Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Marin Country Day School

Reviewed by Kate

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:
a teaching philosophy blending progressive and traditional practices; generous financial aid for families who can't afford full tuition; diversity (27 percent of the students are children of color; variety of family structures; curriculum draws from many cultures); a campus surrounded by nature; an emphasis on the environment; small class sizes; outstanding technology; a lovely art studio; community service (children help at homeless shelters and nursing homes); teachers' assistants in classrooms; parent involvement; light homework in kindergarten and first grade.

The Facts
Web site: www.mcds.org
School tours: by appointment only
Location: 5221 Paradise Dr., Corte Madera
Grades: K–8
Start time: 8:20 a.m.
Kindergarten size: 54 students (three classes of 18)
Average class size for all grade levels: 18 students
Overall student-teacher ratio: 9:1
Total student body: 540 students
Tuition: $500–$24,095
Playground: It's an outdoor paradise set on 35 acres. Several playgrounds with beautiful equipment. Lots of trees. Organic gardens.
Before- and after-school program: P.M. Program for K–5; runs until 6:15; $10 an hour/indexed fee; sports, music, art cooking, hiking, and special events such as the Gobble Games in November and Root Beer Float Day in the spring.
Language: Spanish, twice a week starting in the third grade; goes up to six times a week in sixth grade.
Highlights: marine science pier on San Francisco Bay, hot lunch and organic salad bar (included in tuition); buddy system so kindergarteners are paired with older students; kindergarteners enjoy energy time (blend of Aikido, music, and stories) three times a week, art studio twice a week, library time once a week, P.E. in the gym three times a week, and music twice a week.

Kate's impressions
I toured Marin Country Day School (MCDS) last year and one of the highlights occurred in an eighth grade drama class. A student was explaining a play she wrote and the teacher challenged her with tough questions.

"What's the deeper meaning of the plot?"

"How do you want the audience to react to your main character?"

"How can you incorporate more suspense?"

The student threw back intelligent answers in defense. She was well-spoken, confident, and poised. She was in a deep discussion with an adult. I remember the parent guide nudging me to move along with the tour, but I didn't want to leave that room. I was mesmerized by the conversation. Here was a young girl who was ready to go out in the world and talk eloquently about her ideas. I was impressed!

I visited MCDS last year because a friend, who was a principal at an independent school on the peninsula, said, "You've got to go check out MCDS. What they're doing over there is special and different from everyone else." I specifically remember him telling me to closely observe the kids in middle school. He said, "These teenagers aren't jaded. They still enjoy learning. They're confident, and they're ready to head out into the world." I was intrigued—and that's how I found myself on a tour of MCDS two years before my daughter would even start kindergarten.

The drama class was one highlight. But there was another. It occurred in a kindergarten class. The teacher Doug was strumming his guitar and a group of children sat around him singing a song about an alligator. Their voices were sweet and beautiful and their eyes twinkled and smiled. I envisioned Alice sitting among the kids and tears started to trickle down my face. This was the first kindergarten I observed and I was moved by the thought of my daughter adventuring off to school. The classroom felt safe and cheerful and I was comfortable with the idea of Alice being there.

So, that was last year. I obviously fell in love with the school. And now I'll jump forward a year later. I toured MCDS again last week, and this time my husband tagged along.

Well, I loved it again. And my husband, Ryan? He was ready to move in. He liked the campus. Ryan is a scientist who restores salmon habitat on rivers and if it weren't for me, he'd be living out in the woods. He's passionate about trees and rocks and rivers. MCDS sits on 35 acres in Corte Madera, sandwiched between San Francisco Bay and a nature preserve of rolling grassy hills dotted with oaks. Clusters of single-story brown-shingle buildings stretch across the campus filled with trees and patches of grass. There's even a stream that runs through it. In the winter, the kids slip on galoshes and tromp around in the flow. One year, the kids observed a salmon trying to swim up the creek, our guide told us.

I'm fond of the idea of my children living in San Francisco's urban environment and going to school in the country. To many this seems insane, but to me it's seems like a great opportunity.

Fifty percent of the MCDS kindergarteners come from San Francisco; school buses cart them between the city and the country. There's actually a bus pickup close to my house. It would take about 50 minutes for Alice to get to school. Sound crazy? Parents at the school say the children love the bus. There's a buddy system so older kids pair up with the young ones. Together, they read stories, sing songs, do homework. "There's a bus culture," the parent guide said.

Our tour started with an introduction from the head of school, Lucinda Lee Katz, a bright, inspired lady who was formerly the head of University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. She talked about the school's mission: inspiring, nurturing, and challenging children. And she touched on the school's emphasis on environment and teaching children to live lightly. I especially connected with Katz's explanation of the curriculum, which draws from the best of progressive and traditional teaching practices. In this school search, I've found that I'm torn between progressive and traditional. I worry that my daughter won't learn enough with a purely progressive approach or that she won't enjoy learning with a strictly traditional one. I felt as if Katz was speaking directly to my concerns and presenting a solution.

We broke into groups led by parent guides. We started with the middle (3–5) and upper schools (6-8). We walked into a full-size gymnasium where kids play volleyball and basketball, and into a computer lab outfitted with shiny Macs. And we stepped into an advanced math class where the professorial teacher posed the question, "All integers are negative, true or false?" The classroom wall was plastered with plaques won in math competitions. The upper school extends to the foot of a grassy mountain, where kids hike around with their science teachers and collect plants and bugs.

We continued on to the lower school. In a lovely art studio with big picture windows, third graders sculpted clay and painted with watercolors. I was touched by a little girl's picture of the Golden Gate Bridge, which she possibly crosses over every day. We observed a music class where the teacher Maggie pounded rhythmically on a bongo drum and called out yoga poses: "Downward facing dog!" "Warrior 1!" Warrior 2!" She then hopped over to a grand piano, moving her hands across the keys as the kids sang, "One potato," "Two potato," Three potato," "Four!" Our guide told us that the children learn about music from all over the world, Japan, Middle East, Africa.

Off we went into the kindergarten classrooms. We observed all three. Each had a teacher and a support teacher. The curriculum in kindergarten is based on the theme "Growing our garden and growing ourselves." Outside the classrooms, apples and oranges piled up in big boxes so the kids always have a snack on hand. Inside, jars filled with flowers from the Lower School's organic garden brightened up the kids' tables. Seedlings were growing in pots; bulbs and cuttings in cups of water. In one room, kids were counting the lines circling pumpkins. Another class was outside sticking their hands in dirt and harvesting potatoes. I saw a child carting his classroom's compost to the pile in a little tractor powered by pedaling.

While the school helps kids develop a deep connection with the natural world, they also have a fantastic computer program. Students work on Macs in kindergarten through fifth and then switch to PCs in sixth, so they graduate knowing how to use both operating systems. Some classrooms are equipped with Smart Boards; kids can write on the large screens with digital ink. They're incredibly cool!

Our tour ended with a Q&A session with directors of admission. Parents asked about diversity, the screening, financial aid, and the difference between coed and single sex schools. But all I wanted to know is, How do you get in?


  1. Nice review. I guess you like it!

    Two questions (I couldn't get through to the school to ask):

    1. What time is the time that the bus RETURNS the kids to Glen Park? Is there a late time for working parents?

    2. If school starts at 8.20, what time does the Glen Park bus pick up?

    Thanks for the interesting piece. I hope you do get it.

  2. get IN that is :)

  3. Hi there,

    I just spoke to the MCDS receptionist, who gave me the following info:

    1. If your child is getting on the regular 3:00 bus, it arrives at 24th and Diamond (Noe Valley) at 3:50. There are bus stops in multiple SF locations if you're taking a "regular" bus.

    If you want your kindergartner to arrive home earlier or later than that, there is a K-only bus that arrives at 14th Ave & Lake at 2:20 or the "late bus" that arrives with all ages of kids at 14th & Lake at 5:25

    2. School does begin at 8:20am and the 24th & Diamond pickup is at 7:30. Again, the morning buses have pickup spots all over the city.

    Hope this helps,

  4. Barbara,

    Thank you!

    One other question: is there any bus that returns at a time later than 5.25 PM? What do people who work full time do? Hire a nanny to do pickup? Is there some alternate?

    Right now, we do aftercare at preschool until 6 PM. We would need some option until 6 PM for next year as well. I don't think we could afford to hire someone to help with pickup.

    I couldn't be alone in this regard because I know that many private and public schools, if not most, offer some sort of aftercare until 6 PM.


  5. A friend of mine (very liberal, PhD in education) has taught at Marin Country Day, Alvarado, an elementary school in Mill Valley (can't remember which one), and now teaches at an elementary school in Saratoga. She has good things to say about each of these schools but said the dream school for her to send her children to would be Marin Country Day.

    I toured a lot of public and private schools in 2004/5. It's hard to switch between the swanky private tours and the uneven and crowded parent-volunteer-led public school tours. (I spent 3 pampered hours at Cathedral School for Boys one day and found myself huddled in the rain with 40 other parents straining to hear a soft-spoken guide and peeking through classroom windows at a public school the next day). In the end, my son was flat-out rejected (not waitlisted) from the two privates we applied to and we went to public school via the waitlist after getting 0 for 7 in round 1. In spite of the fact that we were completely rejected, couldn't afford them, and can't say enough good things about the public school we're in, I'm still glad I spent the time to tour them. The independent school tours are long, thorough, and very educational. The schools are all quite different - some I absolutely loved and some I hated (at least for my children) - and I wouldn't rule them out for middle school. (I must admit that I do fantasize about my children developing into kindly and brilliant scholars, blowing through Lowell, and elbowing out the applicants from the aforementioned private schools for that coveted ivy league seat -on full academic scholarship, naturally).

    Good luck with your search, there are a lot of good options out there!

  6. To anonymous asking about MCD buses to SF that are later than 5:25, that *is* the late bus. and if you are a two-income family that that is already too stretched to afford a daily sitter to meet that bus, then you probably also cannot afford MCD, since your incomes will likely disqualify you from the lower end of their indexed tuition. It may be a wonderful school, but it's not really meant for regular middle class folks who have to work and whose income basically pays the bills as it is.

  7. That is what I feared. I guess that the kids can stay at school until 6.15, but I can't see myself leaving work every day at 5.15/5.30 to get to Marin by 6.15, then picking up our other child at preschool, then across town to home. We would arrive home no earlier than 7 PM every night... and then our kindergartener would leave on the bus at 7.30 the next morning.

    Maybe as kids get older, they get carpools. Although my fear is being the working parent who can't ever really make the big commitment. Also, one of my hopes for my children is that they have friends who attend school with them AND live near them. It's the advantage of neighborhood publics, of course. And I have heard that some private schools tend to have communities that live near them - e.g. Synergy, Live Oak, Adda Clevenger and lots of the religious schools.

    MCDS does sound amazing. What an exceptional opportunity. In another life, maybe.

  8. When I was a bookish kid going to truly awful inner city schools back East (SF is truly higher quality; I was basically self-taught through reading in elementary, whereas my kid is really being taught from a curriculum), I won a middle school scholarship to the fancy private school across town, the one with acres of grass. I learned a lot academically and also learned some new sports (field hockey and tennis). But most of what I learned was a kind of social grooming. I learned that there is a set of folks who really think they hit a triple when really they were born on third base. I learned how to interact with that class of folks.

    I don't regret that interlude now, as I learned a lot and my elemtary education had been deficient, but I felt like a fish out of water and eventually found a decent public high school to attend after eighth grade. I remember the headmaster warning my parents that I would be less challenged academically and overwhelmed socially and that I would be back in private within a year. Eventually (yes, I lived the fantasy of poster #5), I got myself into a well-known Ivy on almost full scholarship, while several former private school classmates did not even get in, even with "legacy" applications (this is also know as affirmative action for rich people!).

    Had social issues at my Ivy university too: fully 2/3 of the student body came from private at that time, and I and sometimes wished I had gone to a good public university with more diversity and folks like me (will certainly encourage my kids to check out Cal, UCLA, etc. when the time comes). Fortunately, the pool of fellow students and faculty was so much wider at that level that I found my niche.

    I still think that part of what you are paying for at any level of private is social grooming and, ultimately, access to social networks. It is an education in being upper class, and learning about the entitlements and responsibilities (including service to the less fortunate, which of course does not mean us) of that position.

    YMMV of course.

  9. I'm afraid that 5:25 is the latest pickup...my hunch is that MCDS families who work later than this probably arrange for after-school playdates or activities with other families. (Don't forget that elementary-aged playdates don't typically include both parents!)

    "Coverage" is definitely the trickiest part of being 2 working parents in our household as well. Despite the fact that our preschool is open from 7:30 to 6pm, my kids are completely wiped out when I pick them up after a 9-hour day at school. I've had to figure out ways to sneak out of work early, arrange for playdates and wrangle my own mom into early pickups wherever possible, but it's just a really tough thing for those of us parents who work fulltime!

    Good luck to you,

  10. Thanks, Barbara. Though it would be pretty amazing to find a family that was willing to provide a mostly non-reciprocated playdate at the wonderful hour of 5:30pm, every day. Sounds a bit unsustainable or unstable for anyone who does not have a job with flexibility.

  11. I have found generally that these well-endowed private schools put on extremely impressive dog-and-pony shows. While visiting Hamlin I nearly exploded - it was all so amazing and the children were so incredibly impressive. The views from each and every floor merely added to the storybook appeal.

    I am sure that the experience at Hamlin, as well as at MCDS and the other top private schools, is tremendous, but I worry about what I am depriving them of by spending so much money on K-8. I hate the thought of not being able to go on vacations, or driving safe cars, or even having to freak out about losing my job's (or my spouse doing so as well).

    I guess there is a segment of people who can afford these things without feeling it. But for the rest of us ... when we put money into these fabulous schools, what are we taking money out of? I want what is best for my children ... but at what price?

    Just a thought.

  12. Like everyone else, I read a review like this and feel wistful for a couple minutes.

    Then reality descends. And it's not all bad.

    I have noticed that fancy privates always trot out lots of fancy scholarship/sliding scale fees info, but when the time comes, who *really* qualifies for significant monies? Let's put it this way: I have never known a true middle-class family who financed private school without significant hardship. Because the privates have no vested interest in subsidizing the educations of white, middle-class people. Unless there is something I'm unaware of...?

    Like the poster above who attended a snooty private middle school on scholarship acknowledged, I believe that attending private school is also an education in elite values and elite thinking. Do I want my kid marinated in elite thinking? Maybe not. For that matter, do I think it is a life asset? Debatable. If you're seeking happiness and intactness for your kids as opposed to just traditional notions of success, it gets a lot more complicated, and these places cannot really promise to offer more in the area of future contentedness than any other life experience....

    For me, this dilemma really begs the question: what do our children really need? As in, REALLY. Organic toilet paper and bluebirds tweeting Vivaldi may make for a lovely experience, but they do not strong people make.

    My husband attended the international school in Paris on scholarship. He was the only kid there who did not actually live in Paris (a bad thing). He was the "poor" kid. His view? His academic education was stellar. The rest of it was a waste. The people were snobbish and abusive. Their values sucked. He still has a few acquaintances from that time, but mostly he has memories of putting up with his fellow classmates' sense of entitlement. I get the sense he feels he is a well-adjusted, happy person today in spite of, not because of, having gone to an elite private school.

    When in doubt, I remind myself that my own parents didn't lose sleep over Giving Kids Everything. And we all turned out fine. It's a relatively new concept, after all.

  13. My husband and I were at a party in NYC a couple years ago, and were seated with a woman who actually admitted that she sold her NY condo to pay for private school for her children. I remember thinking, "How could a person EVER choose private school over owning a home!!" I bet it happens here too.

  14. It's ironic for me to defend private schools, because I strongly disapprove of them due to the fact that they work so vigorously to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. (See the article in last month's San Francisco magazine.)

    But regarding giving scholarships to the middle class -- friends tell me that at least some private schools actually do that. Otherwise they've found that their student populations are uncomfortable mixtures of the very wealthy and the truly poor. I don't know how common this is, but I know a family with an income in at least the $100,000 realm (I know that's hardly rich in S.F.) who have substantial scholarships to Lick-Wilmerding (private high school) for two kids. They tell me that's common at Lick-W. However, that just means it's a huge hardship for them rather than totally impossible.

    Aside from pointing that out, I agree with Kim Green.

    Also, I've heard that when you talk to private schools about money, they treat it as a given that you'll take out a second mortgage to pay the tuition. Eeek!

  15. Well, maybe we'll apply to Lick when the time comes, Caroline. ;- ) One thing to also remember is that you are potentially making this commitment for *all* your kids -- double the fiscal fun. And you're committing to basically doing your taxes twice every year to apply for "aid" you may not get (that's how much work these financial aid applications are -- we did one for Children's Day School and it just about killed us). I can think of better ways to spend our family time -- like playing soccer or going to the dentist.

    I think giving your kids as financially stable and debt-free an environment as you can is as important as where they learn all day. Less stressed parents. Simpler lifestyle. Fewer commitments. Did I mention simplicity? Also: things like commuting to school. Sure, people say the MCDS school bus is "fun" -- having crossed the GG Bridge during rush hour to work in Marin for several years I am a bit of a doubter on this point -- but additional time spent together as a family is priceless. There is no substitute for minutes you give your kids.

    I don't care what anybody says: The primary reason that motivates most people to send their kids to elite schools is who they (the kids) will meet there. The status. The privilege. The contacts. The imprimatur. And, yes, the values and cultural mores they'll absorb. If you don't value these things, then entering financial ruin to finance an education there just doesn't make sense.

    I just realized that not posting anonymously is freaking me out a little. Oh, whatevs...fight the power, man!

  16. Kim, you are courageous and eloquent. And because you are posting here with your real name, I clicked onto your website and will be an avid follower of your writings and books!!

  17. Cool - then I will have sold one more book than my mother bought ;- ) .

  18. I have to disagree with the comment that the only reason people apply to private schools is for the prestige. Applying to school in San Francisco-public or private-is a difficult and harrowing process. It is one reason so many families are leaving this city.

    Some of these private schools do a good job at educating bright kids. That's a lot more than I can say about the public schools I attended. (Yes there are good publics too.)

    I don't know if anyone's read the book "Picky Parent," which is all about school choice (public, private, charter or whatever). I highly recommend it.

  19. I don't think the only reason people apply to private is prestige either. The reasons may be multivalent. But what I think is interesting about the discussion on this list is how it is offering challenging questions about that choice. I see attempts to bust the myths held by what I think one poster termed "us scared middle class rabbits" about public schools in San Francisco today (which seem to be way better than the urban public schools I attended in the 1970's, so I'm not sure that past experience is a valid reason not to look now). Also in terms of raising broader ethical questions about the community impact of going private. Plus wondering about the values we are teaching our children with our choices.

    These are good questions: why pay $20,000 per child for 13 years for private? Why not support the larger community by going public? Is it the prestige? The idea of surrounding our children with the higher test scores of the more affluent? Or is it the flip side of avoiding the less prestigious and the lower test scores of the poor? Is is the greater resources of private? There has to be a good reason to want to pony up the price of a good-sized condo for what could be had for free. It would seem imporant that one's reasons not go unexamined either.

    I for one hope that some who have heard (or even experienced in a past generation) horror stories about public schools will at least reconsider public school as an option due to some of the commentary from public school parents on this blog, not to mention Kate's interesting reviews of some gems.

  20. Interesting comment from a previous poster (awkwardly excerpted by me):

    public schools in San Francisco today (which seem to be way better than the urban public schools I attended in the 1970's, so I'm not sure that past experience is a valid reason not to look now).

    ... it seems that way to me too. I actually think that today's middle-class parents are a lot more tuned-in and demand more from our kids' schools than our parents did.
    I attended the bounteously funded public schools of Marin County throughout the '60s. They had lots of stuff that seems like a luxury now, like a full-time school nurse with a real office with beds, and a chorus teacher AND an instrumental music teacher in elementary schools.

    But the enrichment programs that my kids got at Lakeshore in SFUSD (a rotating program of subjects chosen by each teacher from a menu) -- we had nothing like that. Gardening, architecture, African dance? And the totally cool "motor perception" (motor skills, kind of P.E./tumbling)? Unheard of in my childhood.

    That's an example of something driven by the more tuned-in parents of recent years.

    In San Francisco schools, to be politically incorrect, the high Chinese population is another key factor. It's a statistically high-scoring demographic, very academically focused. (Those who are familiar with Facebook know that it's full of oddball specialty groups whose very names are mini-social commentaries. There's one called "Oh no! Asian get a B! Asian fail!" An Asian student told me about it.)

  21. I'm going to jump in here, not as a stressed-out parent looking at schools, because I am not a parent at all. I am, however, a preschool teacher in San Francisco who has had the privelege of working in both SFUSD and (currently) in a private preschool. I go through this huge process every year with parents in my class. They choose their schools based on many personal factors,from classroom and school size to progressive or traditional academics. I'm impressed by the reflective and articulate nature of this blog. It obviously strikes a cord with many parents going through the same process. I appreciate the arguements for public schools, even some that fall "under the radar" There are many good reasons to choose public schools whether you are middle class or wealthy. There are just as many reasons to choose an independent school.
    The use of the terms "swanky"and "snooty" to describe independent schools makes it difficult to have an authentic conversation as those words suggest a lack of openness to different opinions. I can say as a teacher who has worked in both public and private schools that there I love them both for different and similar reasons. thanks for the research.

  22. Brian, thanks for your comments. It's good to hear from a non-parent but interested party.

    In response to your last comment, I think most of the arguments here for public schools have been thoughtful, and have raised challenging but worthy questions about choosing private that really should be addressed in a forum that is all about how to make the school choice. If not this forum, then where? Several posters have described having friends with kids in private, and I don't get the sense they are going around berating them all the time about it. I know I am not doing that. But a forum like this is an appropriate place to ask the questions.

    Also, some of the comments you mention were by way of describing personal experiences of either the poster or in one case the poster's spouse, and there have been several equally negative comments made about some posters' public experiences (boring, etc.); so that criticism cuts both ways. It's pretty hard to tell someone that no, you didn't have that experience. You can only argue what *is* now. I'd love to hear more from advocates of private that addresses the concerns being raised about them. Not just, our kid is happy (which is good of course), but addressing the bigger issues. In other words, less defensiveness and more authentic conversation, as you put it, about what is so attractive (or unattractive about public education) that one would pony up that kind of dough for it. Big-time wealthy people don't have to think about it, of course, but a lot of families in SF who are looking at private really have to.

    Actually, I do get the sense that the privates, perhaps most successfully Synergy, have in the last couple of decades focused on increasing diversity, especially as defined by race, but there are limits to the amount of class diversity they can offer (or perhaps that their full-paying families would tolerate, since they could have that for free at the public school), without them winning the lottery. So the very real differences on race and class composition do raise questions about the importance of these factors in educating the whole child. They also raise questions about how we can educate all our children in a society that is increasingly stratified economically.

    Certainly, among some of my more professional contacts, one hears deafening silence when public schools are mentioned, or, very commonly, the statement that "there are only four or five good schools, and you can't get into them, so we didn't try." I see and hear references all the time by people who really do not know first hand. Just a few months ago my mortgage broker, who is partnered but has no kids, but who certainly meets lots of folks, said to me as an aside, "Of course, the public schools here are pretty bad." I said, "um, wait a minute, let me tell you, no they are not." And he was surprised by what I had to say, because that is not what he has heard in his circles or from his clients. When I asked him if he had spoken to an actual public school parent, he stopped short, and then said, "well, no."

    So. There are really important questions that should be asked. And lots of frustrating myths out there. No wonder public school parents are often such passionate voices. Are they inauthentic? I don't think so. I would worry more if these voices were not being raised and the questions not asked. Doesn't mean there are not counter-arguments to be made, so let's keep talking.

  23. In many ways, this conversation mirrors a larger issue going on in the US today: the privatization of everything. It seems to me you are either aware of this process and worried about it, or you are not worried. At risk of getting all theoretical here, I have to wonder how much gutting civil society can tolerate -- how much our civil institutions can tolerate -- in the name of individual "choice" before society collapses. It is hard to understand how every-man-for-himself America is until you have lived in countries with bigger social support institutions and more collective spirits. Don't get me wrong -- when I lived overseas I was challenged every day by what felt like an oppressive communal-ness of everything. However, now that I'm a parent, I appreciate that mentality a lot more. I appreciate the concept of taking care of the masses, because I feel like one of them a lot of the time. It is too hard to go it alone.

    Brian: Sure, calling private schools snooty and swank is divisive, but it seems to me that there is no coming together on this point. Elite or elitist...who really cares? When you actually see the heroic efforts of many of the public educators, parents and, yes, schoolkids who are out there making something out of so little funding, the discrepancy makes me burn.

  24. Brian, your last comment, criticizing the use of "swank" and "snooty" when it comes to private schools, actually makes me wonder if you are who you say you are. I'm a product of swank and snooty public schools (followed by swank and snooty private university and grad school), and my husband is the product of almost full rides to swank and snooty private K-high school, and then college/grad school himself.

    Why can't we just admit that many privates are swank and snooty?? It's true that many publics are as well -- e.g the ones I grew up with in an almost all-white wealthy midwest neighborhood (property taxes there are almost 3%!), and, quite frankly, several in the Penninsula (Menlo Park, Palo Alto) and the East Bay (Piedmont), not to mention the North Bay (hello, ROSS??). Swank and snooty exists, mainly among private but among public as well.

    In addition to that begging-to-be-corrected remark, the only thing I would add to this conversation is the fact that some people choose private schools for religious reasons. That might be a bit scorned in SF, but it's true. Personally I see nothing wrong with that and am considering one particular religious school myself (even though some people may consider it a little swank, albeit I don't think snooty).

    an Anonmyous Product of Swank and Snooty, raising hopefully non-snooty and probably not-swank kids!

  25. Dear A.P.S.S.,

    I appreciate your frankness about the reality of swank and snooty! It's hard for Americans to talk about class--sex is so much less taboo--but it makes for more honest conversation when we do.

    Glad you identified religion as a possible reason for going private. That makes much more sense to me than avoiding public for academic reasons. I am a religious (though not narrow) person, so I don't scorn the idea. I myself have chosen public as the most important and likely place for my kids to learn how to be in the public square, to be Americans and world citizens, really. We do religious education at home and at church. However, I can see how, maybe especially with a minority religion or culture, religious education might be an important choice for a parent.

  26. Anonymous Product of Swank and Snooty: I think Brian is for real. He was brave enough to identify himself semi-publicly, with links and all. And he is representing his peeps--parents in his preschool who are going private as well as public, and he knows them on a personal level to be mainly good folks and good kids. So his comment makes sense from that perspective; he's defending them.

    Still, the debate here reminds me of rhetoric in Congress whenever the Dems (once in awhile) actually get a little feisty about social programs for poor and/or middle class people. What happens? They get accused of waging class warfare or trying to take away Americans' "choices," for example with health care reform.

    Like Anonymous Product and Kim, I think it is just honest to admit that class privilege (root word = private) is part of this conversation. One big reason to go private is to maintain, or perhaps to seek, a set-apart privilege for our kids. Privilege that comes at the expense of others in the form of less funding and energy and support and passionate advocacy for the schools that will serve all the kids. That's true whether it's public vs. private or well-funded swanky suburban public vs. inner city public. Or even well-funded SF public schools with strong PTAs and those that don't have them. We have to keep fighting for them, too. In a strong democracy ALL the kids would have a more equitable shot at education (that great potential leveler of the playing field). And in the end, that will mean lots more resources for all the public schools! I don't expect a perfect world, but some countries do better at spreading the resources around than we do, as Kim has alluded.

    So it's true in the end that "swank and snooty" is a part of the equation raises ethical questions that should be weighed. As others have said, no one is a saint on every ethical issue. But once we can name the ethical issues at stake, then we can make more mindful choices.

  27. Ah, I do now see the Pacific Primary link. That place also strikes me as an enigma. When we visited, it in fact struck me as a tad snooty, although not at all swanky. :) Makes sense that someone who works there would want to defend the parents of his students.

    I think it is a good point -- when you get to know these private school parents, many of them are in fact lovely people. Maybe Kate, or any of us looking for schools this year, will join them. Or maybe not.

    What I find most inspiring about this conversation is the brave (and often extremely eloquent!) way that we have been discussing these issues. It's amazing how value-laden this decision can be. And I find nothing wrong with holding people accountable for their choices.

  28. Hi all,
    As a teacher, I too am impacted by class privelege. I rent an apartment, clean my own house, take public transportation and eat out at a fancy restaurant a few times a year if I'm treated. I am also aware of places where I have unearned privelege like being white. My comments were in no way meant to defend any particular school or arguement. I was simply jumping into a conversation that I find important; the disparity in the quality of schools I was reflecting on how powerful language can be, especially in the vacuum of anonymousness. I just wonder how the comments would sound if we didn't use the term snooty, and described the things that made us feel vulnerable or uncomfortable? If we articulated the things that need to change and campaign to change them?

  29. Yes, y'all are great. Great! If wanting my kid to go to school with your kids makes me an elitist, I am proud to join the ranks!

    Kim...who has been up all night with both kids and is just now patting herself on the back for her greatness, or perhaps that is just sleep deprivation talking.

    p.s. If one of those private schools can promise to make my 9-month-old sleep through the night, I will gladly give them all my money and stop talking crap about them too. Gladly.

    Also: I am weirdly obsessed with this blog.

  30. Kim,
    Sleep deprivation becomes you! It really comes down to just that, the need to sleep.

  31. I have been thinking about this more.

    One interesting thing about this process is that it forces you to acknowledge your own elitism. It's not a completely comfortable process. (Of course, I wouldn't even be saying something so precious if I wasn't so glaringly bourgeois, would I? Because, after all, it's all about me, right?)

    That said, come next year, when my kid is really in school, I may be singing a slightly different tune. I can see myself now, running all over town in pilled sweatpants, throwing inedible pancake raffles and instructing our children on the fine art of dissection (er, gutting) in the absence of an actual science teacher, cursing Prop 13 all the while, and fuming about that bucolic MCDS existence while my 5-year-old examines her teardrop tats in the vanity mirror.

  32. It's amazing that the mortgage broker (and for that matter the entire real estate industry in S.F.) is so cheerfully willing to blast public schools based on zero information. Doesn't he realize that an unfairly and inaccurately negative image of SFUSD schools harms his own business? Are these folks so narrow-minded that they can't see what's in the best interests of their own business and their own community? I mean, if scuttlebutt were hurting my business, I'd think I'd check it out and correct it, not just trust and parrot it.

    I'm probably the one who has posted most about having friends in private schools, and no, I would never pick on them about unless invited (I would consider a blast at public schools an invitation, but honestly, that has never happened with anyone near and dear to me).

    I'm close to two families who are now alumni families of a particularly wacko S.F. private school, Adda Clevenger, and now that they've escaped, they laugh at it -- so I pretty much laugh with them. But that's as close as I get.

    My private-school friends and relatives say all the time exactly what someone quoted here: There are only five good schools in SFUSD, and "we heard" it's too hard to get into them, so we "had to" go private. (I dunno -- for $20,000 per kid per year, I think I could manage to do something "hard" like navigating the SFUSD assignment process -- not to mention asking a few questions and learning that actually there are many, many good schools in SFUSD and it's not that hard to get into them.)

    The other thing they tell me is that their kids are more needy than mine, and while mine will thrive in SFUSD schools, theirs need more resources. It's hard to argue with that, of course.

    By the way, my hackles go up at the use of "independent," which private schools now prefer exactly because they're trying to shed their image of racism and elitistm. It's so much like those far-right strategies of using language -- "death tax" and all that.

    Private schools used to proudly use the phrase "exclusive private school," which means they exclude and are only for the select.
    Well, they still do exclude, and still are only for the select -- it's just not PC anymore to proudly boast of it.

  33. Kim, I too am weirdly obsessed with this blog. I think many of us are!

    IJWTS two quick things: First, Adda Clevenger might be a bit wacko, but the people I know who send their kids there LOVE it. It's actually less expensive than many privates and offers longer hours and more school days, so it's particularly well fitted for working parents. It's not a good fit for my family, but I do respect those who find it the best for their family. I don't think it prides itself in its elitism, and I think it attracts more middle class people than, say, Town or Hamlin, so I hardly would hold Adda C up as an example of an exclusionary school (plus, I hear that it is rarely ever oversubscribed, as well).

    The other thing: my real estate agent actually OVERSOLD public schools to me! This now sounds hilarious, but our first house was virtually across the street from Paul Revere in Bernal Heights. Our agent, and especially the selling agent, told us that it was "one of San Francisco's best public schools." I do know people who send their kids there and love it, but COME ON, Paul Revere became, I think "Dream School" status or whatnot because it was viewed as so low performing. It's not like I was down the street from Rooftop! :)

    So, as to agents, YMMV.

  34. Actually, I change my mind and say that IMO Adda C is no more 'wacko' than other schools, public or private. Every school seems to have its 'wacko' thing. Everything else in that previous post stands!

  35. Well, unless I'm really badly misinformed and this stuff goes on in all private schools, I'd say it's pretty undeniable that Adda Clevenger gets the wacko prize.

    I honestly don't know any other schools, private or public, where every parent has gotten into a screaming fight with the headmistress at one time or another. (In one fight, she threw a large book at a parent.)

    Adda C. used to be situated in an undisclosed location, and they'd only tell you where when you got to a certain point in the process. Until surprisingly recently, parents made their "tuition" payments in envelopes of cash, divvied up and paid directly to the teachers.

    The teachers work on contract, so obviously at the pleasure of the headmistress. Once she fired a kindergarten teacher at lunchtime. The kids came back from lunch and their teacher was just gone, and they never got an explanation, let alone a chance to say goodbye.

    I could go on and on -- the tales are legion. The theatrical productions are fun, and it's a tight-knit community (undoubtedly due to the fun time they have exchanging war stories). But denying the looniness doesn't serve the families of San Francisco who are looking for private schools!

  36. Caroline, seriously, you're being a bit unfair. Every school has its stories. It's funny, too, that you are picking on Adda C in particular. I have very close friends who pulled their kids out of Alvarado to attend Adda C., and I'm SURE you don't want me to go on and on about stories they told me about Alvarado!!

    Name any school and you will find snipey things to say about it, and if you look hard enough, you'll find people willing to say the worst things. Greatschools.net is rife with bitterness in addition to positivity -- in PARTICULAR about the public schools!

    The truth is that not all schools, public or private, are the best fit for all people. Our job is the choose among the many excellent options, none of them being flawless.

  37. I am sitting in my cubicle trying not to laugh out loud at Kim's vision flying around in pilled sweatpants, throwing pancake raffles and gutting small animals in science class, and cursing in turn either Prop 13 or MCDS for its fabulous resources. That is too funny. Yes, I have had a few days like that (if not in the exact vivid details)! Are all of us parents inherently wacked in this day and age, or just the public school ones?

    Well, now that I think about it, perhaps Caroline answered that question. I don't know if she is being unfair or not about Adda, not knowing the school at all. The description does sound a bit over the edge if accurate; though it sounds like the upside for lots of folks is a tight community plus the theater. I would worry most about the teachers being on day-to-day contract. And while I have seen my share of funny to wacko things at Alvarado [it is making a huge difference to have a good new principal this year after last year's especially], I've also never heard of anything on the scale of books being thrown nor of money being handed over in envelopes. There is a measure of accountability in public that can sometimes feel like a bureacratic drag (union rules, SFUSD insurance regulations, etc.) but the rules do their job in many important ways.

    Of course every school has its issues. And I agree that one of our tasks as parents is to choose among the good to excellent options. I also think there are important ethical questions being raised about the public vs. private option. It is individual choice, but it is more than that too. I wouldn't say to my friends that they should never, ever go private, but we really should be aware of the impact of doing so.

    Okay, all that said, I just came from Alvarado's Dia de los Muertos commemoration/celebration and it was so beautiful. Some of the children wrote haiku poems, and there were spoken testimonies from children of all grade levels in Spanish and English, fabulous art, dancing and singing, topped off with bread and small cups of Mexican chocolate. The stories were beautifully told and heartfelt, and there were tears and also laughter. Amazing kids. Amazing teachers. Amazing parents who helped out. Just wonderful.

  38. I have friends at lots of private and public schools, and of course odd things happen at every school. But Adda C. stands out for those tales, as Adda C. alumni families will attest.

    And don't forget that we're talking about $16,000 per year vs. free. So obviously the $16,000/year product should be held to a (significantly) higher standard.

    I don't know if I agree that it's unfair to share information about a school in a forum that's intended for sharing information about schools. I would counter that it's unfair to try to hush up information that prospective applicants would surely find relevant when they're considering paying $16,000 a year.

    Considering the cost and the fact that it's a for-profit business, a little consumer awareness seems reasonable. I don't see how that's different from reporting customers' odd experiences at (say) Macy's.

  39. Brian challenged us to describe the things that make us uncomfortable and vulnerable rather than using words like "snooty" to talk about privileges of private schools. Okay, I'll name one.

    It bothers me that MCDS (and no doubt many other private schools) get to market their school for having hot lunches and organic salad bars. It bothers me because I know what a pittance the school lunch & breakfast program has to work with (go ahead and google recent articles citing Dana Woldow, superparent volunteer in San Francisco for more info on how the food system works, and how the school lunch dollar keeps shrinking in effective terms). We're talking here about providing meals to kids from much poorer, and often hungrier, backgrounds than the MCDS kids. Yes, there is hunger in America, and also in San Francisco. Student Nutrition Services is doing a heroic job with very little, and I know some of these kids really would go hungry if not for the free breakfast and lunch program.

    There is good news about food and SFUSD too, thanks to some great activism. Examples, there is a new grant that is bringing salad bars to schools all over the city, following experimentation at Aptos. Balboa has an interesting breakfast program called "Grab n Go." Food standards and choices have improved a lot in my years as a parent in the district.

    But here's the thing, there is ultimately not enough money to buy and prepare the really attractive, yummy, healthy food. At least to the standards, I'm guessing, of many on this list. Certainly not like the the hot organic lunches served at MCDS.

    So what we have is the already well-fed kids getting the yummy hot lunch and organic veggies, while the poor kids get the scraps. Even the new Farm Bill, which supporters claim is adding money for veggies and fruits for schoolkids, will only increase the amount by what the Berkeley Schools food director pointed out in yesterday's Chron is "4/5ths of an apple" per kid.

    So what? What does it matter if the wealthier families can afford to pay, through their tuition, for wonderful, nutritious lunches? Well, surely there will always be a degree of privatization, especially at the top levels of income. But I know that the more that our middle class families go private, the less money there is in the whole system. And maybe this matters more, there are also fewer folks with the passion to make changes for the schools. Dana Woldow is a great example of a parent who has made a difference in improving nutritional standards in SF public schools. What a tremendous effort. But we need 100 Danas, people who will fight for change on the local school level and also on the district, state and federal level to improve the funding so that the new standards can be exceeded. Because how can we expect to educate a generation of hungry or unhealthy kids?

    I bet that for every 500 parents who decide for public over private, we will find at least 100 of them putting in significant time to make a difference, whether on school lunches or some other issue of justice and equity. We need this labor of love, sometimes with a dose of anger too. I also think this labor of love will benefit our own well-fed children and not just through better lunch options, either. They are learning from our actions what we value. I want them to value communities with justice, equity, heart and soul. These things may exist to a degree in private spaces, but they are not qualities that can be bought.

    Okay, guess I'm with Kim. Fight the power. The issue of privatization or not is really a conversation about different visions of community, whether we're talking about San Francisco or America as a whole.

  40. Caroline, did you just write that Adda C is a for-profit business? I wasn't aware of that. I thought it was a non-profit private school.

  41. A great example of activism to improve funding at the district level is Prop H, sponsored by Supe Tom Ammiano, that is bringing significant new money to the schools from the city. Parents on tours, ask about the new monies at the school level for libraries, arts, and science. It's not all that is needed, but you can see the difference. I know James Lick Middle School has a new librarian through Prop H. Maybe other parents can say what is happening at their schools with those funds.

  42. What my friends told me is that Adda C. is for-profit because if it were a nonprofit, the headmistress would be required to work with a board, and she's not willing to do that. That also means that donations aren't deductible (of course families are requested to make donations).

    If that information is outdated, I apologize. My friends (two families) are informed and reliable, but they are no longer current parents there. It's possible that the status has changed. I looked at the website and can't tell one way or another.

    I gather that's not unique for private schools. The now-defunct Discovery Center School was also a for-profit, parents there have told me.

    Great comments on the school food by someone very informed -- I serve on the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity, chaired by the aforementioned Dana Woldow.

  43. Caroline, you are the "Bruce Banner" of San Francisco Public School boosters. (i.e., "Don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry!" Then turn green, grow big, and GROWL!). I mean that in a really good way, of course...

    Seriously, sometimes when I read what you and Kim write here (and/or when Caroline posts on the sfschools or PPSSF listserves), I just want to stand up and shout “HELL YA!”
    Admittedly, I sometimes cringe a little when Caroline gets her "dander up", mostly because I lack the level of gumption required to say exactly the same thing. I too am generally pissed off about the slow erosion of the "Commons" in this country, and I do believe that the challenges faced by the public education system is a major symptom of the problem and illustrates perfectly just what is at stake.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess to being a "tad" anxious about the whole process as we prepare to enroll next year, but I have to say that we've had some really positive experiences as we've toured SF public schools. For example, we visited Sunset Elementary last week, and we really liked the school. The Principal was an amazing dynamo. And the PTA did something really neat. They had a bunch of parents hang back after dropping off their kids so they could talk to those of us waiting for the tour. What a GREAT idea. It felt really nice. Believe it or not, I'm actually starting to get a little excited about seeing my little one start public school. Go figure?!?

    Keep up the great work! Oh, and Kim’s little blog icon makes me smile, and I completely sympathize with the whole sleep challenge. As a matter of fact, I have to go get my youngest to stop playing with the curtains in his room and GO TO SLEEP!

  44. Well, I like to think the most terrifying weapon I and my fellow advocates wield is (DUCK! INCOMING!) ... information. Context and the big picture are powerful too.

    In that vein, I have to make one more point about the MCDS post. Kate praised its diversity, at (allegedly) 27 percent nonwhite. I just have to point out that a San Francisco public school with that demographic would be officially labeled "severely resegregated" and subject to much sharp scrutiny, criticism, discussion of reform or restructuring, etc.

    So once again, why are we holding our free public schools to a much higher standard than a $24,000/year exclusive private school?

  45. Caroline,

    I made a pact with myself not to post a comment to this thread again, because it has clearly become a place to make speeches (albeit articulate and thought-provoking,) rather than to invite conversation.

    Nevertheless, in response to your latest comment, a quick search on Bay Area Census statistics, while 53.2% of San Francisco County is indeed white, in Marin County 83.5% of the population is white. So I'd say that a private school with a non-white population of 27% is indeed on the path toward expanding its diversity. I can't count the number of times Marin parents have commented that our student body is far more diverse racially and socioeconomically than most Marin public schools.

    We just returned from an event at MCDS this morning. I brought my sons with me. We were greeted by their best friends, who have 2 dads in the parking lot. On the playground they saw their Indian friend. At lunch was their buddy who has a single mom. After lunch they played in the creek with their African American friend, saw their Jewish friend and listened to a storyteller with a big bunch of kids who included Asian, biracial, Latino, and...yes...a great bunch of white kids. There was absolutely no way of telling who was wealthy and who was on indexed tuition. What my kids knew was that they were with their friends.

    Diversity can be measured in all sorts of ways. So can elitism. Many of the comments above strike me as a sort of self-congratulation that far surpasses any level of snobbery I've ever encountered in my 12 years of working in independent schools.


  46. Barbara,

    I think MCDS sounds great! I'm glad you are posting. I am learning a lot from this conversation. If I didn't live so far away (despite the bus) and work too much, I'd totally throw my child's hat in the ring. You are a great representative for the organization.

    I hope you don't take the digs to private schools here personally. We all try to improve the world in our own ways.

  47. Barbara, I appreciate your willingness to continue to post, and to discuss some of the "articulate and thought-provoking" questions that are being raised.

    As the last poster said, many of us are trying to make a difference in the world, but in different ways. Since you are an educator, and from reading your posts here, I am pretty certain that you have a very good heart for the community. And so do my many, many SF friends who have chosen to go private for their kids; I know them to be very good people. I can see how the broader discussion is raising uncomfortable issues, but from me at least it is not meant as a character attack, but an examination of this particular choice. We all make ethical choices in lots of areas of our lives, and in many of them those same friends are a whole lot better than I.

    My own public school choice is based on three factors. One is that my kids are getting an excellent education there. Different from private, and the benefits perhaps not so evident on the face of it, but my children are great, smart, articulate urban kids who test high in the language arts and math. Then there is the fact that even reduced tuition would be a huge stretch for me financially that would also cause me to lose time with the kids (different job, longer hours). Finally, there is the community impact factor that has been discussed on this thread.

    This passion around this last one is not about self-congratulation, but deep frustration. There is a difference. Obviously education cannot alone solve the deepening and disturbing divisions between the haves and the have-nots in this country. Your data on racial segregation in liberal Marin County (mitigated mostly by Marin City and portions of the Canal District in San Rafael, yes?-both pockets of poverty; how many of those kids are in private schools or MCDS?) proves this point. We are far, far from living the dream of Dr. King. We are still a segregated country and class--with widening income and educational disparities--is part of that mix. Schools alone cannot solve this problem.

    However, education has long been a cornerstone of our democracy in its promise of helping to level the playing field. The American idea that anyone, with hard work, can move up to a more dignified life, is rooted in the possibilities provided by the public schools.

    Yet we see, along with pressure for privatization in every area of society, more and more people going private for education. San Francisco has one of the highest (maybe the highest?) levels of private education in the nation, a trend that started in the days of the desegregation consent decree but has continued since that decree was overturned. And with less participation in the public schools there is a disinvestment (in actual dollars and in moral commitment) from the wider community in giving the public schools what they need to succeed. Even as educators and advocates are doing a huge amount of work to turn the schools around--and there are so many successes!--our families are being drawn away from them.

    I believe you, Barbara, when you talk about how hard MCDS works to create a diverse environment, one that is indeed more diverse than Marin County as a whole. Many private schools have become more conscious of the downside of being "exclusive" and have worked hard in the last 30 years or so to admit more students of color and of varying class backgrounds. I'd guess this takes a fair amount of work in terms of raising scholarship funds. Yes, there are shades of gray here.

    Still, if more and more private schools are created (e.g., Friends and Bay were founded within the last decade) and the percentage of kids attending them increases, what will happen to the kids left behind? Is there energy in the private school sector to build enough schools to take them on too? Energy to raise enough scholarship money for them? Are private schools willing to educate a majority of kids of color, most of whose parents never attended college (or high school) and many of whom do not speak English? Because there is only so much privatization that can happen before the the loss of investment takes its toll and makes public education less tenable as an institution. And if that happens, what happens then to those kids?

    That is the frustration. We need educated, invested parents to stay in the public schools to keep them viable on many levels. We need them to keep our schools good and to fight to make them better. Our nation needs that. An urban district like San Francisco needs that (the suburban-urban divide is a whole other question, one that several states, such as VT, have tried to address, with some success, and a fair amount of push-back reaction from the 'burbs and more wealthy towns).

    I don't see how it is self-congratulatory to say all this. I don't feel like a better person for being a public school parent. More like, I feel like a frustrated one that our kids are not getting the resources they deserve, and seeing it as a symptom of larger trends that are encapsulated in the concept of privatization. It's recognizing that private schools, while again there are many shades of gray and lots of good people, are not playing an entirely benign role in this trend. It's stating that our whole society has a stake in the public schools and it's also a plea to prospective parents--the constituency of the this blog--to consider that as a factor, along with the fact that their kids really will succeed in many of our public school gems.

    I don't know if all this is "speech-making" (though I have never had a problem with any speech that is articulate and thought-provoking) as opposed to conversational; I will be glad to have a conversation about these topics if the private school advocates reading this list actually disagree with the broader argument being made here, i.e., the need for reinvestment in our public schools that includes larger numbers of educated and middle and even upper class parents making the choice for public. If there disagreement about that point, then it would deepen the conversation to talk about it more. I for one will be glad to have that conversation, because we are talking about an issue that really matters.

  48. Here we go, a conversation with teeth! School lunches.
    I totally agree that nutrition for children should not be reserved for those who can afford it. I believe it is everyone's responsibility to support this. unfortunately, we voted against funding public schools back in the 1978 when prop 13 passed. It was the beginning of the end. I was disturbed to find that there is not a word about the right to an education in our constitution, so I went to the California constitution which only requires us to assure the health and safety of children in our schools. We are basically mandated to babysit children through high school. So why were public schools better before 1978? We had the same constitution back then. we weren't required to do anything differently, but we did. I believe that voting for prop 13 cemented in our collective consciousness an "us/them" paridigm that I hear blaring in these comments. "Why can't children get an equitable education in every school in California?" and the answer is sadly, "Because we, or our parents, voted against it." So now we must fix what "we" have broken. We need standards that address the needs of all children, taking into account family language, culture, LGBT families, learning styles, and all of the other differences that make our city and country so great.

  49. The "Schools Gone Wild" article by Diana Kapp about Bay Area private schools is now online.


    Here is what MCDS former head Tim Johnson says about private vs. public.

    "But even kids in public school are feeling the impact. The quest to make already excellent private schools even more so diverts attention, energy, and resources that could make public schools the kind of places where upper-middle-class parents would actually want to send their kids. “By going into independent schools, you take out all the people with the power to bring change,” Johnson asserts.

    In 2003, Marin Country Day head Tim Johnson chose to leave the private-school realm entirely...He decries the fact that Bay Area private schools are the essence of possibility, where the only limit is what can be dreamed up—while a few miles or blocks away, public schools are struggling to succeed at the most basic tasks, like helping kids read at grade level and keeping them from dropping out. The result, he warns, is an ever-more-gaping canyon between the haves and have-nots. “Opportunity exists for such a small slice of students,” he says wistfully. With much of the public system gone to pot, and the richest and most promising able to opt out of the mess, “We’ve absolutely trashed the American dream.”

  50. I don't feel as doubtful about the fate of public education. Nor do I feel as antagonistic toward private schools. I do feel that we need to do a lot of work and make some sacrifices to make public schools better. Bells and Whistles aside, there are many public schools that are superb right here in the city. most really want to make a difference. I don't think parents have to send their children to public scools to support them. this is where I believe a campaign that includes a lot of public education appealing to all San Franciscans to do their part would make a difference.

  51. I'm one of those parents who is looking at both private and public for my entering-K child, and so I haven't yet staked out a claim on solid POV on the matter. I can say, in looking around at both privates and publics, I really wouldn't say that the privates offer "endless possibility" and the publics offer none. Rather, there seem to be problems and things missing from every school. E.g., one of my favorite private schools that I saw, with an incredible genius headmaster, is somehow populated with a large number of republican/conservative parents. For $20K a year, I figure I need to love both the school and the parent body (since it impacts the kids). Private schools who have my favorite parent bodies, and public schools, whose parent bodies I also enjoy, meanwhile, lack some of the shiny resources like strong music programs and foreign language.

    The quotes above from the SF Mag article exactly demonstrate one of my complaints with the piece - really, the public schools don't seem all that horrible, and really, the private schools are NOT that perfect.

  52. Um... I think the point is being missed that the quote above came from the FORMER HEAD of MCDS (who probably overly dramatized his words for effect). I believe this maybe reflects well for MCDS (hey, at least they are a little self-aware), but pretty poorly for the private school situation overall. I mean if the former head of a well respected private school is admitting that increased privatization is a problem, isn't that saying quite a lot?

    It's hard not to want all that a good private school offers. Who wouldn't want to buy all the upgrades and get all the bells and whistles for their own kid? Private schools do such an excellent job of marketing their schools to parents that it is indeed difficult not to be seduced. These school tours are really amazing from a marketing perspective. They hit all the notes that parents want to hear. It's so easy to get sucked in.

    Yeah, there are um, some good reasons for going private. I'd just plead with the families who are considering both to just reflect somewhat on the larger consequences of their decision should they go private. It does matter.

    As far as Brian's idea of campaigns to educate the public to make change, my own feeling is that this approach is overly optimistic. My own misanthropic view of people is that change won't take place unless it affects them directly. I don't doubt for a minute that most of the dramatic positive action that's taken place in the past few years is due to PPSSF - parents on the ground and in the trenches. These guys are heroes.

  53. Also, I think that the fact that private schools keep increasing their fees every year is making more and more 'normals' consider public. The 5% annual fee increase, when it starts to amount to $1000 more each year, simply is not sustainable.

    I actually am an optimist, but I can't help but think that the situation will eventually shake out, at least a little. As public schools get better, which they ARE doing (agree w/remark about PPS), and privates get more expensive, there will have to be movement.

  54. I have to be optimistic, I'm a teacher! I am also an advocate for social change, and I know that change comes sometimes painfully slowly. So what can we do? It doesn't matter what kind of school you personally choose for your child right now, while the spark is hot, parents can advocate for public school reform, when the spark cools off, pass the torch to the next parents. It takes courage, patience and above all, hope to change the world, but people have to jump in! I'm off to Chicago to present at the NAEYC convention, I will check in next week to see how Kate is faring.

  55. Many of the public schools have a strong focus on the arts. We are interested in schools that have a strong science focus. Any ideas or recommendations?

  56. I think Lawton has a strong focus on science--Kate even referenced their connection to the Academy of Sciences (and they are pretty close to the brand-new campus of AoS).

    Our experience was that Alvarado had a full-time science teacher until Title 1 funding was dropped; I *think* there was bridge funding from the PTA and eventually Prop H funds (?) to provide a part-time teacher this year as well as a part-time librarian; arts has always been funded through the PTA. As I understand it, each grade level now gets about 8 weeks of special science classes, just as they get art rotations through the various art classes. Computers are still full-year. There is a dedicated science lab for the instruction as well as a computer lab and library. Teachers additionally incorporate science into the curriculum as they are passionate and able; this can be quite good.

    I think this level of science may be more typical of the mix that many kids get, whereas at a science-focused school the kids might get more.

    If science is very important to you, I would look for:

    * a full-time science teacher, with kids getting science in several disciplines (physics, biology, geology, environmental science, chemistry) over the whole year;

    * a dedicated science lab;

    * science-related field trips;

    * passionate teachers who will incorporate science in their own classrooms and curricula and also work with the science teacher to plan projects;

    * science reference books available in the library.

    I know there are schools in SFUSD that have this focus, Lawton being one. Perhaps others know which are the others.

  57. My kids go to different same sex schools in SF. Just as an observation it really is a barbell - rich white kids and poor mainly minority kids.
    We really liked MCDS but it was apparent that given the low number of open spots major strings needed to be pulled to get in(therefore if you pull them you were obligated to accept). Two other negatives were the commute (what if the bridge closes after an earthquake?) and lack of uniforms. For my daughter uniforms are HUGE IMO. On the rare free dress days the girls are decked out in designer and the uniforms are the great equalizer between the haves and have nots. In the end we didnt even apply to MCDS.

  58. Is the barbell bigger at some privates than others? I would guess it would look more like a 5 lb at some of the more progressive schools at the southern end and more like 10 lb at the northern end. Would love to hear from anyone who has some insight into this.

    The other poster is right that MCDS is very competitive.

  59. I'm the one with kids in the single sex schools. I cant speak for SFDay or MCDS but all the same sex schools seem similar in family demographics. Different people have different standards for 'wealthy' but I'll define it as families with LARGE 2nd homes in europe, napa, or east coast. These seem to consitute around a quarter of the class families. Families on financial aid make up around 20% at most of these schools. The 50% in the middle are generally well-to-do professional families owning $2M plus homes(rich by many standards). A few in the middle struggle to pay tuition but most seem to have little problem with it.
    My very non-scientific impression is that the secular single sex schools in the city have less families in the middle and more on the high end than say the the catholic schools and SFDay. But this is just a difference in percentage as I know very wealthy families in these schools as well. The single sex schools plus MCDS seem to draw from the same community of SF families and there is much overlap within families ie. cathedral-burkes, town-hamlin, town-burkes, etc.

  60. I have been reading the comments and I am surprised to see people so bothered by the cost of ann independent school education. If giving your child the very best education meant you needed to get rid of a condo or settle for a used car or whatever, wouldn't that be ok? I mean would you really not send your kids to MCDS because that meant you couldn't take a vacation? So does it really go like this: "Honey I know we are thilled about Billy getting into MCDS, and it is the school we have always hoped for him, but we were going to go to Disneyland this winter and I promised you a new Lexus. We will just have to send him to a place not as good!" I have always felt the best education for my kids was more important than my car, my vacation or my dream house. No?

  61. The notion of a good public school as a citizens right has never been an American concept. Many families, for decades, have picked private schools. Until the 1830s there was no sharp distinction between public and private schools in the United States. Widespread systems of public schooling did not yet exist anywhere in the country, and schools were operated by private individuals and groups, some even with public monies. So this is nothing new and by no means is a public education something you are entitled to. Find the best school for your kid -public, private, charter, or religious. Scrutinize their program, get involved, trust your decision and if you have to, pay the price of admission. It's the way it has always been.

  62. To the poster who asked how anyone could question the cost of private schooling, because isn't it worth it to sacrifice the Lexus or the vacation to cover that cost. Well, YMMV of course, but that's a straw man argument for most of us. As for my mileage, I am genuinely middle class (divorced and working mom with a household income near the exact median for California). I am lucky to get health care and pension through my job but for most things I am on a strict budget to make it to the end of the month.

    The majority of us do not have the Lexus to sacrifice. Many of our families do not have the vacation to sacrifice either. For myself, I drive a 20-year-old car. For about $1,200 a year for gas/insurance/repairs and a big debt of gratitude to my repair guy, I keep it running well enough for kid trips. I do take the kids back East to visit family once a year, the grandparents and aunts and uncles they would otherwise not ever see, before it is too late....but the cost for this trip does not come close to the $40K per year private school would cost; basically it is two tickets plus a bonus miles ticket and then we stay with family. I budget $1,000. And no, I cannot leave the area for a cheaper locale because that would mean taking the kids away from their dad, which I cannot do (legally or morally) at this point in their lives.

    Your argument would make sense only for a small minority of privileged families. For most of the hardworking immigrant families at our schools, many of whom work several jobs and do not even own cars, we are certainly not talking about trading in the Lexus for the private school education. And yes, this is reasonably significant percentage of the families in SFUSD. Certainly not they, and few of the middle class families I know, can afford a Lexus.

    By the way, you mention a dream house? Were you kidding about that? You think most of us cannot afford private tuition because we are too busy buying at the high end of the real estate market around here? What kind of crowd do you hang with?

    I am an educated mother with two bright children who regularly get perfect scores on many sections of both language arts and math standardized tests, so we are bringing up the scores at our school, but no way could I afford private school for one, let alone two. No Lexus, fancy vacation, or dream house. Just can't afford $40K a year on a normal $60K income.

    To the poster who wrote about American history not supporting public schools. You can go all the way back to the 1830's if you like, but for the majority of our nation's history, public education has indeed been considered a right and also a cornerstone of American democracy. Yes, it had to be fought for, just like the 40-hour work week. And we still have to fight for it! It's pretty clear that some would like to kill public education for various ideological and other reasons, but I for one will fight for it in a number of ways: at the ballot box and by advocating with public officials, by joining PPS, and also in trying to strengthen public education at the local level (my kids' schools) and by encouraging others to join me in that endeavor. Democracy at its best!

  63. Poster with girl (or girls) in single-sex,

    Thanks for your comments on the socioeconomics of families at these schools. That's exactly what I wanted to understand better. The reality is a little scary, but good to know.

    In case you're still around, do you have a son(sons)? One thing I wonder about is how strong the boys' schools are in relation to the girls' schools.

  64. I think all would agree that the privates play on that fear of "What could be more important than your child's education?" Honestly, if I thought that the public's were really as bad as the Chron tends to portray them, then yes, I would consider how I might afford private, or move. However, that is definitely not the case. Even if I were a trust funder, I would think long and hard before blindly buying-in to the rhetoric that public=bad, private=good. A lot of good things (education or otherwise) can be done with 20k/year.

    Besides - if I coddle my kids their whole life, what will they do as adults when shown their bland, modular cubicle at their first job (no, no skylights - no organic fresh produce delivered to their desk, no program manager to manage their activities)?

  65. good post, pm, but you forget, the kids in the deepest sanctums of high-end private schooldom are not supposed to end up in cubicles; when they grow up they are to be masters of the universe.

    kidding, mostly ;-).

  66. Hello, I am a student at MCDS. I entered MCDS when I was in sixth grade. Before that I went to a public school. When I entered all the kids were really nice. But I found it hard to keep up with some of the curriculum. From what I've read about how to get too school it seem some are confused. I wake up at 7:30 to get on the bus and I'm exhusted. However, a few kids kindergarten also get on at my stop. They always seem full of energy and ready for the day. Secondly, many MCDS families carpool. Whether or not its from their houses to school or just from the bus stops

  67. I know this is an old post, but I do want to comment. I went to private school because I lived in a city with a neighborhood assignment system and simply wretched public schools in most neighborhoods. I went on financial aid back in the days when there was such a thing for lower-middle-income white families. On the one hand, what we had left after paying the remainder of tuition put us below the poverty line, and the social issues were grueling -- I ended up ferociously jealous AND felt entitled to the things I didn't have. On the other, and this is no small thing, I got into the college of my choice (Oberlin), went to a Ph.D. program on full fellowship, and am now a tenured college professor, all of which I owe to an education I could not have gotten at the public schools (which were working 3 grade levels below my private). The issue for me is: is my kid going to be well educated enough to have some degree of autonomy over her own life? To have a life she can shape in some way? Maybe that is "class," but I can't see not doing my utmost best to give that to her, having watched my single mom scrap so hard to give it to me. And sure, to all other kids, too -- it's not like you stop paying taxes when you go private.

  68. So I've gone to MCDS since kindergarten and honestly I cannot imagine anywhere else I could be now. I know everyone thinks we're snobby white kids but, yes, there are some people like that. But we know people think that and we like to prove them wrong. The most poignant thing of almost every eighth grader's year (you can ask them) would be their service learning. While they only do it for a week, most of them return to the place they served because they have found how profound an experience serving others turned out to be. Once again, I can't imagine being anywhere else now, while being the person who I am today. And because of MCDS, I like the person I am.

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