Apply To The Private Schools YOU Like…

Look For The Hidden Gems

Starting with private elementary school tours, parents need to be careful they’re not swept up in the enormous wave of “Top School” pressure. Even before you’ve seen one school, you’ve probably already heard about “The Best School” and “The Ivy League Feeder School” and so on. If everyone you know is buzzing about one or two schools, try to think outside the box and tour a few schools that aren’t on everyone’s speed dial.

 

When I was touring schools, I looked at about 10 schools. I needed to know more about schools that sounded good, but weren’t on the radar of anybody I knew. I felt certain that the schools that were uber-popular would have a lot to offer, although I didn’t end up liking all of them. But, I also wanted to see schools with solid reputations and minimal hype. They’re out there in every neighborhood, you just have to be willing to ignore the opinion of the preschool queen bee moms and seek out these schools on your own. Of course, talking to other parents is a great way to get information about private schools. But, parents are highly opinionated when it comes to this topic. So, don’t let a very small group of them be your only source of information.

 

One of my friends has a very bright daughter who is about to enter middle school from a public elementary school. I like my friend’s approach. Rather than become obsessed with the most popular schools, she sought schools that would be sufficiently low key for her family, yet still challenging for her daughter. I was a bit surprised, given that her daughter could probably get into any school. But, knowing my friend, she wants her daughter to have a school experience that will be about learning, growing and thriving and not about her mom’s ability to drop the name of her kid’s school.

 

Applying to private schools in L.A. is competitive in every way, there’s no denying it. This reality hits most parents even before they submit their first application.  Prospective parents are bombarded with education terms they’ve never heard of like “feeder schools” and “developmental schools” and horror stories about families getting shut out. You’ll hear about celebrities whose kids attend one school and entertainment moguls who financed the new building at another school.

 

All this talk naturally makes many of us tense and worried, wondering how we’ll beat out hundreds of other families for a spot. We assume we’re not doing enough, that we can do more thing to get our application into the “accept” pile during the admissions process…one more letter of recommendation, one more call, one more tour, gifts for admissions directors, donations prior to admissions letters arriving (yes, it happens, but isn’t recommended).

 

But, if you include “off the radar” or “hidden gem” schools on your list, you’ll be able to see the full range of schools in the L.A. area, from those that are talked about ad nauseum at cocktail parties to the schools that aren’t on the cocktail party chatter circuit, but that just do a great job educating kids. They’re out there, you’ll see. You just have to look. Oh, and get ready for a wide-eyed stare from the preschool queen bee. She’s so busy buzzing about the “top schools” she may not know what to say.

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The Paradox Of Redshirting: A View From Inside The Classroom by Anne Simon

“Redshirting” refers to the athletic practice of holding a player 
back a year to give them time to grow and develop skills

I applaud the wisdom of parents (my own children included) who pay close attention to their child’s development and make the decision for when they should enter kindergarten based on an assessment of not only the academic, but the social and emotional readiness of that individual child. This is often a great gift to the long-term happiness and wellbeing of a child in school. This practice does contain, however, the potential for unintended consequences that may sabotage the sincere efforts made to help the child succeed.


I have been an educator observing and participating in the private school admissions process for almost 40 years, I am concerned about the impact of “Redshirting” (keeping a student in preschool an extra year) on the kindergarten curriculum and consequently, that of every other grade. It can go something like this: parents and school officials make individual decisions that skew the age of the kindergarten class toward 5½ to 6 years of age instead of late 4s and 5s. Ambitious teachers see and act on the ability to move this new age group along the curricular continuum more quickly that they might with a younger group. Voila! Kindergarten becomes the new 1st grade!
Most private elementary schools, and many public school districts around the country, have added a new entry-level class to their program – Jr. K, DK, Pre-K – it goes by many names. This is the place where children are prepared to begin the process of being in school and taking on the challenges of whatever style curriculum the school offers. This is not restricted to any particular style of school. The progressive schools are as likely to do this as the more traditional academic schools. In this first year children learn to follow a routine, listen to instruction, take turns, help your friend, and work together. Hmm…sound familiar? Everything we learned in kindergarten is now what children are learning in Pre-K.
While this works well for many children, and it makes schools feel good because their students seem so accomplished in earlier grades, there are some unintended consequences of this shift. For those who are not older but are fully ready to handle the program of kindergarten, there may be as much as 18 months difference between the age of that child and the oldest child in the class. There can be huge size differences between the children in the same class. Most importantly, if the curriculum continues to accelerate, there will come a time when it does not fit the development of the students and the whole purpose is defeated.
In the last few years of my tenure as Head Of The Lower School of an independent school in Virginia, I too established a wonderful Pre-K program. We rehabbed a donated construction modular office into a colorful “Cottage” complete with deck and ramp. The younger siblings of our enrolled students flocked to the program, delighted in the options offered: ½ day, full-day, extended day. We could really pay attention to what each 4-year-old needed and even tailor that need throughout the year. Several students started the year as ½ day and graduated to full day students around January of their Pre-K year. 

In the second year of the program I needed to hire a new teacher for the class. Guess what? I hired a talented veteran kindergarten teacher from a nearby public school district. She was delighted to be in an environment that allowed her to attend to the developmental needs of her students and not primarily to the concerns of state tests and benchmarks. I was happy that she understood both where the students were currently, as well as where they needed to go to be ready for our more academically focused kindergarten program.
Somewhere in all of this is a warning – be careful what you wish for! While I agree completely with the need to make sure your child is ready for the kindergarten experience, it is equally important that the schools you are applying to that are accelerating their curriculum as a result of having classes with slightly older students be mindful of the potential pitfalls of this practice over time. Schools must adjust their programs to fit the new profile of their students – larger age spans and greater differences in size and capability perhaps. This can be done well if the school and its teachers resist the temptation to simply accelerate their program and truly reframe their curriculum and methodologies to fit the needs of the students they have. If this is accomplished, students can have the best of all possible worlds.   

Anne Simon is co-author of “Beyond The Brochure: An Insider’s Guide To Private Elementary Schools In Los Angeles”. She is the former Head of Wildwood Elementary School and the former Dean of the Crossroads Middle School. 

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Guest Blogger Jenny: How Are Private Elementary Schools Different From Public Schools? One Mom’s Opinion



Although Beyond The Brochure is a blog about Los Angeles private elementary schools (and I kind of assume that, if you’re reading this blog, it’s because private school is of interest to you), occasionally I feel the need to discuss the differences between LAUSD schools and private schools.


First off, I’m not anti-public school. On the contrary: I attended LAUSD schools from K-7, and my daughter attended public school at Third St. Elementary from 1-3rd grades.  That’s why I think I can write this comparison with confidence and relatively little bias; I’ve experienced both.

Funding
Obviously, there’s a huge difference in how your child’s education is funded at a private school vs. a public one. At private school, the funder is you, pretty pure and simple. You pay the tuition (ranging anywhere from $12K to $30K annually, depending on the school), and then you pay again in terms of annual giving, plus fundraising offers galore. Even if you get financial aid, you’ll probably still be paying something.

In public school, our tax dollars pay for education. Just how much of our tax dollars trickles down to the actual schools, however, remains a mystery. LAUSD claims anything from around $3,600 to $10,000 per pupil, depending on the school (it’s too complicated to explain here; rest assured if you live in a low income area, even if your school is overcrowded, your school is probably receiving less money per kid than the schools in more affluent areas. It’s not fair). Some sources claim that, since LAUSD doesn’t count money raised by public school funding bond measures in these figures, that the actual funding is higher. Lord knows I’m no expert on this topic, but twenty minutes of researching it online made my head spin in confusion.

What is definitely true (and I know this from our three years at Third St. Elementary), is that you’ll be fundraising all the time, perhaps just as much as at a private school. The difference is that often the parents’ hands are tied in terms of how to allocate the funds; at a private school, you know exactly where the funding is going: straight back into the little school and thus to your child.

Perhaps it’s not fair to compare private schools, which are essentially medium-sized businesses, to public schools, which are vast bureaucracies with massive infrastructure. But it is an important, if somewhat obvious, distinction.

Bullying and Behavioral Issues
There are bullies and nasty girl terror everywhere. That is simply a given. And I’m not sure there’s much difference between public and private schools in how they deal with these entities. I’ve heard unbelievable horror stories circulating about texting harassment at private L.A. schools. Sometimes more money and entitlement absolutely leads to awful behavior. And it’s up to the school and its overall culture to deal with it.

On a personal note, my daughter had trouble on the playground at Third St. with mean girls and aggressive boys. She handled it fine, but she pretty much had to handle it on her own. Then again, it wasn’t anything extreme. But she’s experienced nothing like that at Mirman. The school seems to have a zero tolerance policy for that kind of nonsense.

If you’re concerned, ask the administration about things like honor codes and discipline.  And if the school doesn’t have a real code of conduct, I would ask some current parents about their experiences regarding student behavior.

Quality of Teachers
There are dedicated and wonderful teachers everywhere.  Anna’s second grade teacher at Third St. was one of the best teachers she has ever had; he was an example of how years of experience (I believe he had 17 years) can add up to true excellence.

The difference in public and private school teachers doesn’t really come into play unless you’re talking about bad or ineffective teachers. In public school, teachers earn tenure after only a couple of years of teaching, and after that it’s almost impossible for LAUSD to rid itself of a bad teacher. The best you can do in public school, if your child gets a lousy teacher, is to transfer your child to a different classroom. Forget about getting the teacher fired. It isn’t going to happen.

Private schools, however, pretty much hire and fire at will. If a teacher isn’t cutting it, he or she won’t last long.  Private schools don’t need to tolerate substandard teaching, or attitude problems, or laziness. On the other hand, private schools don’t have to hire terribly qualified teachers, either. Some twenty-something with a history M.A. and no teaching credential could end up teaching your child, and the results could be less than stellar. I got more than a couple of these types of teachers when I attended Crossroads for middle and upper school; Crossroads did get rid of the lousy newbies, but there was some chaos along the way.

Another comparison is the quality of teaching, but that’s hard to gauge. These days, LAUSD teachers are so bound by testing requirements that it’s difficult for them to fit in anything creative or different. It’s a system that doesn’t necessarily reward initiative, but does reward quantitative test results, so many teachers have to teach to the tests (this isn’t true of charter schools, which have different criteria for funding than regular LAUSD campuses).

On the other hand, teaching quality at private schools is more qualitative and far fuzzier. Sure, the kids do get tested every year at private school, but there wasn’t much attention paid to it.  One could argue that a successful private school teacher is willing to compete in a popularity contest, whereas in public school popularity plays no part in job security.

Diversity
Public school wins this one, hands down. Private schools, however they wish to sugar coat it, will never be as diverse as public schools. And I’m not just talking about ethnicity, I’m talking about class as well. If you send your child to private school, she will be with mostly upper middle class to outright rich kids. This does vary from school to school, as some private schools are truly enclaves for the rich and famous.

So there it is, some of the pluses and minuses regarding private and public schools. I’ve tried to be as fair to both sides as I can. At the same time, though, if I’ve inadvertently offended any of you, you might want to keep in mind that Beyond The Brochure is a blog about private schools. If you’re a huge public school- at-all -costs-and-in -all-circumstances-advocate (and all power to you), you might want to ask yourself: why are you reading this???!

Editor’s note: Among our readers we are pleased to include public school parents. Yes, we have public school moms who email us and say they read this blog for a few reasons: 1. They are considering transferring their child to private elementary school at some point in the future. 2. They want a glimpse into what life is really like at private schools. 

A few months ago, Beyond The Brochure was mocked by another mom v-blogger (as Jenny says, if you can’t write, you video yourself) who called us “private schools snobs” and a bunch of other nasty names. We don’t think we’re snobs, and we try hard to be fair and inclusive on this blog, but if we have strong opinions, we write them. If we’ve struggled with a parenting issue at our school, we’ll talk about it. We answer every email and read (and welcome!) your comments. I have never attended a private school in my life! I matriculated through the LAUSD, SMUSD and UC systems from elementary school through graduate school. Oh, and last but not least, we aim for keeping our sense of humor present at all times. If that makes us snobs, so be it. 
Jenny Heitz has worked as a staff writer for Coast Weekly in Carmel, freelanced in the South Bay, and then switched to advertising copywriting. Her daughter started 4th grade at Mirman School this year. She previously attended 3rd St. Elementary School. Jenny has been published recently in the Daily News and on Mamapedia, The Well Mom, Sane Moms, Hybrid Mom, The Culture Mom and A Child Grows In Brooklyn. She now writes about gift ideas and products on her blog, Find A Toad
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Should You Wait A Year Before Your Child Starts Kindergarten?

“Redshirting” refers to the athletic practice of holding a player
back a year to give them time to grow and develop skills

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times, “On The Question Of When To Start Kindergarten, There’s No Easy Answer,” raised several issues to consider if your grappling with the decision to “redshirt” your child or hold him/her back a year before starting kindergarten. This is a growing trend, according to the article. 


According to the L.A. Times, schools are placing more emphasis on academic achievement, standardized testing and parents are increasingly focused on kids’ emotional needs. The article points out that research on the question of whether or not to hold a child back before starting kindergarten is mixed. Some experts believe there are benefits to a child being one of the oldest in his/her class, while other research shows few benefits to “redshirting” and even discovered some kids who are older than their classmates exhibit behavioral problems.

So, what’s a parent to do? First, understand that in L.A. the vast majority of top private elementary schools want kids who are close to 6 years-old (or already 6) when they start kindergarten. According to Sharon Lynn Kagan, co-director of the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College in New York, education experts focus on the following when assessing a child’s readiness for kindergarten. Physical well being and motor skills, social and emotional development, language skills, approaches to learning and cognition (source: L.A. Times)

For some families, “redshirting” isn’t a question because their child’s birthday falls at at time where they have no choice but to wait because they miss a school’s cut-off date. But, for families like mine, where both my kids have July birthdays, we could have gone either way with many schools having a Sept. 1st  cutoff date.  After talking with our preschool director, we decided that my daughter would stay an extra year at preschool with most of her preschool classmates. She entered kindergarten at age 6. She is one of the oldest in her class at The Willows School, but not the oldest.

My son, who is also born in July, was not “redshirted” and he is the youngest in his class. When we considered whether he was ready to start kindergarten at age 5, we factored in his maturity and overall readiness. He was also at a preschool where kids did not stay an extra year because most of them went on to public school where the kids generally begin kindergarten a year earlier than private school. So, we enrolled him in the Willows DK program at age 4 and he entered K at age 5.

Now that I’ve been the parent of a daughter who was red-shirted and a son who was not, here are my thoughts on the issue.
  • If you’re applying to private elementary schools, recognize that these schools want kids who are older. When the schools tell prospective parents, “give him/her the gift of time” they are saying wait another year until the child is older and more mature. The schools are looking beyond kindergarten to every grade level your child will enter. If the school has a concern about a child’s readiness, they may wait-list him/her.
  • My daughter was shy and reserved. My husband and I, and the preschool director felt she needed the extra year at preschool for emotional and social development. Her preschool had a full class of kids her age, so she would not have been among 3 year-olds her last year. I’m very glad we made the decision to “redshirt” her. 
  • My son is the youngest in his class. There are kids in his class who are a year older than he is. And, if a kid repeats a grade, you might have a kid who is 18 months older than your child. 
  • I’ve also observed that age doesn’t determine how well the child does academically. There are kids a year older than my son who struggle in school. There are kids almost a year younger than my daughter who do extremely well. 
  • Trust your instincts and the opinion of your preschool director. There’s nothing wrong with keeping your child at preschool for an extra year. Kindergarten will be there waiting for him/her. 
  • In terms of behavioral problems, I haven’t noticed a correlation with age at The Willows. Discipline problems seem to happen with kids on both the younger and older side in my kids’ classes. 
  • If your child is the youngest in the class, consider that there will probably be kids bigger than your child (unless your child is big for his/her age). The bigger kids may dominate the sports activities (or try to) and may try to use their size/age to their advantage. I knew my son wouldn’t be bothered by this stuff, but some kids are and it’s up to parents to think about this issue as you make the decision to “redshirt” or not. 
To read the L.A. Times article, click here


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Guest Blogger Virginia: Children’s Community School: Where Kids Learn To Get Ahead By Getting Along

When it was time to begin the private elementary school application process for my daughter, I knew what I didn’t want. 

I didn’t want a traditional, ultra-elitist private elementary school environment, the kind that my son had been struggling in for four years. The school that he attended was, and still is, a favorite destination for Hollywood parents paying for a pipeline into top-echelon secondary schools. I refer to this institution as “The Stepford School,” because all the parents and teachers wore the same vacant expression, the same shellacked-on smile, and repeated the same parenting sound bytes spooned to them during parent education meetings moderated by the Napoleonic School Director.  To bastardize George Orwell, this Director believed in treating the celebrity parents more equally than others. The trickle-down effect on the kids was alarming: the school was churning out well-groomed automatons unable to think for themselves and anxiously monitoring their ever-shifting spot on the social pecking order. 

At the same time that my son was not thriving at “Stepford,” my daughter “Katherine” was flourishing at All Children Great and Small, a progressive preschool that operates out of a funky Craftsman bungalow in Los Feliz. In keeping with the progressive education philosophy, “Katherine” didn’t learn much about letters and numbers at preschool, but she learned how to work and play well with others.


Whenever I went to All Children, whether to pick up my daughter, or participate in School Clean-Up day, I noticed that my cares evaporated when I walked through the door, and I just felt happy. When I looked around at the teachers, the kids, and the other parents, I saw that they looked happy too. And they actually enjoyed talking to each other! This could not have been further from my experience stepping onto the pristine grounds of “Stepford,” where the tacit message behind every clenched jaw and unfurrowed Botoxed forehead was: “How-much-do-I-need-to-donate-to-the-Annual-Fund-to-get-my-kid-into-Harvard-Westlake?” At “Stepford,” community events consisted more of jockeying for position than in truly working together towards a common goal.

So when I began elementary school tours in the fall of ’06, I looked for one thing: a community of people who seemed happy and well-adjusted. I looked for a community in which middle-class people were treated the same as rich people.  Where teachers had their own voice instead of serving as the Director’s puppets. Where everyone–kids, teachers, and parents–felt that they had something of value to contribute.

I encountered this ambience of authentic, democratic community the moment I walked through the gate of Children’s Community School (CCS). Located in Van Nuys on a pleasant but decidedly non-bells-and-whistles campus, CCS has been providing a progressive K-6 education for over 30 years. Founded by current Director Neal Wrightson and Leni Jacksen, CCS attracts a diverse population. Almost 40% of the student body receives financial aid. As one CCS mom puts it in her tongue-in-cheek yet apt way, “CCS is where rich people go so they don’t have to act like rich people.”

Of all the elementary schools to which we applied, the CCS application process was the sanest. I attended a parent-led tour ending with a conversation facilitated by Wrightson. Then a staff member from CCS visited “Katherine’s” preschool to observe her in her familiar school setting—the opposite approach of most other schools, which put 5-year-olds in the stressful position of going into a new environment, being separated from their parents, and taking tests. There was no parent interview required. The CCS application form was brief. I noted two CCS parents who knew our family and who could act as referrals. And that was that.

During the conversation on the parent tour, Wrightson answered nervous parents’ questions about the school’s policy on homework, conflict resolution and students’ transitions into secondary schools. One comment he made, in response to a query about what CCS offered to give kids a competitive edge, struck me as profoundly commonsensical. He explained that none of us knows what the best job markets will be in 20 years, so the school doesn’t teach to that. What CCS does do, however, is teach kids how to be part of a community. When kids learn how to contribute meaningfully to a group, how to listen to others, partner with others, and motivate others, they will be successful regardless of what profession they choose to go into.

Now that “Katherine” is entering her 4th grade year at CCS, I reflect on Wrightson’s comment often. While I have no clue what field she might go into one day, I know this: she’s good at working with others and she’s someone other kids want to work with. She’s able walk into a group of people she doesn’t know, strike up a conversation, make a friend, join in any activity. In CCS group projects (most of the learning is group-based) she knows both her roles and the roles of her peers. She has a voice and an ear; she can communicate her ideas and she can listen. 

What she has gleaned more than anything is a sense that she is personally invested in her learning process. It is not something forced upon her, but something she feels responsible to own. She has a healthy pride and self-agency that comes both from being part of a community and feeling valued in that community.

Four years after starting that elementary school application process, I realize I found what I wanted: a place where kids learn how to belong and are taught that everyone deserves respect, regardless of the label on their pocketbook.

For More Information About Children’s Community School, visit, www.ccsteaches.org

For More Information About All Children Great And Small Preschool, visit, www.allchildrengreatandsmall.com

Virginia Gilbert is a licensed marriage and family therapist living in Los Angeles. She is also a writer whose articles have appeared in Salon, the Los Angeles Times, and Examiner.com, to name a few. Together, her two children have attended three preschools, two elementary schools, and two middle schools in the L.A. area. 

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