Independent School Alliance For Minority Affairs: Interview With Keishia Gu, Exec. Director

Keishia Gu

The Independent School Alliance For Minority Affairs (ISA) recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. What an accomplishment! The organization started with just a small group of committed school administrators, led by Margo Long, the head of Oakwood Elementary School. I like to think of the ISA as a full service educational consulting organization for minority families. The 30th anniversary gala event was held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. In addition to 54 heads of school who were recognized for their contributions to the organization, it was a star-studded event that raised $650K to fund ISA programs. In the spirit of the event, Beyond The Brochure contributed $500 to help fund admissions fees for ISA families. Jessica Alba presented an award to Brian Lee (The Honest Company, LegalZoom), who bid generously on live auction items. Lisa Loeb sang and I spotted John Legend too!  Jeffery Campbell, an ISA board member and his wife, Jennifer Fox, were gracious hosts who invited me to join them at the event. The kids who have benefitted from ISA admissions services were incredibly poised and articulate. They are students at Archer, Harvard-Westlake, Viewpoint and many more schools. I met Keishia Gu, ISA’s Executive Director, an articulate and accomplished leader who I know we can count on to ensure there is a steady growth of diverse families in L.A. independent (private) schools. Here’s my interview with Keishia:


1. You have a very impressive resume! Can you talk a bit about your background and what brought you to ISA?

Thank you!!!! I grew up as a nomad, and therefore I have a unique perspective on education and schools. My father is a retired Colonel in the US Air Force, and as a result of being a military brat, I attended 16 schools from K-12. From my personal experience, I learned that not all schools, curriculum, or teachers were created equally. I attended some great schools, and I attended my share of “poor performing” schools, but didn’t have the sophistication to understand educational inequity. But I always knew that I would go into education because of the impact “school” had on my life. I started my career at my alma mater, Georgetown University–and served as the Assistant Director of Admissions with a particular emphasis on multicultural recruitment. I moved on to graduate school at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education where I focused on education reform and policy. Bob Riddle, the Head of Crossroads for Arts & Sciences, gave me my first job in California at Crossroads where I did a seven year stint as an Academic Dean, English teacher, and college counselor. In 2010, in order to reach back to the communities who I felt needed my college planning expertise the most, I joined the award-winning KIPP LA Schools, and worked as the Director of the KIPP Through College program. I’m grateful to Lee Miller at Cal West Educators, who personally called me about the opportunity at the Independent School Alliance. I believe I was ultimately selected because of my experience in recruitment and admissions, working with families of color, knowledge of independent schools, and business acumen. I had the right background and new vision to lead this organization into its next incredible phase of growth. Personally, it is my life’s work to provide children with the opportunity to attend a school that best matches their passions and personality, so I feel like I’m helping all of the “little Keishia’s” of the world.


2. Who are the families ISA serves?

The Independent School Alliance (ISA) works to inform families of color across Los Angeles about the option of independent school education. Our families self-identify as African American, Latino, Native American, Asian American, and Multiracial/Multiethnic.

ISA Gala

3. How do you help families find the right independent school in L.A. given the extremely competitive admissions process at many of the top schools.

At ISA, we understand that choosing the right school is by far one of the most important decisions that one can make for their child. We work with our families to help demystify the complexity of applying to independent school. We offer workshops and resources on educational philosophies, so that our parents understand the mission and vision of our 54 unique member schools. With our program, parents learn the differences between progressive, developmental, project-based, constructivist, and traditional approaches to education. Additionally, as parents consider their options, we perform an initial vetting of the children in order to understand the best fit for the child’s strengths, personality, and learning style. When our member schools receive an application from ISA, they can know and trust that we have worked hard to ensure that it’s a good match for all parties involved. Finally, we take the stress out of the paperwork because ISA families complete ONE common application and one financial assistance application, which is honored by all of our member schools. We also offer fee waivers for the ISEE, FAST, and SSS–making the cost of applying to independent school substantially lower than if families applied without the support of ISA. To see a complete list of schools where ISA helps families get in, click here.


4. If a family wants to handle the admissions process on their own, but has a few questions, can the ISA help?

We are a small and mighty nonprofit, and have the resources and staffing to support the 150 -200 families who are a part of our program each year. We’re happy to take a call or walk-in consultation for a few people each year who are not formally a part of our program. But for the most part we reserve our program, advice, and expertise for those who are working with us directly.


5. Do ISA families have to demonstrate a need for financial aid?

No, actually, we are very proud to work with families of varying degrees of socioeconomic status. Many of our families may be considered low-to-moderate income, but a reasonable percentage of our families are able to pay 50% to 90% of their tuition fees. We provide information regarding budgeting and financial planning for independent school education, and we will work with our families to identify schools that are within the range of what they are able and willing to contribute.


For more information, visit,


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Photo collage: Candi Schreuders

Los Encinos: A Small School For A Big World

Los Encinos Front


Along an understated stretch of Ventura Boulevard, sits Los Encinos, a small, progressive gem of a school in the heart of Encino. My curiosity about the school was piqued last year when I met one of its impressive graduates at Viewpoint, my kids’ school. I’ve also heard rave reviews from my friend who used to teach there. So, I asked her to introduce me to Ilene Reinfeld, the head of school at Los Encinos.


Los Encinos’ unassuming urban location belies a dynamic and absolutely charming interior. I arrived on a day when the school was celebrating the Lunar New Year and parent volunteers were getting ready for the lunchtime festivities in the brightly decorated outdoor space. There were lots of volunteers–as family involvement at the school is considered essential to creating a sense of community and ensuring parents are involved in their children’s education.


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Los Encinos radiates a fun sensibility. The school is vibrant and high-spirited–as if it is harnessing the energy of the kids to create a place that’s about learning, freedom of expression and community service. It is the embodiment of progressive education, equal parts utilitarian and inspiration. I came away with the sense that Los Encinos is freethinking and non-conformist, with just enough structure for kids to explore their fullest potential in each subject.


Los Encinos 2


Ilene greeted me in her office and we quickly set out for a tour of the school. Ilene talked as she walked, surveying the environment, peeking into classrooms and proudly showing me the newest building. She’s a tour-de-force at the school, overseeing the big picture vision and involved in day-to-day management of curriculum and teaching.


Ilene has the tools and insight to make big things happen. When the school needed new classrooms, science labs, offices and a library, she pushed donors to raise $1.5 million with the promise the new building renovation would be completed over the summer (an ambitious schedule!). Donors answered her call. They raised the money and she, along with help from the board, parents and her staff, delivered the project on time and on budget. This followed a 2009 renovation with a similar budget. The stunning new library, with its cozy, inviting sitting area, practically begs for a good book and a cup of hot cocoa. It is absolutely gorgeous. The librarian told me she feels lucky to work in such a magical place.


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It is this kind of tenacity that helped Ilene win a coveted fellowship to the Klingenstein Center for a two-week intensive study for the Heads of Schools Program at Columbia University.


Ilene’s commitment to a diverse faculty, including male teachers, is something she says is important to a school that reflects the diversity of our world. Hiring the best teachers, even if it means relocating them from the East Coast, is just part of her day.


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In just 10 years, under the leadership of this smart mom of two, the school has flourished by leaps and bounds. Her dedication to the school is undeniable. Running Los Encinos isn’t just a job for Ilene, but a passion. She oversees it with the attentiveness of someone who has a lot at stake because she does: the education of 168 kids. Along with change, the school has withstood the test of time, staying true to the original vision set forth in 1980 by its founder, a former Oakwood School administrator. The school has remained purposefully small, a hallmark of its founding principles.


Ilene has successfully built upon the school’s mission, which is based on the social and academic benefits of a learning environment within a close-knit community. There is a deep respect for collaboration, compassion and sharing; all progressive educational tenets. While Ilene has definitely reimagined parts of the school in her own vision, she has always stayed true to its roots.


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If you’re looking for a small, progressive school, Los Encinos checks off all the requirements. The curriculum is challenging and encouraging, not always an easy balance to achieve. Seeing the kids in big, sunlight-filled classrooms, it was evident they were fully immersed in activities or absorbing the teacher’s lesson. An important tenet of the school is an emphasis on collaboration, not competition. As we stopped in a science class, one student’s boundless enthusiasm greeted us, “Look, we are making the most awesome project!” she exclaimed. Her lab partner nodded in agreement as he continued working, completely engrossed in the lab.


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Los Encinos has one class per grade, K-6. There are 26 kids in each class, with two teachers. When half of the class is in art or science, for example, the other half remains in the class, making individual teaching and small group learning possible.


Los Encinos Virtues and Values


In each classroom, there are 16 words called values and virtues, reflecting the school’s core character. Creativity, Friendship, Effort, Responsibility, Patience, Initiative, Integrity and more. These words to live by are taught in grades K-3 and reinforced in grades 4-6. They are referred to frequently, as they remind students what the school is all about.


Ilene’s focus is on overseeing a school that can provide each student with a high degree of individualized instruction. She knows every kid, their needs and their specific interests. She hires teachers who are dynamic, diverse in both ethnicity and gender, skilled and energetic. Every teacher can offer each student one-on-one time to discuss a project, answer questions, refine ideas and encourage exploration.


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Learning doesn’t happen in isolation so the integrated curriculum, another progressive concept, plays a big role in how subjects are taught. For example, when kids are learning about the ocean in science, they might also be reading about it in another class and taking a field trip to study the ocean, while completing community service in the same study area. When fables are taught in 1st grade, there is a connection to other subject areas. Nothing is taught in isolation of other study areas, so students make connections between various subjects and ideas.


“Every kid should feel successful. They need to take risks because that’s where learning takes place,” says Ilene. “Los Encinos is a school with a heart!”


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To expand upon the core educational philosophy, Ilene explains that not every young kid learns best by sitting still in a chair or walking in a perfectly straight line. That’s okay at Los Encinos. All rules should have a purpose and Los Encinos is a relaxed learning environment. Students are trusted to walk to class in formations other than a straight line. Kids learn the power of both leading and following, with the confidence to know when to do both.


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Art, music, drama, technology & media, P.E., science and library are part of the curriculum taught by specialists. Frequent field trips and guest speakers round out the areas of study. In 4th grade, there are intramural sports. The school plays at Tarzana Park. Every kid gets a chance to play. There is computer lab and 1:1 laptop beginning in 4th grade. Students participate in yearlong, grade-specific volunteer service programs to help develop a meaningful connection with the larger community.


On the school’s website, an overview is offered: “Small class sizes and a low student-teacher ratio enable the teachers to know each child and to assign work that challenges individual ability levels and learning styles. Coursework follows an established curriculum that is personalized by the incorporation of current events, student interests and curiosity, community opportunities, and individual student needs. Technology, manipulatives, and cooperative projects are used to involve the students in the learning process.”


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I asked Ilene what is most important to her when looking at prospective students and their families. Her reply? Parents who understand what we do and feel strongly that it is the right place for their kid. The school offers 14 percent of its annual budget for financial aid. There is ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. There are kids of famous people alongside the kids of regular families.


Ilene also personally oversees placement to middle school. As a result, the kids from Los Encinos go on to top middle schools like Campbell Hall, Marlborough, Harvard-Westlake, Oakwood, Windward and Viewpoint, to name a few.


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Los Encinos’ understanding of how important it is to for students to be able to take risks as they learn is a huge, important concept they will carry with them throughout their lives. Combined with a dedication to community service and a class size where individualized instruction happens, these attributes make the school a small but powerful place to learn.


I can imagine a Los Encinos student saying to another, “Come sit with us.” This is the kind of stuff that can be life changing.


For more information, visit,

Photos credit #3 & #11: Los Encinos School


Grateful, Hopeful Or Dismayed: When The L.A. Admissions Letters Arrive

Pool flowers

It’s been an eternity (or so it seems) and finally, the admissions letters will soon arrive by regular mail or email. All over town, parents will be either (1) celebrating (2) trying to figure out what their wait-list letters really mean or (3) freaking out because their kid didn’t get in anyplace. It’s admissions day in L.A.


If you’re like me and you’ve been through the admissions process twice for two kids (DK, K, 4th and 7th grades), you’ll probably be familiar with at least two of the three scenarios above. My kids have been accepted and wait-listed, with one application that never got to the finish line after a terrible parent interview (more about that in the book…it caught us by surprise and there was no way our kid was getting into that school!).


First, let’s talk about the good news. Acceptance letters! Oh, joy! Now you can break out the champagne, call the school and tell them your family will accept. You’ll fork over the deposit and carefully analyze the admissions packet from what is now your kid’s school. Your kid has a school! Maybe you got two or three acceptances and you have lots of choices. Weigh them carefully, the pros and cons of each. Perhaps in a neurotic moment of ego-driven self-doubt, you’ll regret you didn’t apply to even more schools, including that amazing, constantly talked about oh-so-fabulous-school, just to get the letter and turn them down. After all, their tour was lame, the moms are mean-girls who wear Chanel and you’d enjoy the satisfaction…oh, never mind. All of this is pure happiness.

One Fit Window


Now to the wait-list. Yes, I’ve received several, one in particular that I felt panicky about.  Actually it was an email and it came at 12 noon on Saturday. Wait-list. Wait. List. To try to get a spot off the wait-list or not. To be or not to be? That was the question and this day seemed truly Shakespearean after a long process middle school process. Barry and I decided not to pursue the wait-list for our daughter, since that would have meant keeping our son at Willows, something we had decided very late during the admissions process would a mistake for various reasons. If it doesn’t open, it’s not your door. Instead, we focused on getting both kids into Viewpoint. And we did it.


It went something like this. We submitted a late application to Viewpoint (late being the Monday after admissions letters were sent out). We didn’t talk to the Willows about it, since experience told us that would be pointless. It turned out to be the right move at the perfect time. The kids got in. Maybe at sometime in the future in a galaxy far, far away, I’ll spill the details of what I think happened to cause my kid to end up on the wait-list. But, for now, you just need to know that I’ve had the experience of opening one of those emails and I know what it feels like. It’s a very uncertain feeling, but it isn’t always a “no” and a few kids at almost all the private elementary schools get in every year after first being wait-listed. Wait-lists move around. When one family declines a spot, the school looks to the wait-list to fill that spot. There are some schools, however, with very high acceptance rates so wait-lists spots are fewer. Sometimes, these are schools with lots of faculty kids, legacy families or siblings applying who are pretty much guaranteed to accept spots when offered. Parents often ask if they should turn down a spot at one school and linger on the wait-list at another. No! Send in your non-refundable deposit to the school where your kid has been accepted. It’s not a good idea to mention to that school you’re hoping to get a wait-list spot elsewhere. If a wait-list spot opens up, you’ll lose the deposit (it can be $2000-$5000, depending on the grade level, but that’s the reality). That is all just part of the L.A. admissions process.


If you find your family without a school, create another plan. A new plan that discards all mention of rejection letters. Don’t blame yourself and definitely don”t obsess over what went wrong. It could have been sometime entirely out of your control. Instead, focus on creating new options. Talk to your preschool director. Some of them have near-magical powers within their carefully cultivated relationships with admissions directors. Send him/her to public school for a year until you can re-apply. Call an educational consultant who knows how to work a wait-list to get a spot and who may also know which schools will take late applications. These might not have been your first choice options, but they can end up working out better than you’d expect. You’ll need to be open minded, patient and flexible, not exactly the qualities the admissions process brings out in parents.


We all want the very best education for our kids. Good luck! –Christina


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Photo: One Fit Window


Reflecting On 9 Years At The Wesley School by Jessica Gottlieb

Wesley School


My friend Jessica Gottlieb is feeling nostalgic after 9 years at The Wesley School, a K-8 in N. Hollywood.


“I’ve just signed the contract for Alexander’s High School. Now that we’ve completed the application process for a second child I’d like to talk to you about The Wesley School where both my children attended elementary and middle school. In the coming weeks parents of middle school kids and then a week later elementary students will get their acceptance letters and have decisions to make about which school to attend. This is written for you, the prospective parent. Hopefully it will help you make a decision.”

To continue reading, click on Jessica Gottlieb. 


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A Buckley School Alum Turns To Beyond The Brochure For Kindergarten Admissions Advice


The Second Edition: Coming Sept./Oct. 2013!


A review of Beyond The Brochure by Elaine Sir on her lovely lifestyle blog:


“If you’re on the LA private school admissions circuit right now, say AYE!

I was lucky enough to attend and graduate from The Buckley School — where the teachers held Stanford degrees and PHDs. The education and the lifelong friendships from such an intimate and private community were invaluable — and I hope to gift my own kids with the same luxury. I have to say though, I’m not sure that I would be admitted if I was to apply today. These LA schools’ admissions process is a [bleepin’] racket these days.

The Center for Early Education, for example, had 178 applicants one year with only 16 spots available. That’s a whole lot of rejections mailed out on Black Friday.”

To continue reading, click on ELAINESIR