'd still be there. 

    She will fit right into the maker culture. the schools are just trying to emphasize that they have a creative side and are not all about hard core academics. it's probably language we use more here because of the whole silicon valley area. those are both great schools and she will fit right in,

    Check out Oakland School for the Arts. One of my twin's classmate left their elementary school to go there and was very happy. Her mom's a therapist and her dad's a Cal professor.

    My twins attended School of the Madeleine in Berkeley. It's K-8, progressive, excellent teachers, band program begins in 4th grade, theater program run by Cal Shakes actor, volleyball, basketball, cross country, track and field, lots of parent involvement. It is a parochial school but many non catholics attend. My husband and all of his siblings went there in the 60-70's and are still in touch with their Madeleine classmates. My husband's class celebrated their 60th birthdays. My daughter's closest friends are all MAD grads. Plus you really get to know the families. My girls have been out 3 years and some of us MAD moms still meet for cocktails and dinner ocassionally. Another mom organized a reunion of their classmates two weeks ago that was well attended. Generally very good families and kids attend there. Lots of professionals send their children there, doctors, lawyers, Cal professors. Great community. 

    Good luck!

    My kids attend The Saklan School in Moraga, CA - it's a small, progressive, Pre-K through 8th independent school. Your daughter sounds like she might be a great fit for Saklan. Please check out the website for more information. The mission is to think creatively, act compassionately, and live courageously - and they have a well-rounded curriculum of art, music, P.E., theater, and also have a great emphasis on social/emotional learning, which I love. The academics are high too. We've been very happy! Good luck on your search from so far away!

    Thank you all for your responses. (Funny and) reassuring.

  • Do we have any public / free / charter progressive education schools in West Contra Costa or Alameda Counties?  i know of many private ones, but looking for public school options.



    What specifics of progressive education are you looking for? Art, music, hands-on learning, low-emphasis on testing, etc? You may find that there are many traditional public schools that have all of these. Ask around at public schools that are in the neighborhoods you are considering, see if the PTA has a website, go to the school's events that are open to the public. Maybe rephrase your question so it is not so broad.

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Are there any progressive PUBLIC schools?

Aug 2013

Our son will start K this year at a small and very progressive private school. Philosophically, it's totally aligned with what we want for his education and we think it will be a great fit for him personally. BUT, we live in an area we hate and have no positive quality of life there; we long for a walkable community with other families, parks, and cafes. We also know that private school will be a ridiculous financial stress, especially once his younger sister joins too. We will have no savings nor will we do nice family things like vacations. It seems like a no-brainer to move to a nice community with good schools, except I'm really seeking the kind of education he will get at a progressive private school: arts integration, social-emotional development, opportunities for play, and hands-on work. Is this possible to find in a PUBLIC school? Has anyone with this philosophy chosen public school over private and how did it end up? Any general advice or even specific public school recommendations would be appreciated. I feel like we have this year to evaluate the private school benefits vs the literal cost, and it's clearly on my mind before school has even started. PS - We applied to NOCCS and didn't get in. Wondering about public schools

You've got to check out the Community School for Creative Education. It is a public charter that doesn't have a lottery YET! I expect that in the next 1-2 years it will have one. There are still a few spaces for K. It is a Waldorf inspired school and sounds like what you are looking for. Our girl will be attending this year. Maya

I believe the short answer is 'No.' I have two kids who spent a collective 14 years in public schools (a total of 4 different schools) before we got out of the system and went private: 1 child in parochial HS, 1 child in uber-progressive middle school. Can you get a great teacher in public school who pays attention to psycho-emotional development, who considers cognitive growth and who takes the time to know each child? Yes - we had one of those in 14 years. She ignored the required curriculum, taught what she believed was appropriate and engaged each child as an individual. 1 of 14 - thats 7%. After a collective 5 years in private schools my kids have had 37 teachers and about 34 who I would call fabulous - 89%. Public schools can't be progressive - they have a defined curriculum and can not make demands of the teachers due to union rules. converted to private

I think you are describing Peralta Elementary , in north Oakland. Arts integration? Oh my gosh, yes! Social-emotional development? Yes! They use both Second Step and/or MOSAIC in all grades. Play? Yes, they all get three recesses a day, as well as free time in the classroom. Peralta has a strong sense of community, a diverse population (both ethnically and socio-economically), as well as sky-high test scores. The neighborhood is very walkable; we live about four blocks from Peralta and we have a walk-score of 96. The only downside to Peralta is that the class sizes are large; this is because it is a highly sought-after school, so OUSD packs them in. Not everybody who wants in, gets in, unfortunately. I heard that this year even some neighborhood kindergartners were denied spots, so if you want a spot for your son, it would be best to live in the neighborhood. But if your son gets a spot, then your daughter will be guaranteed admission. Best of luck to you. Public school mom


What are some progressive schools in Berkeley/Oakland?

Nov 2010

We have a two-year old and are trying to get up to speed on the different educational philosophies out there. If we want to avoid sitting-in-rows doing math worksheets, do we have to avoid public schools altogether? Or, are some public schools more collaborative and project-based? Or, does it depend on the teacher wherever we go? If we decide to go private, what are some progressive private schools in Oakland or Berkeley? Any suggestions for schools with progressive approaches would be helpful. Any advice for how to learn more about choosing a school (other than internet searching) would also be helpful. Thank you. C

In response to the poster looking for progressive schools in Berkeley & Oakland, I'd suggest you look into Walden Center and School in Berkeley near Dwight Way/MLK. The school is small, child centered, arts-based, and identifies as progressive. It's a private school but offers financial aid, and is one of the lower tuitions (if not lowest) in the area. One strong feature of the school is community involvement; all families are required to volunteer for the school and parents perform a great many functions, including staffing the office and cleaning & maintaining the school facilities. We've been very happy with our experience at Walden so far (in our 3rd year now). Good luck! -- very happy Walden family

My children have been going to Redwood Day School in Oakland for 6 years. They adopt the ''One Mind at a Time'' approach. We love our school. It's definitely worth taking a look. We felt immediately that this was the school for us, not only for our children but for our entire family. We love the teachers too. an RDS family

It's great that you are exploring this now. It will help you narrow your search and focus on schools that fit the educational philosophy and style that you are looking for.

I really support public schools, but it is quite rare to find progressive education in public school classrooms for a variety of reasons. Alfie Kohn (a wonderful writer and thinker about progressive education) has a GREAT article about this very issue. You can find it here: At the end of the article are a list of questions to ask of any school that you consider.

It is important to remember, though, that the dichotomy between traditional and progressive that is often described by progressive educators is, to a certain extent, too simplistic. Most schools now -- whether they are explicitly progressive or not -- promote active, hands-on learning, are student-centered, and so on. I think the differences between progressive education and traditional education are more subtle perhaps, but no less important. I think they are vital. But, if you go into your search with that false dichotomy in your mind, it could be confusing -- ''but wait, kids at public schools are actively engaged too'' -- and you might miss some of the profound differences between the two.

We were also interested only in progressive education. We looked at our neighborhood Oakland public school (Chabot), a few other Oakland schools (Peralta, Kaiser), and a charter school (see below). Each had its strengths and drawbacks. The private schools that we applied to were Aurora School, Park Day School, Berkwood Hedge School and Walden School. Of those, Walden is perhaps the most alternative, with a wonderful heavy emphasis on the arts. Windrush is another progressive school, but it was too far from our home in North Oakland to consider. Definitely worth looking into, though, if the location would work for you. Check out the websites for each of those schools, read about their approaches to teaching and learning, their educational philosophies. Read about what a constructivist learning model is and how it looks in action.

For comparison's sake, you might want to visit schools like Head Royce, which are great in their own way, but not necessarily progressive education. Redwood Day is somewhere in the middle. These can be great schools for many children and families, but they are quite different from the progressive schools mentioned above. There are others that are somewhere in between (Black Pine Circle, The Berkeley School, Prospect Sierra). All good schools, but again quite different from those that are explictly progressive in their orientation.

There are other factors to consider -- how good a fit the parent community is with your family, the size of the school, teacher-student ratios, quality of the enrichment classes that are provided and so forth, the physical environment, location, and so forth.

We ultimately decided to send our son to Aurora School . This is his third year there, and we are incredibly happy with our choice. Aurora is dedicated to progressive education, has multi-graded classrooms (K/1, 2/3, and 4/5 -- students loop with the same teacher for two years), fabulous specialist teachers (music, art, Spanish, movement, PE, woodshop, computers, library), an INCREDIBLE library (10,000 volumes -- the same size as or bigger than many large public elementary schools with five times the number of students and an amazing librarian who sits on the Newberry Medal committee), and a lovely community of families. There is a culture of kindness that permeates the entire school and especially characterizes relationships between the children and among the teachers and parents. My son has felt so safe there and has such a beautiful sense of belonging. He LOVES school and came home every day the first few weeks of second grade saying how he was ''overjoyed'' to be back at school.

As far as learning about different educational philosophies and schools, reading Alfie Kohn's books are a great place to start. Here is a wonderful list of his writings from his website: Many schools are hosting open houses and offering tours starting right now. You are welcome to attend those events. Aurora, for example, has an open house event in the evening on Thursday 11/4. If you have the energy, interest and time right now, you could do some preliminary searching in this way -- narrowing down the schools you want to look at more closely when your child is four years old and you are ready to start looking more seriously.

You didn't say where you live, but you can do the same with public schools. Find out when their tours and open houses are happening. I think overall, the curriculum choices in the Berkeley schools are a bit more inspiring than those in Oakland, but if you live in Oakland you should still definitely take a look. Plenty of families are very happy with their Oakland school.

Finally, there is one charter school that is explicitly dedicated to progressive education, and that is the North Oakland Community Charter School (NOCCS). Admission is by lottery, and the odds of getting in as a kindergartner are about 1 in 10, but there's nothing to lose in applying if the school appeals to you. Check out their website, too. It's a great school.

Good luck to you! Doing a little exploring now will make things easier and clearer when you get to the actual stage of making decisions. It's nice to give yourself that time! At the same time, don't fret too much. It's still so early. Your child will grow and change so much in the next couple of years. I knew what kind of school I was interested in for my son, but I don't think I could have known what school would be best for him until I saw what kind of four year old he became, what his strengths and needs were at that point. Give your child lots and lots of time to explore and play in open ended ways, to spend time outdoors, and to unfold and develop along his or her own trajectory. Formal schooling will come soon enough! emily

Teaching methods are largely teacher-motivated, so whether you go public or private, you're still dealing with a classroom that is led by the primary teacher's style. No matter where you are [almost], there will be those teachers who are particularly good at collaborative learning, those who love creative projects, and those who prefer a more 'traditional' style, such as the one you envision with the rows and the math sheets. Many schools, primarily the privates, will declare a progressive philosophy, but I think very few are actually ''progressive'' in the truest sense of how it relates to academia. Please do the tours. There's nothing more helpful than witnessing the classroom in action. I think you'll find that private and public school classrooms are more similar than they are different when it comes to everyday academic practice. -anon

Aurora School is a progressive elementary school in Oakland. It has been an amazing place for both our children. Lots of information is available on the website as well as in the BPN archives.

I would like to tell you about Walden School in Berkeley which is private and fits your brief description of what you want. It is the most affordable private school we found, and worth every penny. It's an art-based, progressive school that is truly developmental. It's also very small, allowing for a lot of individualized instruction. The teachers are amazing. Each year we have fallen in love the new teacher and see how each offers something wonderful to our child. At Walden, 2nd - 3rd grade are combined in one class, and 4th - 6th are also combined. Each class has music, drama/movement, Spanish and art twice a week. K - 1st also learn sign language. It's a wonderful community of committed parents and teachers and we enjoy being a part of it. Here is a brief quote from the website:

''We embrace a progressive, constructivist, and developmental model of teaching and learning. What this means is that Walden students actively participate in their own learning. They look, listen, and touch. They ask, answer, and discuss. They measure, move, and create. Walden students find creative and useful solutions to interesting and complex problems.''

The website is an excellent resource for learning more: I'm also happy to answer any questions. Best of luck! Happy Walden parent laura

Hi, I am a college art professor and I was looking for an ''out of the box'', creative education for my child. My son has been at Crestmont School for four years now and I am very happy with the progressive curricula at the school. Although the teachers are credentialed and know the state standards per grade, the school allows for the teachers to have creative freedom and uses an integrated curriculum model-- which means that a deep subject is introduced, such as space or the rainforest, and then arts, math, science, reading, etc. revolve around that subject. Students have deeper experiences of how various disciplines and skills are applied together into a single inquiry and studies have shown this greatly improves retention. There are no tests or grades but significant written assessment and teacher/parent meetings help you understand your child's growth and strengths. Also, instead of a lot of worksheets, curricular subjects often revolve around real world applications. I've been really happy with the academics at Crestmont. It is a private school, but it is also a parent-owned K-5 cooperative -- which means that the community at large is actively involved in our the education of our children and also that the tuition is significantly cheaper at our non-profit co-op than other comparable schools. The work involved in the co-op is typically less than what preschool co-ops ask for. And although parents are very involved at running the school, our teaching staff are credentialed and are definitely the ones designing and delivering the curriculum. It is worth checking out, but Crestmont School may be too far from the area that you are looking in -- it is in the Richmond/El Cerrito hills near a lot of other EBISA schools. For other info on private schools, I'd go to the EBISA website for a compendium calendar of various private school open houses; also scan BPN for chat on different experiences at different schools by name; and keep a calendar of when public and private open houses are.Sorry, you missed the EBISA (east bay independent schools association) fair, they have one every fall in which member schools all have a booth with info about their school-- but others scanning these posts should know to look for that in the fall. It has been in Berkeley for the past two years in October. I'll be at it in another year or two when I'm looking for middle school options. Good luck. carol

My daughter attended The Berkeley School from preschool through eighth grade and is now a Freshman at The College Preparatory School. My son is in second grade and attended TBS' Early childhood Center as well. Here is a little insight into why we love TBS:

- Dedicated, energetic teachers who are deeply supported by their administration, especially in professional development.
- Happy, friendly and diverse kids
- Consistency across classes and curriculum
- Active parent community (with a variety of ways to contribute)

Ultimately, my daughter is doing very well at College Prep. TBS helped build her confidence, developed her already great sense of humor, and prepared her intellectually and creatively to do pretty much whatever she wants to.

PS. we love the school lunch program run by Gregoire (parent and Berkeley restaurant guy)

PPS Feel free to visit our family blog ( to get a sense of what one TBS family is like. Patrick

For the person inquiring about progressive independent schools in the East Bay, I want to recommend Windrush School in El Cerrito. Our daughter started kindergarten there this year, and we have been very pleased with the experience. The school community--administration, teachers, families--really strives to provide a caring, authentic, thoughtful education for all students. We have been impressed with the diversity of families represented there, and we appreciate the school's attention to developing kids' social awareness and communication skills, along with their academic and intellectual aptitude. I encourage you to check out the website at and visit the school. We have not been disappointed!

I began learning about progressive educational philosophies when I was looking for a school as my son was getting ready to enter kindergarten. Ultimately, the school's educational philosophy became the most important factor in our decision. We are now in our third year at The Berkeley School with our two children (both also attended the school's Early Childhood Center). We have been very happy with our decision. The school cultivates self-directed as well as collaborative learning and fosters children's creativity and curiosity for learning. Most importantly our children know school as a place that is fun to go where they are appreciated for being themselves. The teachers are outstanding and there is a strong emphasis on professional development, which I feel contributes to the school being among the most progressive in the area.

As you come closer to looking at schools, I would encourage you to visit schools' classrooms more than once and to meet with the head of school/principal - that is what ultimately sealed our decision. catherine