Throwback Thursday: Two Abandoned A-List School Tours

This post was originally published on August 10, 2010. 


Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 5.58.00 AM

When we were looking at kindergarten for my daughter, I think we toured about 10 schools.


There were two school tours that I’ll mention in this post because (1) they are extremely coveted schools with big reputations (and, we found, egos to match) and (2) my husband and I abandoned both tours mid-stream in order to maintain our sanity.


School #1


The first school is a near-impossible-to-get-into K-12 school, not exactly close to our house. With traffic, it’s about an hour drive. Our tour was scheduled for 8:30 a.m. I scheduled my nanny to come at 6 a.m. to make sure we could leave the house on time.


On the way to the tour, my husband and I had an argument. Traffic was horrible, there was road construction and a detour. My husband had already decided this wasn’t going to be a drive we could do. I wanted to continue on to the school and complete the tour. We were totally stressed and snapping at each other. He was driving, tailgating the car ahead. He knows this makes me carsick.


We arrived at the school and were greeted by the admissions director, an ice queen. She had us and the other group of parents stand outside the admissions office while she told us about the school. It went on for an eternity. The ice queen droned on. Bored out of my mind, my eyes wandered. Parents were dropping off their kids for school. A very showy drop-off scene. We waited for a few late arrivals than preceded to start the tour. The actress Maria Bello, wearing Hudson Jeans, was on the tour, along with her ex-husband. My husband was on the verge of being an “ex” as well, as he made small talk with Ms. Bello, striving to find some commonality in their Philadelphia roots. When he made reference to her cheerleader scene in “A History of Violence,” I ushered him away for a sharp elbowed reminder of why we were there.


The building of this school is quite nice. It’s big and relatively new. The walls are adorned with the art of famous LA artists. Although this art was probably donated, the artists on display sell their work for hundreds of thousands of dollars per painting.


We went into the kindergarten classroom, where they were doing show and tell. Show and tell? In my mind, that’s an old-fashioned, dated waste of time. This was a hip, modern school. The teacher had a kid up at the front of the class with his item to show. It was some sort of small animal, as I remember. Another little girl was sobbing hysterically, since school had just stared a few weeks earlier. It was hard to focus with her crying and they finally had her leave the room with a teacher. Not impressive. It definitely didn’t live up to the hype.


Then, it was time to go to the math class. The teachers talked about the math program, which seemed fine, if not a bit fuzzy. They also seemed quite proud of the fact that a girl in the class had broken her arm on a recent overnight field trip. I’d pay more than $20,000 to have my kid break an arm on a field trip?


This school is big on community service and really touted its various programs to help the community. Parents on the tour seemed very impressed by this. To me the programs seemed outdated and stale. There’s a lot more innovative stuff happening in LA schools, but it wasn’t there. The programs appeared to be at least a decade old. Parents were complimenting the admissions director at every opportunity. I was sure Maria Bello liked the school the most of everyone. She keep oohing and nodding with approval at everything.


To me, the school seemed chilly, it lacked warmth. Perfect buildings, gorgeous artwork, no energy, way too quiet for a lower school.


After the community service portion of the tour, my husband and I gave each other “the look” which means “let’s go”. The tour wasn’t finished, but we knew this wasn’t the school for us. We left. In some ways, it feels good to cross a school off your list. On the other hand, that leaves one less option.



School #2


Plastic surgery. Designer logos. Super-high heels. Haughty attitudes. The Real Housewives of New York? Nope. A private elementary school tour in Los Angeles.


The second tour we abandoned is yet another super-difficult school to get into. I was curious to see this school since it is one of the most sought after private elementary schools in LA. This is partly because of the celebrities who have kids at the school and partly because of the parents at the school, many of whose heads are swelled to the point of bursting with self-importance. Of all the schools, this school suffers (or benefits) from the most rumors about how many kids will be accepted, how many siblings, etc. Parents can spend hours talking about whether this school will admit one or two new kids in a given admissions cycle. We toured it at the suggestion of our preschool director.


We arrived and were told we’d be on a tour with two other families. There were lots of other tours taking place at the same time. This school has a low-key exterior and location that belies its interior pretentiousness.


The mom who was our tour guide was very unfriendly, had a plastic surgeon husband (who had clearly worked on her face, and my husband speculated a little too loudly, her rejuvenation) and knew very little about what was actually happening in the classrooms. She was jittery and unfocused. I wanted to switch tour guides. Her focus was to look around to see who else was on the other tours. Head to toe in designer clothes, she had zero interest in my family. None. She never made eye contact. Nor did she have any interest in our companion family on the tour. They were not wealthy enough, it was obvious, even though the husband mentioned he was a lawyer.


After the tour, the head of school welcomed parents in the auditorium. This head of school is very impressive. Or so the head of school told everyone in the ten minutes that were allocated to us. However, we knew that wouldn’t be enough to make this school work for us. My husband and I saw a door marked “Emergency Exit”. Too bad, or we could have made our escape. Again, we gave each other “the look” We made a quick exit out the front and were gone.


I write about these two abandoned tours to say that even if everyone else likes a school, you may not. It’s better to bow out early than waste everyone’s time. I couldn’t get excited about either school. Parents all around me were practically hyper-ventilating they wanted a spot at both these schools so badly. These two schools were all theirs.


Our preschool director tried to get us to re-think this school. Tour it again. We have friends there and they love it. It simply wasn’t right for our family.




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ISEE Private School Entrance Exam: Fact and Fiction by Matt Steiner


My favorite 11 year-old on the Viewpoint School Annual Fund brochure

My favorite 11 year-old on the Viewpoint School Annual Fund brochure

The ISEE is the entrance exam used by private schools at the elementary, middle and high school levels, in Los Angeles and nationally. My friend and colleague, Matt Steiner, of Compass Prep. has written an excellent piece about the ISEE, by most accounts (including my own), a long test with a high degree of difficulty—-Christina


“When chatting with parents, I emphasize the rarity of high stanines, because it helps re-orient their expectations of their children. In my experience, perfectly capable, intelligent, private school-ready students score in the 4 to 6 stanine range and are admitted to top schools year after year. In fact, directors of admission seek out these students to build balanced incoming classes. 7’s, 8’s, and 9’s are certainly impressive, but schools understand that these performances are not typical of the average applicant, nor is it necessary that all admitted students share the same propensity for testing.” –Matt Steiner

To read Matt’s entire ISEE piece, click on Compass Prep.


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The L.A. Private School Mom “It” Bag for Fall 2014

At private schools in L.A. you’ll probably catch a glimpse of the Hermes “Evelyne” bag. Or, maybe you’re carrying this cross body handbag with the iconic “H”…it seems to be everywhere these days. Talking to friends at dinner one night, we compared notes about handbags and realized the “Evelyne” Curtis, Buckley, St. Matthew’s, Viewpoint, and Crossroads. Those are only the schools we know about…but no, I’m not the Viewpoint mom carrying this bag. The cross body style doesn’t look good on me and I need a big tote bag to carry all my stuff. I splurged on a grey Prada tote with top handles and a shoulder strap. This should last me a long time, even if it’s never the “it” bag. I also got an oversized DVF tote at an outlet mall for 40 percent off the retail price, making it about $220. Steal!

Hermes Bag 4

The “Evelyne” ranges from about $2,100 to $3,400, depending on the size.


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November Event: Navigating The Private Elementary School Admissions Process

Mary Alice O'Connor Flyer


RSVP to Christina at Hope to see you there!

Children’s Community School: Progressive Instruction In Matters of the Heart and Mind

CCS Front entrance

Children’s Community School (CCS) is a remarkable progressive school located on a residential street in Van Nuys. It is differentiated from other progressive schools in part by its mission to create a school where neighborhood kids are an integral part of the student body. CCS’s significant outreach program to local residents, many of them immigrant families, offers financial aid for their kids to attend the school. With one-third of its students receiving financial aid and of these families, one-third living below the poverty line, it is truly a community school.


CCS LibraryFounded 34 years ago, CCS’s 118 students (K-6) occupy a compact urban campus that blends seamlessly into the predominately working class neighborhood that surrounds it. CCS’s architecture is an important aspect of a serious community-building endeavor. Its buildings are two-story and revolve around a multi-purpose outdoor space. The school’s façade is equal parts secure and welcoming.


CCS Classroom 4

A focus on the community is exemplified by the school’s annual health fair for the neighborhood, now in its 18th year, offering free heath and dental care in partnership with 30 local non-profits. The fair is attended by thousands of locals.


CCS Outdoor Space

As I entered the school on a quiet weekday morning, the ethnically diverse teaching staff immediately impressed me. I know firsthand how important it is for families and students of color to see diverse teachers like themselves. Yet, diversity like this doesn’t happen at private schools without a concerted effort to recruit, train and retain staff. This is just one of CCS’s many unique qualities.


CCS Classroom Window

CCS Printing Press


CCS hums with a vibrant energy. Some spaces are quiet, while others are bustling with kids running, playing, eating lunch or learning. Heather McPherson, the director of advancement, greeted me at the gate and we began a tour, starting in the library, a well-stocked, expansive open space, with several parent volunteers preparing it for Halloween. We walked through classrooms, into an art room containing a very cool letter press printer (above) and into the outdoor space, filled with kids of various ages all using the space in different ways, but co-existing harmoniously.


CCS Garden 2

CCS Garden 3


An eco-friendly campus has been the domain of the Green, Clean and Healthy Committee working with the Playground Committee. From procuring untreated wood chips for the playground to painting classrooms with non-toxic, zero VOC paint, the list of sustainable improvements is long.


CCS is progressivism personified. Sitting down to chat with Neil Wrightson, the head of school and co-founder, I noted his commitment to diversity and his adherence to progressive education. Neil is experienced and friendly, with an easy demeanor and an obvious affection for his school. He’s cerebral and thoughtful, with an unwavering commitment to ethnic and socio-economic diversity to benefit all students.


Legendary education reformer John Dewey has always been Neil’s inspiration for CCS. “Learning happens all the time, not just at a specific time of day,” Neil told me. “Preparing kids to be powerful and effective learners involves a whole community,” he continued.


CCS Music


Dewey believed that children’s interests should be a driving force in their education, rather than a teacher-centric approach where all ideas flow from the teacher. As we talked, Neil discussed how progressive aspects of the school are apparent both inside the classrooms and in the outdoor spaces.  In true progressive fashion, kids are learning by doing. They are creating, building, questioning, analyzing and shaping their own education in partnership with their teachers and peers.


CCS Corridor

As Heather explained, in math, for example, big ideas and number sense are emphasized over rote memorization. Math is taught using practical applications…using cooking, measuring, woodworking and other hands-on instruction techniques. Frequent fieldtrips—including walk trips to the local fire station for the youngest kids–expand and enhance the learning environment, with students returning to school with knowledge that will be used discuss and work on a variety of writing, math, and art projects related to what they’ve seen. The curriculum is intimate and individualized due to the small size of the school. Kids at CCS are learning by doing, using real-world tools.


CCS Classroom

CS does not give grades or traditional report cards. Instead, narrative reports are given twice a year and throughout the year, informal teacher assessments are provided by teachers. There are no tests and textbooks are not used. The school does give standardized tests for students to practice in the grades 5 and 6. Homework is non-traditional and age-appropriate. For example, for upper grades, 60 minutes of reading focused on deepening a student’s understanding of their current arer of study. Or, for younger kids, real-world, hands on learning at home that might involve observing their family structure and home life. Worksheets and workbooks are not used.


CCS getting creative


In the CCS brochure, the curriculum is explained as follows: “Reading, writing, math, science, as well as geography, grammar, creative and extemporaneous writing, interpreting literature, poetry, storytelling and measurement are all taught independently, but with their relationship to each other and to the core unit of study always on the surface.”


CCS Playtime


The school is non-traditional in the way it groups kids by age. Kindergarten is not a mixed age grade. Grades 1-6 are mixed age.  Every year, the class formations will change depending on the mix of students in the grade. Class formations typically consist of two 1st/2nd grade classes, one 3rd/4th grade and two 5th/6th grade classes. Each class has two teachers.


CCS Multipurpose auditorium


CCS is encouraging the student’s inherent sense of wonderment and awe. It strives to create fiercely independent thinkers who have an exuberant love of learning that will last throughout their lives.


Students from CCS go to both private and public schools upon graduation. About 50 percent of students attend public school for 7th grade by choice. The other half attend Oakwood, Campbell Hall, New Roads, Harvard-Westlake, Crossroads, Wildwood, Archer and Buckley, among others. Neil helps families extensively with the admissions process for secondary school.


CCS chatting on the yard


I left this wonderful school with the impression that CCS will be educating the next generation of writers, teachers, world leaders, mathematicians, artists, scientists, architects and Nobel Peace Prize recipients. Aspiring Wall Street tycoons may need to look elsewhere.


The application deadline is January 23, 2015. For more information go to:


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Pasadena Area Independent School Annual Kindergarten/Elementary Options Night 2014

Chandler School

Chandler School

The Pasadena Area Independent School consortium will host their annual
Kindergarten/Elementary Options Night on Thursday, October 16 at 6:00
-7:30 pm at Chandler School. The Options night offers Pasadena and San
Gabriel Valley residents the opportunity to learn about area schools all
in one place.


The consortium of Pasadena Area Independent Schools includes; Barnhart,
Chandler, Clairbourn, Crestview, Foothill Country Day, Gooden, High Point
Academy, Mayfield Junior School, New Horizon, Polytechnic, St. Mark’s,
Sequoyah, Walden, Waverly, and Westridge. Parents will also be able to
visit with other area private and public schools. Over 30 area schools
will be participating.


The PAIS consortium was created to make the application process easier for
parents. While each school is an Independent school with itís own mission
and school leadership, the schools work in concert to provide common
forms, screenings and decision dates. The intent is to make the process
easier for parents applying their children to area private schools.


At the Kindergarten/Elementary Options night you will have the opportunity
to talk directly with admissions directors and representatives from the
PAIS schools and other area schools. The consortium puts together a
Kindergarten Application Matrix that is available at the options night.
The Matrix incorporates the participating schools profile and important


The public is welcome. No reservations are needed. Please note this event
is for Adults Only. For questions, please contact any of the above schools
and ask for the Admissions Office.

For more information, click on Chandler School, Pasadena

To see Beyond The Brochure’s profile of Chandler School, click HERE


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Little Acorns Grow Preschool Is Growing: Kindergarten, 1st, 2nd and 3rd Grades!

Little Acorn 1

Recently, I went to see Little Acorns Grow, a charming Preschool-Kindergarten school in Reseda. Founded in 2011 by Melanie Martin, the director, the school is expanding by adding kindergarten, and grades 1st-3rd.  The kindergarten class is in its first year (there are 4 spots currently open!) and 1st grade will begin in 2015, followed by 2nd grade in 2015 and 3rd grade the year after.


Little Acorn 9

Little Acorn 11

Melanie greeted me at the front of the school to begin my tour. She is friendly and energetic, talking excitedly about her school. It was late morning and the kids were completely absorbed in various classroom and outdoor play activities. The school is small (12 kids per grade), with a very large play space with a garden in the back.  Classrooms are bright, filled with color and newly updated.


Little Acorn 6

The focus at Little Acorns Grow is individualized instruction with a healthy dose of play based learning in the integrated curriculum. Each class has a teacher and an aide. Taking inspiration from Montessori, Reggio and Waldorf, the school is a blend of educational philosophies. Kids begin learning to read in Transitional Kindergarten and reading typically happens in Kindergarten. The “why” is important, the logic of why things happen is key to the curriculum. Discipline doesn’t include time-outs, but instead focuses on positive tools to help kids get along.


Melanie, a mom of two kids, has years of experience as the head of elementary school at Delphi Academy. She’s used her professional experience to create a high quality program at Little Acorns Grow. It is her pride and passion. From the organic snacks to the enrichment classes that include yoga, art, music, drama, cooking and languages, the kids are exposed to creative, hands-on experiences.

Little Acorn 4


Parents are welcome to volunteer. This year, a parent will be teaching robotics. Another helps the teachers prepare classroom activities. There are school field trips, art shows, puppet shows and more, all with help from parent volunteers.


Little Acorn 7Little Acorns Grow is small and nurturing, with a well-developed curriculum, an abundance of learning and play activities and a plan to expand to add grades 1-3. It is the kind of school where my own kids would have flourished. The tuition is $850 per month for a full day and $700 for half-day.


Little Acorn 5


Little Acorns Grow was one of three schools featured in this super-cool new video by Soul Pancake as part of the National Campaign To Learn.


“We could talk your ear off about the importance of early learning, but figured you would rather have some cute kids with GoPro cameras show you why they love preschool. They’re telling stories, doing art projects, practicing counting, and learning that “when somebody’s talking to someone else, you be patient.Soul Pancake. 

To see the Soul Pancake video, click HERE.

For more information, visit or call 818-779-1099.


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What Makes A School Traditional? Developmental? Progressive?


Photo: Seier and Seier, Flickr Creative Commons License

Photo: Seier and Seier, Flickr Creative Commons License

This post is an excerpt from my remarks at a recent preschool speaking event. One of the first –and most important–things to do is figure out the type of school that’s right for your child.  Sometimes a school is a mix of several philosophies (you’ll see a few schools listed in several categories below) or it’s not clear to you what type of school it is from a website or a tour. Most L.A. private elementary schools are a hybrid/mix of educational philosophies. This is not an exact science, but more about the way each school adheres to a particular philosophy or combines several philosophies.  For example, you might see a progressive school with a developmental approach to teaching.  Or, you may see a traditional school that incorporates a developmental approach in the classroom. But, if a school doesn’t seem to have a clear philosophy that can be understood and explained, ask questions! And, there are clues you can look for to help figure out what kind of school it is. Your goal should be for your child to attend a school that offers a learning environment where he/she can thrive and one that you truly believe in. – Christina


While every school is different, here are some of the characteristics that can help you identify the type of school:


Traditional: ( Examples: John Thomas Dye, Viewpoint, Carltorp, Brentwood, Pilgrim, St. James, St. Brendan, Curtis, Steven S. Wise, Campbell Hall, Village, Mirman, Chandler (Pasadena), St. Matthews), Catholic Schools tend to be traditional 

  • Similar to the public schools many of us attended as kids
  • Academic achievement is the core philosophy
  • Structured schedule
  • Teacher centered-not kid centered
  • Kids expected to meet academic milestones by certain time (reading by mid-year kindergarten)
  • More homework, more multiple choice tests, quizzes
  • Fewer group projects
  • Teacher directed work, not kid directed
  • Classroom setup usually has teacher at front, desks facing front of room
  • Grades start early
  • Lots of memorization
  • Competitive sports teams 
  • A focus on good character and values
  • Uniforms


Developmental: (Brentwood, Turning Point, Echo Horizon, Oakwood, Lawrence, Campbell Hall, Temple Israel, St. Mark’s (Altadena), Willows, Center For Early Education, Westside Neighborhood School)

  • Kids develop and learn at their own pace, eventually all arriving at the same academic milestones (reading for example). That is celebrated, not discouraged.
  • Kids are not competing with each other to see who can read first or memorize multiplication tables first.
  • Kids can help each other learn, not just teacher directed learning
  • Big concepts and ideas are taught, not a ton of detail/memorization
  • Integrated curriculum…what’s happening in science relates to language arts, etc.
  • May or may not have uniforms


Progressive: (PS#1, Wildwood, Pasadena Waldorf, Westland, Children’s Community School, Oakwood Elementary, Seven Arrows, Willows, Sequoyah (Pasadena), Waverly (Pasadena), Center For Early Education, Lycée International de Los Angeles, Walden, Pasadena)

  • Child-centered learning, kid-initiated projects
  • Concepts like sharing, creating, caring
  • Engaging kids with the world around them
  • Rejection of memorizing big amounts of information
  • A whole child approach-social, emotional and academic have equal importance
  • Lots of group projects, discussion and debate
  • Kids work at tables grouped for 4 or 6 kids
  • Very little homework, few worksheets (if any)
  • No grades until MS or even HS (or not)
  • Lots of expository writing
  • Play-based in preschool and kindergarten
  • An emphasis on field trips for real-world learning
  • A focus on the arts
  • A de-emphasis on standardized testing
  • Kids working on creative projects with their hands using wood, paper, found objects
  • If there are uniforms, they might be a t-shirt


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Book Review: “Liv On Life” by Wildwood School Mom Elizabeth Gorcey

Liv On Life


Imagine how nice it was for my family to pull into our driveway to find Elizabeth Gorcey dropping off a copy of her new children’s book, Liv On Life: Going To The Park. Elizabeth is a friend of a friend, so we chatted about the book, mutual friends and our kids.  Friendly and outgoing, Elizabeth is a mom, an artist and a parent at Wildwood Elementary School. Her daughter, Liv, is the inspiration for the book, which encourages kids to embrace their authentic voices. The message of the book, that parents should pause to slow down in our busiest times to be mindful of our kid’s honesty and perspective, is a concept that fits perfectly with Wildwood School’s progressive philosophy.


Going To The Park captures moments in Liv’s life as she introduces the reader to her dog Bowie and her home life. The book is the first in a series. Stuck in traffic, Liv is thrilled because she and Bowie can look out the window. Her distracted mom isn’t so happy. Liv discovers a puppy in the car next to them, but her mom doesn’t even notice. Liv, naturally curious and creative, finds excitement in the little details that make up a quick trip to the store, the park and in her own home.


If you have a preschooler, especially one who loves pink as much as Liv, they’ll enjoy reading this delightful book with a deeper message, reminding us to take the time to be present for our kids in this high-tech, fast-paced world. With her patient persistence and wit, Liv encourages us all to slow down to notice the beautiful, funny everyday moments in our lives. Because that’s exactly what Liv does.


Please join author Elizabeth Gorcey at Skylight Books on Sunday, Oct. 5, 3-5 p.m. for a book launch party! Enjoy sweet treats and espresso with the author, her daughter and other families. For more information or to buy the book, visit Skylight Books.


About the Author: Director, producer and actor Elizabeth Gorcey has expanded her repertoire to book publishing with the LIV ON LIFE (”LOL”) children’s book series. The twelve-book series is written from the endearing perspective of Elizabeth’s daughter, Olivia, who shares her insights and observations on modern-day life. Elizabeth currently lives in LA with her family. When not making films or publishing books, she works diligently on her non-profit art program for terminally ill children called the CARING STROKES ART PROGRAM. For more info, please vist 


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Manzanita School: A New Private School In Topanga

Photo: Manzanita School

Photo: Manzanita School

Manzanita School is a new private school in Topanga. It is a progressive school for grades 4-9. According to the school’s website the school’s natural surroundings on 20 acres will play an important role in the curriculum. “The strong pedagogical movement, “place-based education,” has illuminated the importance of connecting our schooling to the local environment.”


I was raised in Topanga and I know exactly where this school is located and it would be an amazing experience to attend a school in such a beautiful, peaceful location. –Christina


For more information, visit


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