Why L.A. Private School Culture So Is Hard to Figure Out

Palm Trees (1)

If you’ve read this blog for awhile, you know I think the culture of a school really matters. For me, it’s not just an aside or something to wonder about casually. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that school culture matters in ways big and small, in ways you won’t even think about until you’re living it with your kids day in and day out, until you’re absolutely miserable or incredibly grateful for it.

A school’s culture is a reflection of it’s values and that starts at the top with the head of school and the board. The admissions director also plays a big role since they are the ones making decisions about who gets in. A school’s culture, I’ve learned, doesn’t happen by accident. Creating a warm and wonderful culture takes effort and hard work by everyone involved, especially the school leadership. A toxic, cliquey, dismissive school culture isn’t accidental either. It can be the result of many factors like a lack of acceptance of “outsiders” or a head of school who cultivates friendships with certain parents who set a haughty, elitist  tone for the entire place.

You might also know that I think it can be difficult, or nearly impossible, to figure out the culture of a school before your kid becomes a student there. And even then, navigating the school’s culture can be confusing for many of us. So, as you move though the admissions process, a school’s culture might be one of the things you focus on if you care about being part of a school where you feel like your family belongs. However, as an outsider you might have to connect the dots to learn what even insiders have trouble defining.

It’s worth your time since you’ll be a parent a the school for many years. Being a parent at private school means volunteering, attending school events, interacting with administrators and teachers and finally, getting to know other parents and their kids. When any one of these aspects of the school’s culture isn’t going well for you, it can be hard to love the school, to be involved, to donate, to talk to the teachers. When a lot of these things aren’t working, it becomes impossible to remain at the school.

I’ve been very honest about my ups and downs finding a school culture that fit my family and our values. We were a family at The Willows for 7 years. It was never the right culture for our family. I tried to make it work. I volunteered, we donated very generously to annual giving and we tried to become part of the school community. Barry, my husband, gave it a shot too. Still, it didn’t fit us in the way I’d hoped a school with the word “community” in its name would. I felt like an outsider there from the first day. But, I ignored those feelings and decided my intuition was wrong. It was a good fit for my kids, I’d tell myself. The integrated curriculum is amazing. Yet no matter what I did it never felt right. There were the tangible, objective reasons why I in retrospect I feel it didn’t work. Then, there were those intangible, those subtle but oh so important reasons that ensured it would never be a school culture I’d embrace or that would embrace me. We’d come from Montessori Shir-Hashirim preschool where I felt like part of the community. I wasn’t friendly with everyone, but I had a small group of moms who I hung out with. My daughter had plenty of playdates. We’d meet at the park or at one of our houses and I knew I could call any of those moms and they’d be there like I would for them. I still have a good friend, an actress, from the preschool!

I’ll be more specific here. Every school has a hierarchy among the parents. At Willows, when we were there it was as follows:

1. Families from a certain Westside feeder preschool where The Willows head of school previously worked.  There are some lovely families from that preschool, but they all knew each other and were not especially interested in getting to know our family.

2. Lots of creative families in the arts, music and entertainment industry. We aren’t any of these things, so not much in common with the parents in those fields. That isn’t always a barrier to community, but in this situation it seemed to be.

3. A board of directors that was mostly appointed because they were friends of the head of school or they had a specific agenda/reason for being on the board. It wasn’t a skills based board, but one based on personal relationships. The implications for that are important because in a small school, any conflict with a board member about an issue, ranging from bullying policy to volunteering, immediately puts you on the bad side of the head of school. Trust me on this one!

4. An environment one friend compared to the culture of a hollywood agency (her husband is an agent.) She says the agent culture is brazen, harsh, filled with yelling, firings and bad behavior. That was the same environment I encountered when I volunteered at The Willows. A small mistake or difference of opinion lead to me being yelled at by another parent volunteer! As I’ve mentioned before, when I was yelled at I screamed back. It was not my best moment(s). Then there’s the big F-You day. But, I kept trying to make it work. It never did. Imagine when one of my friends found out she was no longer chairing a desirable, coveted committee at the school when she read about the person who’d be replacing her in the school newsletter! There’s a nicer, more professional way to treat a parent volunteer.

5. A lack of interest in building community. Sure, Willows held events like get-togethers for each grade at a parent’s house or coffees at the head of school’s house. Those are obligatory at private schools. The real community lies with the people appointed to run the parent association or other committees. Are they inclusive and welcoming? Do they solicit input from the parents? When The Willows decided to try to encourage more parent involvement by holding a series of before school coffees at the Target near school, so few people showed up, the events were cancelled soon after. It felt like a commuter school, not the community school I wanted so badly. But it’s not surprising this happened when the head of school and her minions walked past me and other parents regularly without speaking. The first time I heard a dad complain that the head of school ignored him, I didn’t think it was true. Then I saw it happen to him. Then it happened to me many times and it was definitely true.

Me and my husband, Barry Perlstein, at our first Viewpoint Gala, Four Seasons, Westlake Village.
Me and my husband, Barry Perlstein, at our first Viewpoint Gala, Four Seasons, Westlake Village, 2012-13.

Now that we’ve been a Viewpoint family for 5 years, I can honestly say moving my kids to Viewpoint was a very wise decision. As soon as I saw the campus, I felt the culture was right for our family. It’s beautiful and spacious, not urban hipster or Westside snob–I’d had enough of that. Viewpoint’s culture seemed professional and gracious. And it is. The school is traditional with all the hallmarks of that educational philosophy. Parents say hello to other parents in the halls. This was new to me. At Willows, there were parents who, after 7 years in the same grade, never spoke to each other. At Viewpoint, I was pleasantly surprised when I sent an email to a mom who I didn’t know, she responded. I wasn’t used to that sort of politeness. But, most of all, I think the type of families at Viewpoint are more like my family and that helps us feel like we belong there. Barry works in management consulting and there are lots of parents at Viewpoint who are non-entertainment professionals. This made it easier for us to connect in a real way with both moms and dads. Best of all, our kids have friends who the kind of friends you hope your kids will find. It’s a school that values academic achievement and involvement in school. When my daughter left The Willows after 6th grade (against the wishes of the head of Willows), she wasn’t involved in a single school activity since the main activity there is theater. Now, in 11th grade, she’s a page editor for the school newspaper, in Model U.N., The Community Service Honor Society and several more activities. At Willows, a lot of parents’ near-obsession with having “cool” kids  who played in a band or acted, dominated the culture. It’s almost non-existent at Viewpoint. Now, kids who want to be cool? Well, that’s to be expected anywhere.

School culture is nearly impossible to predict since you don’t know who will be in your kid’s class or their grade. But, there are things you can do to try to find the right place, where you feel welcome and valued.

Here are a few tips:

1. Ask around to find out what industries the parents at the school work in. Do they work? Are there common themes that keep emerging like lots of actors or tons of investment bankers? What about a particular neighborhood or part of town where a lot of the families live?

2. Go to school events like book fairs, basketball games and theater performances. These are very different than admissions events and give you a sense of the school in a way that formal admissions events can’t.

3. Ask yourself if you’re interested in the school because it has a big reputation and it’s “popular” or because you think it’s the right place for your child and your family.

4. Does the school talk about community during the admissions process? Does it seem genuine or like an afterthought? Ask the admissions director and tour guide to describe the school culture. 

5. If you’re a nontraditional family in any way, will you be accepted at the school? Are there other single moms at the school? Mixed-race families? Divorced parents? Gay and lesbian families. Parents with adopted kids?

6. Do you think you’ll find “your people” there? We all need to be able to call another parent when something hard is happening with our kids and know that that friend will be discreet and offer support and good advice. That’s priceless.

I’ve said more than I planned but I have big feelings about this topic. Thanks for reading and I hope you find your people too. I’ll end on a happy note. I met one of my closest friends when our kids were in kindergarten at The Willows. So, it was worth the agony of an arrogant, entitled school culture that valued so many things I couldn’t offer–or didn’t want to offer.

Thanks for reading and I appreciate your support for Beyond The Brochure–Christina


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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 www.manzanitaschool.org


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Private Schools, Private Lessons


Playing tennis together as a family is one of our favorite activities. At Beverly Hills Tennis public courts.
Playing tennis together as a family is one of our favorite activities. At Beverly Hills Tennis public courts.

“WELL-TO-DO parents fear two things: that their children will die in a freak accident, and that they will not get into Harvard. The first fear is wildly exaggerated. The second is not, but staying awake all night worrying about it will not help—and it will make you miserable.”—The Economist, July 26, 2014


An article in The Economist, “Cancel That Violin Lesson,” encourages parents to stop piling on the lessons and give kids more time to play outside. I sighed loudly when I read it. Yet another article advising parents to lighten up on our kids’ over-packed schedules. Instead of cramming the schedule with private lessons for our kids, the article recommends we give them more unscheduled free time. This is exactly the opposite of what I’m seeing well-heeled private school parents do in L.A.


Private lessons are the new status symbol. As my kids get older, I’ve noticed more of their friends and classmates taking private lessons of all sorts. When your kids attend private school in L.A., private lessons are a part of life for most families. It’s essential to the get ahead—and stay ahead—culture at highly competitive private schools. I’m not immune to this private lesson craze for my kids. But as I try hard to balance their activities, it’s getting more difficult.


Kids at L.A. private schools take private lessons for everything. From goalie lessons to batting, hitting, quarterback, music, voice, skiing and fencing lessons, there are private lessons to help kids excel at virtually every activity. These lessons supplement the sport or activity. And it’s not just sports and music. There are tutors who help kids get organized (i.e turn in their homework or figure out which test to study for), in addition to assisting with academics.  Instead of dropping the extra lesson, parents seem to be increasing the quantity of private lessons.  Group lessons are a thing of the past. Now, it’s all about private, one-on-one lessons.


When I hear that one of my kids’ classmates is taking private lessons in the same activity, I secretly wonder if my own kid should be taking private lessons.  All my insecurities as a mom bubble to the surface.  Will my kid be disadvantaged during a game when he competes with his teammate who takes twice weekly private lessons? I’ve largely resisted this urge with a few exceptions, primarily because private lessons for anything are expensive and very time-consuming. Participating in the activity should be enough, right? With the exception of music lessons (who can teach themselves violin?), I haven’t felt the need to add private lessons aside from tennis. Being able to play tennis as a family is important to me. But, for the past year, my son has been to busy for tennis lessons. Go figure.

My daughter hitting it! Family tennis.
My daughter hitting it! Family tennis.

I don’t want my kids to assume that whenever they try a new activity, private lessons are required. But, when I hear that a kid on one of my son’s club sports teams was seen at the park with a private coach, I wonder if I’m doing the right thing. Sometimes, private lessons are a way to gain favor with a coach or instructor. It can mean playing time or other advantages for your kid.


None of us want to be THAT mom who denied her child private coaching only to find him/her sitting on the bench during games. Sometimes, the pressure is really on. One of my friends increased her kid’s music lessons when another kid challenged her kid’s position in the middle school orchestra. My friend’s kid was able to hang onto the spot, but only after several months of extra $500 a week lessons.


My daughter has an audition for the school Jazz Lab in the fall. I’m assuming her weekly guitar lessons will be enough to prepare her for the audition. There’s no way I’m going to cut out that lesson, even on the advice of The Economist. Not a chance.


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Applying To Private Elementary Schools: An Overview

Map of LA Private Schools

For many parents, even the thought of applying to top private elementary schools in Los Angeles can be overwhelming. Competition is fierce for private schools all over the greater L.A. area, but knowing how to get started can help ease your anxiety.


Many top-tier schools in the L.A. and Pasadena region receive more student applications than they can admit.


Here’s an introduction to how it all works to make the process of getting into private schools more manageable for your family:


Feeder Preschools

Some of you may have heard the term “feeder preschools.” These are preschools that send their graduates to specific private elementary schools each year. While “feeder” preschools are often popular and hard to get into, you should select a preschool that best fits your child and your family’s needs, irrespective of whether it is a “feeder” school.


And, don’t forget, even if your child attends a “feeder” preschool, that won’t guarantee he/she will get into a particular elementary school. Having a well-connected preschool director can help, but private elementary schools accept children for kindergarten from a wide range of preschools.


Applying For Kindergarten

The private elementary school application process begins in September, the year before your child will enter kindergarten.


Here’s how it works for most private schools:

• Tour schools at least one year before child will enter kindergarten in September.

• Submit written applications to schools.

• Prepare for parent interviews (schools interview parents about your family and your child).

• Student testing—or visiting day. (For some Pasadena schools, kindergarten applicants take the Integrated Learning Solutions administered test).

• Admissions letters are mailed in March for most schools.


Tour Early

If you’re thinking about applying for kindergarten, you may want to begin touring schools two years before you apply. This will give you an opportunity to find schools you really like and eliminate those you don’t think are right for your child. And, some schools offer tours up until May and start again in August. You can also call and ask for an individual tour for your family.


This is a big time saver. And, the year you’re applying to schools you will be able to visit your favorite schools a second time to learn more about the school. You should tour at least eight schools to get a feel for the various types of schools. It’s impossible to learn about the school based on another parent’s feedback. You really have to see each school yourself!


What do Private Elementary Schools Really Look for?

This is the million dollar question. The reason the top private elementary schools in L.A. and Pasadena are difficult to get into is that there are far more applicants than openings. So, schools can be extremely selective in which families they accept. Most schools are looking for a good fit between the child and the school. They want kids they can teach and kids who will excel at their school—from kindergarten through graduation.


They also want parents who understand and embrace their educational philosophy. Families that will be involved in the school, volunteering time and contributing financially, are also an important consideration in admissions decisions.


Schools also need to have an equal number of boys and girls per class. After all, you wouldn’t want your daughter in a class of 18 boys and 2 girls, for example. And, they look for ethnic and socioeconomic diversity whenever possible.


A few of the intangible factors involved in admissions decisions are:

• A child may just meet the cutoff date for age requirements and could benefit from an extra year at preschool. In other words, the child is too young for kindergarten in the school’s opinion.

• Your child is a legacy—that is, you or your spouse attended the school. This can be a big advantage.

• A family’s connections or contacts at the school. Connections and letters of recommendations from parents at the school or board members don’t guarantee admission, but can certainly help.

• Being a member of the school’s church or temple can give a family priority in admissions.

• Support from your preschool director on your child’s behalf in the form of a call to the admissions director is advantageous.


The Cost of Private Elementary School

Private elementary schools require you to open your wallet. The top schools range from $17,00 to $24,000 per year. However, there are schools that cost less per year and a few that cost more annually. You should also know that tuition generally rises between 4-8 percent per year.


Private schools also expect every family to participate in their annual giving campaign. The amount is up to each family and typically ranges from a few hundred dollars per year to tens of thousands. Tuition alone does not cover the cost of running these schools, so auctions, fairs and other events are held to cover the gap between the tuition paid by each family and the school’s budget needs. Additional expenses to consider include enrichment classes, hot lunch, field trips and sports programs.


Financial Aid

Financial assistance is available for families that qualify. The financial aid application is a separate application process from the school’s admissions process. Typically, schools award financial aid to cover part—but not all—of the tuition. And, most schools assume families will need financial aid for the entire time their child is at the school.


However, you will be required to apply for aid every year. At most schools, admissions decisions are separate from financial aid decisions. But, at a few schools, a family’s financial needs may be considered as part of the admissions decisions.


Schools do not want to admit families that have no means to pay tuition. Last year was a very difficult year for new families requesting financial aid because of the fragile economy. This year, the situation has been very similar as existing families that have requested aid for the first time are granted the assistance so that they can remain at the school. Some schools are raising additional funds to offer financial aid to new families.


Go Ahead, Apply!

Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley have wonderful private elementary schools geographically accessible to you. If you’re thinking about applying to private schools, go for it! Yes, it’s competitive, but your child has just as good a chance as the next child to be accepted. The process is difficult.


My co-authors and I like to say that private elementary school admissions is like a game that anyone can play as long as you as you understand its rules. So, try to ignore the hype and focus on getting through the process. In the end, once your child is accepted at a great school, all the ups and downs of the admissions frenzy will be forgotten.


A version of this post was previously published in the Eagle Rock Patch