Finding YOUR Tribe At L.A. Private School

Photo: Olga Khomitsevich/Flickr
Photo: Olga Khomitsevich/Flickr


It can look intimidating at first. You’re at a new school and you look around. The other moms all look richer, more confident and more involved in the school than you’ll ever be. On top of that, they already seem to know each other. It’s hard to imagine you’ll ever fit in.

Every time I started a new school, or even a new class within the school, I felt that way – destined to be left out. For my family, paying for private schools was a struggle and we sacrificed things to make it happen. Fancy cars and a big house and swank vacations were among the things that we didn’t have. At first glance, you believe you’re the only one without. You also get the sense that either everyone is a stay-at-home mom and you’re not, or that everyone has a job and you don’t. (I’ve been on both sides of that coin).

The funny thing is I can say eighteen years into the L.A. private school scenes, my worst fears were never realized. I always found my people. It’s not always easy, but in fact I would say that of every class of all three of my kids I not only found my place, but took away really good friendships, many of which endured long after the kids stopped hanging out.

If you just drop your kid and run and never get involved at all it’s harder than if you find some committee to join. I mostly worked and couldn’t be one of those rabid PTA moms. There is always a group of moms at every school that seem to run the place. God bless them. They are generally extremely hard working and efficient and way over qualified to serve as much food as they do. They are at every event, befriend each other and it’s not a bad idea to be nice to them, because they know everything that’s going on and sometimes it’s good information.

The flip side of this group is that I’ve seen women nearly go to fisticuffs over whether or not to put the fork in the cake or have people take their own fork. My personal preference is never to get involved with committees that involve food. All the real problems go down there. The battle over healthy food versus sugar snacks alone is enough to send me running to the hills. But they also get into it over serving in a earth friendly way or how to handle food in a totally germ free manner. These things don’t interest me, but I’m always nice to those women because they also know who is about to leave or get fired and what things you need to do to get your kid in certain classes or on certain teams. They are an invaluable resource for those with no opinion on snack food.

I know for women with full-time jobs it’s impossible to dream of adding some committee or serving a lunch, but there a few committees worth popping in on. The fundraising ones usually get you invited to the best parties even if you aren’t a big donor. Generally they involve a couple after hours meetings and making four or five phone calls. Easy breezy and you’ll meet people and be thanked for your service. Or show up at some of the weekend events… even if only one or two in the year to see who’s there that might be fun to meet. It will be worth your while.

The very best source of friends at your school of course is your kid. My kids had surprisingly good taste. They gravitated towards kids from families not dis-similar to ours and usually from that playdate structure a friend would emerge. (This is of course much more difficult in high school where the kids try and prevent you from meeting their friends much less the friend’s mom.)

That does mean however when your kid says they want to play with someone, you have to try and help them make it happen. No eye rolling, postponing, or shoving it off on your husband or a nanny. Every play date is a possibility not just for your kid but for you and maybe even your family as well. You might even discover a family can vacation with. In my son’s current class, two families are going to India together next year for two weeks. They aren’t even that close and their kids are not particular friends, but the mom’s hit it off and an amazing trip is in the offing.

A play date that ends with a glass of wine is often the start of something fun. Most schools say they offer “community” and while not required, finding your place in that community generally adds to your experience and that of your child.


Mother of three, Alice attended east coast private schools as a child and has been in the private school world as a parent for nearly twenty years. Her kids attended Mirman for elementary, then Harvard-Westlake and Brentwood for high school, with one still to go. She is a writer working in film, TV and for various magazines such as Family Fun, Wondertime, Glamour and Brides.


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How’s The Kid’s Resume? Admissions Director Q+A

Hugh Gallagher Essay


I consider myself occasionally sane when it comes to parenting. I don’t wildly over book my kids, or expect them to be proficient in coding by third grade, nor do I ask them to study Chinese on the weekends, so I don’t think of myself as someone prone to resume padding, but I’ve done it. The reality is that middle and high school applications give you large spaces in which they expect you to write down your child’s extracurricular activities and awards. It’s a painful process if you’ve got nothing, so even the best of us have turned walking the dog into “community service.”

There are a lot of blank spaces on those applications to fill in and if your child doesn’t play an instrument, hates sports and hasn’t saved the needy lately, you may have a problem that a last minute visit to a homeless shelter and a day in computer camp won’t fix it. My older children had enough real things to muddle through. So far my son has baseball. If you know you plan to send your kid to private school, then you need to think about this earlier than you might like to, not in order to do resume building, but to genuinely help your child start to identify his or her interests.

I sat down with an admissions veteran who has 25 years of experience at at prestigious private schools (in L.A. and other cities) to ask about the importance of extracurriculars.–Alice


Alice: Thank you for taking the time to educate us on what admissions directors like yourself think about the importance of an applicant’s extracurricular activities.

Admissions Director: If the child is an academic match for the school but you have five spaces and fifty students who would be academically great… That’s when you start looking at the extracurriculars… at who is the violinist and whose the swimmer.

Alice: How much detail are you looking for?

 Admissions Director : I would not go into great detail on an application about each specific kind of activity.   Use bullet points and be brief. The thicker the file, the more questions I will ask. Why do you need this resume and two DVDs that show a choir performance? When you supplement, make it really relevant. Frankly I don’t have time to watch the whole thing (choir performance) anyway.

Alice: What do you think when you see few or no outside interests?

Admissions Director: That depends on the child’s age. A student who is younger might not really know what their passions or interests are yet and that’s okay. You wouldn’t expect a middle school child to have already identified all their interests.

Alice: Is there a good number?

Admissions Director: There or four… That might show they have already developed a few interests, things that speak to them already.

Alice: How do you separate a kid’s real interests from the parent’s resume padding?

Admissions Director: In an interview you can tell what a child is truly passionate about or truly loves. If you ask about Chinese and their eyes glaze over, that might not be their true interest. Then you talk soccer, and they get excited, our team did this and that. When they have details and are excited to talk about it, you know it’s real. Especially as you’re going into seventh or ninth grade… they are much more communicative than third graders are.

Alice: Is all lost for the kid with nothing on the resume?

Admissions Director: Not necessarily. Sometimes you meet a kid with no big identifiable interests and think that maybe the school can be the spark that ignites that kid who hasn’t found him/herself yet.  But that depends on everything else in the file. If every teacher says great student. and a pleasure to teach, then that’s still interesting.   Resumes are tie- breakers in a way. First you look at the student academically and whether he/she will be a good fit for the school, then the resume is the gravy.

Alice: Are you focused on class building?

Admissions Director: When I put classes together, I read all the folders first and focus on getting to know the individual child and family. But, there is a time after you’ve somewhat put the class together, that you think, “What am I covering here?” Do we have diversity, the artists, the sports kids?   You want to make sure you have a mixture and a rich environment for other students.

Alice: Thank you for your time!


This is just what I suspected. The reality is that schools like Harvard-Westlake, Viewpoint, Brentwood, etc. are all trying to build classes. For them that means they need a wide variety of kids with different interests. They’ve hired a drama teacher and someone to teach Chinese so they need to look for kids who will audition for plays and study language. And they need to field their teams. The admission director can no more accept a hundred kids who want to play football than they can take thirty kids who play the piano. They have to have tennis players, soccer and field hockey players and the whole rest of the orchestra.

It’s like the old Kennedy quote… ask not… what the school can do for your kid, but what your kid will do for the school.


Mother of three, Alice attended east coast private schools as a child and has been in the private school world as a parent for nearly twenty years. Her kids attended Mirman for elementary, then Harvard-Westlake and Brentwood for high school, with one still to go. She is a writer working in film, TV and for various magazines such as Family Fun, Wondertime, Glamour and Brides. 


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‘Primates of Park Avenue’ or Tribes of Tinseltown? The L.A. Private School Scene

Reese Witherspoon carring a Hermes Birkin bag. Her kids attend L.A. private school and she hangs with tribe members.
Reese Witherspoon caring an Hermes Birkin bag. Her kids attend L.A. private school and Reese and her BFF are Tinseltown Tribe members


A new book, Primates of Park Avenue, has people talking. Excerpts of the book chronicle the affluent, over-the-top lives of Upper Eastside Moms in NYC. Of course, these moms also send their kids to private schools.

Wednesday Martin, author of “Primates of Park Avenue,” moved to the Upper Eastside and the New York Post writes about the lifestyle of moms she met:

“Martin’s oldest was a toddler at the time, and the pressure to enroll her child in the best nursery school was acute. On the Upper East Side, the right nursery school opens the track to the Ivy League. The average tuition for a toddler in 2004 ranged from $25,000 to $35,000 a year.

Martin’s little boy, she soon learned, was way behind. As she writes, “before nursery school, your toddler was supposed to take classes at Diller-Quaile School of Music,” which accepts 3-month-olds. “Before Diller-Quaile, you were supposed to do a certain baby group. Everything, it seemed, fed into everything else.” (New York Post)

To those of you with kids at certain well-known L.A. private schools, this type of parenting will sound very familiar. In L.A, the money isn’t necessarily from Wall Street, but instead it is earned from the entertainment industry or flows from family trust funds.

The extreme over-parenting isn’t anything new. I’ve seen almost everything in this article, except the occupational therapist for kids who don’t need it. From the food coach for picky eaters, to the “right” feeder preschool, to diet delivery plans for overweight kids, drivers idling in Escalades, private sports lessons, personal shoppers for 9 year-olds, Birkin bags, parenting experts on speed dial and drugs, both legal and illegal. The Tribes of Tinseltown are a presence in the L.A. private school scene

 “As an Upper East Side arriviste, scheduling play dates for her boy became Martin’s own Everest. “I was a play-date pariah,” she says. As a new female coming into a group, she was a threat. The other mommies, she says, ignored her emails and texts looking for play dates.” (New York Post)

I’ve never tried to schedule playdates with these private school mavens. But, if I had, I’d be doomed. I don’t look or act the part. I’m not one of them only partly because I’ll never own a Hermes Birkin handbag. But, what if I wanted to be part of this tribe of women? Would it even be possible for someone like me to join one of these groups at an L.A. private school? From what I’ve personally seen and heard from friends, the answer is a resounding “no.” It’s a good thing I don’t want in. I’ve observed some of these moms whose kids play on Westside club sports teams. Their world is a rarefied, lavish, closed circle, flush with money and problems—lots of them. I’ve seen moms so zonked out on pills they fall asleep during their kid’s recreation league game. They bring wine to the park during practice this same practice. Their husbands yell at them in front of everyone. They send emails pleading for somebody to pick up their kid when their many nannies can’t do it. Of course, somebody (not a tribe member) is always ready to help. A girls weekend is a private jet trip to one of their vacations homes in Cabo San Lucas.  When one of them posts her house for sale on Facebook, the listing price is a staggering $20 million. The rules governing their lives are foreign to most of us. Their kids attend the same few private schools on L.A.’s Westside. They make their presence known in big and small ways.

The wealthy send their kids to private schools, on the Upper East Side and in L.A. Sure, L.A. has its own version of them. To deny this is like pretending you don’t notice those big, fat lip injections. Whether these moms dominate the school culture is the real question you need to ask if you don’t want to send your kids to a school where they are not so secretly running the place. It is entirely possible for them to be rather invisible at a school, a clique amongst themselves. Or, they can practically run the place, chairing the school’s board of directors, heading up volunteer committees, hosting the head of school at their vacation home and generally making outsiders feel unwelcome. It all depends on which school we’re talking about. For the record, they don’t dominate Viewpoint, my kids’ school. For that, I guess I should be thankful.


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