Considerations for parents and pupils
Let’s say a parent is seriously considering enrolling their child, or children, in a private school in the East Bay for a vast number of reasons.
The initial decision might have been easy—said parent has a high, cushy income, knows firsthand about a terrific school and deeply distrusts public education or at least has dealt with any moral hang-ups or doubts held about not supporting local public schools by placing their child in their system.
Or, for some parents or caretakers the choice of private education over public education is simply familiar—they and everyone in their family dating back to cave-dwelling times attended private schools—or they hold belief in a religion or have a desire for language or a specific cultural immersion that dictates private is the only way to go.
Perhaps a private school is a practical decision because a child has special needs or sensitivities that can only be served in what are generally smaller class sizes or schools with special services public schools cannot offer at the level required. And finally, there are those people for whom the decision is made with great difficulty and comes fraught with the awareness there will be ongoing issues.
Grappling with the astonishing cost of private education is often the primary obstacle to overcome, but others include transportation, extra add-on fees most private schools either charge or expect and the constant stress of “keeping up” with more affluent families at PTA and fundraising events or birthday parties where pricey gifting reflects status. The elitism projected to neighboring families whose kids attend public schools might be a concern, and possibly there is awareness of the racism or classism one’s child might experience if they receive financial aid. Kids attending private schools say that despite efforts made by school officials and teachers to homogenize and harmonize the student body, everyone knows who the “free lunch” students are and how those kids sometimes feel “othered” and isolated.
Even after the decision has been made, the choice of which private school best suits one’s child and family presents a final, complicated hurdle. Based on information from two East Bay public school teachers, several families whose kids attend or attended private schools in the area and a smattering of academic advisors and colleagues related to the field of pre-K to 12th-grade education, we put together a by-no-means exhaustive list of options to get started. In-person or online tours, or visits to a few schools that strike one as a good fit for their child, are a great way to get rolling. Know in advance and get a jump start in January and February: the time investment required to thoroughly vet options, consider initial preferences in light of actual visits, and then select and pursue enrollment is considerable.
While reiterating that East Bay Magazine and this writer do not endorse these eight East Bay private schools above others not on the list, we present four private schools located east of the Caldecott Tunnel and four found west of the tunnel as options with which a parent or caretaker might launch an initial search.
Head-Royce School, Oakland
This school, recommended by several of our advisors, is a nationally recognized K-12 independent school situated in the Oakland Hills. Founded by Anna Head over 130 years ago, the independent, co-educational school boasts on its website “innovation” centers, internships, integrated technology, life-skills classes, service learning, cross-divisional buddies, small advising groups, educational excellence, social-emotional learning and dedication to “creating lifelong learners who will be prepared to lead with joy and compassion.” Current enrollment is close to 875 students, with admissions open to all students regardless of race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, nationality or ethnic origin. Tuition in the 2021–2022 academic year: Grades K–5, $34,100; Grades 6–8, $38,300; Grades 9–12, $48,700.
The College Preparatory School, Oakland
Another school known for strong academics is found tucked into the hills in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood. College Prep is a co-educational high school for grades 9–12 founded in 1960 by Mary Harley Jenks and Ruth Willis. It has 373 students, 65% of whom self-identify as students of color. The average academic class has 14 students, who arrive from all over the Bay Area. The school is within walking distance of the Rockridge BART Station. College matriculation is high, which means the typical student’s academic standards are ambitious and test scores are high; but of equal importance is learning aimed at independence, and making a positive difference in the school and local community. Students are encouraged and supported in finding and practicing, through service and learning opportunities, engagement with the broader world. Tuition in the 2021–2022 academic year: $49,990.
Park Day School, Oakland
Located in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood, Park Day’s K-8th grade program emphasizes an experiential educational program with teachers who demonstrably excel at presenting hands-on, “real-world,” individual-recognizing approaches to learning. After opening in 1976 with only 28 students and four teachers, the community now consists of approximately 315 students led by 70 teachers and staff members. Called by some of our panel “progressive,” the school’s standout features are a commitment to intrinsic learning, social-justice activities, science and explorations of indigenous Ohlone history. Tuition in the 2021–2022 academic year: Indexed Tuition ranges from $1,600 to $33,400.
Saint Joseph Notre Dame High School, Alameda
The tree-lined, multi-building campus of this Catholic parish high school that launched in 1881 exudes obvious history. In addition to a “dynamic and rigorous college preparatory education,” the school offers a variety of sports teams, campus ministries, retreat programs, clubs, and arts performances and programs. The school became co-educational in 1983 and today its student body consists of approximately 470 students in grades 9–12. Roughly 50% live in Alameda and 25% live in Oakland, with 25% arriving from other East Bay communities. Recommended most highly are the teachers, who come with the usual high credentials but also with broad experience teaching a wide range of students. Tuition in the 2021–2022 academic year: $19,660.
Note that this and some other schools ask parents to make designated annual tax-deductible pledges—which are applied within the school’s programs—in addition to tuition. Families who receive financial aid are typically not asked to pledge or are asked to give in whatever amounts they can afford.
Contra Costa Jewish Day School, Lafayette
Contra Costa Jewish Day School educates children K-8th grade backed by a mission to seek connections between the school, the Jewish community, the Greater Bay Area community and Israel. A Jewish commitment to Tikkun Olam (Repairing Our World) is the prevailing basis for a curriculum that includes mathematics, language arts, world language, science, social studies, computer science, visual and performing arts, physical education, and the teaching of Torah and traditional Jewish texts and history. Students gain knowledge of the Hebrew language, Jewish practices and tefillot (prayers), and the Jewish community’s connection to Israel. Teachers and administrators notably demonstrate a breadth of capabilities, with some having come to the school in the early 2000s and a contingent of new faculty and staff joining within the past two to three years. Tuition in the 2021–2022 academic year: Grades K-5, $20,750; Grades 6-8, $24,000; Sibling discounts for full-paying families: $1,500 for the 2nd child, $2,250 for the 3rd child.
Bentley School, Lafayette
Bentley, founded in 1920, has two campuses—grades K-8 on the Hiller campus in Oakland, grades 9-12 on a 12-acre campus seven miles north of downtown Lafayette. In total there are 700 students, an average class size of 16, a seven-to-one student-faculty ratio and 28% of the students have received tuition assistance from the nearly $4.6 million in financial aid awards granted. Surprisingly, 65% of the students live west of the Caldecott Tunnel. Bentley is geared for a “whole learning, real world” progressive education with special features such as early exposure to languages other than English (Mandarin, French and Spanish), a mini-term week of experiential learning in which students leave the traditional classrooms for travel courses domestic or abroad or to local Bay Area landmarks, and special classes in alternative studies in photography, cooking, film-making and more. The middle- and upper-school curriculums are especially strong with regards to STEM, architectural design and engineering. Tuition in the 2021–2022 academic year: Grades K-5, $33,645; Grades 6-8, $36,755; Grades 9-12, $48,510
The Athenian School, Danville
Athenian doesn’t beat around the bush and states explicitly that its challenging academic program “prepares students for the rigorous expectations of college and for a life of purpose and personal fulfillment.” Reciprocity rings in every aspect of the school’s mission: respectful exchanges between students in student governance and sensitive encounters in student-teacher interactions and other interactions on the 75-acre campus located at the base of Mt. Diablo in Danville, 32 miles east of San Francisco. Approximately 535 students attend Athenian’s middle and upper schools. Unique among other schools on this list, Athenian offers housing. Of the upper schoolers, 60 are boarders. In addition to this being an important option for Bay Area families who might find the commute from Berkeley or Oakland challenging, boarding results in a significant number of international students attending Bentley. In the last five years, more than 10% of the student body has attended from 20 countries outside of the United States. The rigorous curriculum is supplemented with programs that include opportunities to participate in the Carter Innovation Studio—engineering and design classes, robotics, programming, airplane construction and more—and an 11th-grade requirement, The Athenian Wilderness Experience, aimed at building teamwork and self-confidence. Tuition in the 2021–2022 academic year: Middle School, $38,200; Upper School Day Tuition—$49,000 Grades 9-10 and $47,700 Grades 11-12. Boarding: Domestic, $75,100; International, $76,800.
St. Francis of Assisi School, Concord
St. Francis is a Catholic educational community whose educators believe parents and caretakers are the first and primary teachers of their children. This means there is strong emphasis on families as active participants in developing students’ life-skills capabilities and learning expectations involving understanding social and racial justice, critical thinking about not just academic curricula but also about freedom, responsibility, respect, peace, the sacredness of God and of living as His creation in a worldwide neighborhood. St. Francis has robust sports and music programs, and a Pacific Chess Academy that encourages each student to learn and master the game at an individual pace.
Tuition in 2021–2022 academic year: 1-4 Catholic children, $8.200–$19,620; 1-4 Non-Catholic children $9,320–$22.330.