Is it a Progressive or Traditional School? Maybe it’s Developmental?

One of the first things to do when you’re applying to L.A. private schools is to determine what type of school will be best for your child. But, when you tour so many schools it may be hard to tell from just a tour and an open house. Many schools in L.A. are a hybrid or mix of philosophies. But, there are certain characteristics that stand out and will help you recognize the type of school you’re considering. Generally, L.A. private schools fall into three categories: Traditional, Progressive and Developmental. Religious schools can be any of those school types, although most are traditional.

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know we’ve written about this issue previously because it’s so important to find the right kind of school for your kid. If you ask a school about their educational philosophy, they should be able to explain it clearly! The other day, I had lunch with a mom of four kids who told me she’d toured almost every private school in the city because her kids are very different from each other. My kids attended Willows, a progressive school, but moved to Viewpoint, a traditional school for 7-12th grades. One philosophy isn’t better than the other–just different. Kids from all types of school go on to great colleges. You’ll note that a few schools I listed are in overlapping categories because I consider them to be a mix of educational philosophies. And, my list is merely my own observation of various schools–discussions about this topic can be subjective. For example, some people might consider Brentwood Lower School to be purely traditional. But, when I went on the tour, they described the school curriculum as developmental. In my opinion, Brentwood has both traditional and developmental qualities. Also, traditional schools aren’t all “stale” or “dull” and progressive schools aren’t “cutting edge” or “hip”…you get the point! Maybe a school wants to emphasize its progressive qualities, but really it has a lot of traditional elements. Sometimes, when a school hires a new head of school, it can be a bring a change in educational philosophy. In the end, its about finding a school where your kid will thrive and where you, as a parent, will understand and embrace the way the school teaches, assigns homework, creates community among parents, disciplines, coaches and more. –Christina

Examples of Traditional Schools: Viewpoint, Harvard-Westlake, Polytechnic, Brentwood Upper School, Laurel Hall, Campbell Hall, St. Matthew’s, Wesley, Curtis, Carlthorp, John Thomas Dye.

Hallmarks of traditional schools:

  • Much like public schools many of us attended when we were kids
  • Teacher centered-not kid centered
  • Kids expected to meet academic milestones by certain time (reading by mid-year kindergarten, etc. )
  • Homework in elementary schools, multiple choice tests, quizzes, pop quizzes
  • Very few group projects
  • Teacher directed work, not kid directed
  • Classroom setup has teacher at front, desks facing front of room
  • Grades start in early elementary schools
  • Lots of memorization
  • Competitive sports teams, tryouts, not everyone places, A, B, C teams
  • AP and honors classes offered in high school

Developmental: Brentwood Lower School, Campbell Hall Lower School, Laurence School, Echo Horizon, Temple Israel of Hollywood and Westridge.

  • Kids learn at their own pace, eventually all arriving at the same place (reading). That is celebrated, not penalized
  • Kids can help each other learn, not just teacher directed learning
  • Teaching big concepts, not a ton of detail/memorization
  • Integrated curriculum…where what’s happening in science relates to language arts, which also relates to art class

Progressive: Oakwood, Children’s Community School, Westland, PS#1, Crossroads and Sequoyah.

  • Child-centered learning, kid-initiated projects, learn through playing
  • Concepts like sharing, creating, caring are emphasized in the curriculum
  • Engaging kids in learning about world around them…kids are part of a global community
  • Rejection of memorizing big amounts of information
  • A whole child approach-social, emotional and academic
  • Lots of group projects, discussion and debate among kids
  • Classroom may be set up with kids at big tables facing each and the teacher may not be in front of the class
  • Very little homework in elementary school
  • No grades until late elementary or even middle school
  • Lots of expository writing
  • High school may not offer AP Classes (AP equivalent offered at Crossroads)
  • Integrated curriculum where what’s happening in science relates to language arts which also relates to art class

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Differences Between Progressive and Traditional Schools (Part 5)

Traditional School

Traditional Schools: Barbie is just a toy, not a political statement or a cause of bad body image among young girls
Traditional Schools: Barbie is just a toy, not a political statement or a cause of bad body image among young girls. 

Progressive School

Progressive Schools: Toys are eco-friendly and their origin is important.

Progressive Schools: Toys are eco-friendly and their origin is important.

Traditional School

Traditional Schools: What's wrong with a good, old-fashioned hamburger?
Traditional Schools: What’s wrong with a good, old-fashioned hamburger?

Progressive School 

Progressive Schools: Vegan options are offered for hot lunch at some private progressive schools
Progressive Schools: Vegan options are offered for hot lunch at some progressive private schools.

 Traditional School

Traditional Schools: Uniforms reflect the school's culture
Traditional Schools: Uniforms reflect the school’s culture and help guard against over-the-top outfits.

Progressive School

Progressive Schools: Hipster kids dress the part (Singer Gwen Stephani's kids)
Progressive Schools: Hipster kids dress the part (Singer Gwen Stephani’s kids)

 Traditional School

Traditional Schools: Structure is necessary for learning.

Progressive School

Progressive Schools: Kids learn through play
Progressive Schools: Kids learn through play using found objects.


Revisiting Our Oakwood School Kindergarten Visiting Day

Oakwood School
Oakwood School

I’ve written about my daughter’s kindergarten visiting day at Oakwood School previously. Here’s my recollection about that morning again. Did I make the right school choice? I’ll never know, but I’m looking forward now that our family is THRILLED to be at Viewpoint School. We truly fit in there in a way we never did at The Willows. But, if we hadn’t gone to The Willows, would we be at Viewpoint now? 


It was early and I was nervous. With my daughter in the car, we drove to the 8 a.m. “visiting day,” one of the requirements of the private school kindergarten admissions process. The school was more than 30 minutes from our house, traffic was bad and I mistakenly went to the high school rather than the elementary school. Frazzled and arriving with a minute to spare, I arrived at the correct location, a progressive school on a rustic campus.


After a brief time in the school library with our kids, parents were asked to go into a conference room for a meet and greet with the head of school. At the same time, our kids were taken into classrooms with teachers for various for visiting day.


This was the aspect of the admissions process that filled me with anxiety, since a lot depends on how your 4-5 year-old is feeling the day of the visit and how he/she acts when you arrive at the school.  As soon as we got there, my usually shy daughter turned on her biggest, most charming personality (one I had only seen at home). Feeling very comfortable in the library, she pulled some books off the shelf and began reading in a loud voice. The admissions director turned to look at her, clearly impressed. Now that she had an audience (the best possible audience, I might add), my daughter continued reading other parents and kids turned to watch.


Relieved, I went with other parents into the conference room for what turned out to be a chance to ask questions of the head of school. This, you should note, is a time to ask smart, well-formulated questions that demonstrate your knowledge of the school. It’s also a good time to find something nice to say about the place you want to accept your kid. The room was filled with parents who already had older kids at the school, so they were confident about the process and even joked about their chances of getting in. The competition for spots at this popular school was no joke.


After about an hour, my daughter emerged from the classroom bursting with enthusiasm. We thanked the staff and left.


I didn’t have to ask my kid if it has gone well. I knew. She’d nailed it. The look on her face told me everything. In March, we received our acceptance letter from the school.


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