Monday, September 20, 2010

More “elephants in the room” (this time in parochial plaid)

My job takes me to Silicon Valley most days, but sometimes, I work from home, and can take a few minutes to step outside and be a part of the neighborhood’s weekday life. If it’s afternoon, I’ll usually walk to do a quick errand or two, and often pass groups of kids in uniform – the logoed sweatshirts and crisp white collars of the parochial schools nearby.

These schoolchildren, chomping ice cream, swapping jokes as they dash home, remind me that parochial schools are a big player in the educational life of San Francisco. But, at least to me, they are also mostly unknown. When I started blogging about our kindie search for SF K Files, one of the first commenters asked “What about parochial?” And that made me think. My husband Portland and I hadn’t discussed the possibility of parochial school much. So I turned to him and asked – what about it?

At this point, I should open some baggage and lay it on the table for inspection. On my side of the family, we are Catholic by background, with Latin American and European varieties of the faith in our lives. But when it comes to the church, I opt out. I don’t want to start a flame war here on the state of the Catholic church, so suffice it to say that as an adult, I’ve realized that many of the church’s views and policies are at odds with my own, and that Catholic schools are off the table. I’ve had many conversations with others from Catholic backgrounds and respect that thoughtful people can come to other conclusions about school. But for me, that door has swung shut.

Portland, however, comes from what you might call a lightly Protestant family. He doesn’t have anywhere near the same type or amount of baggage. And he would at least like to find out more about parochial options. We talked this past week, and agreed we’d at least learn about some parochial schools that aren’t Catholic.

But that learning process means dealing with some “elephants in the room” – big uncomfortable questions. When I posted some EiRs about the new public assignment process last week, there were so many interesting responses that I decided to bring some parochial plaid elephants to the party too. Here goes:

  • EiR1: If your family isn’t religious, why did you choose parochial? For families of faith, the choice to go parochial is natural. But it doesn’t seem that all parochial school families are closely affiliated with the church behind their school. If you aren’t religious, what was the draw? Convenience? Quality of education? Lower cost than independent schools? Art, PE, music, or other electives?
  • EiR2: If your family isn’t religious, do you feel connected to the school community? Is that community defined by religion, or shaped in other ways?
  • EiR3: If your family isn’t religious, how do you tell your kids that your own beliefs may not jibe with what they are learning in religion class? Growing up, one family friend from a Buddhist background told her kids to think of the Biblical part of religion class like Greek mythology -- lots of interesting stories that belonged to someone else. What do others do?
  • EiR4: Why would parochial schools want families who aren’t affiliated with their faith? Is getting a broader base of students just part of the business of running a school? Or are some genuinely interested in a diversity of thought and belief?
  • EiR5: How does your parochial school provide transparency and accountability to families? I took a quick look at a few parochial school websites, and couldn’t find readily-available overviews of their policies or governing boards. (This was hardly an exhaustive review, so I could have easily missed things.)
  • EiR6: Backup? Really? I've heard lots of talk about having a parochial school as a backup, but have also heard that getting into many of these schools is competitive. If that's the case, are they really available as backups?
  • EiR7: What about non-Christian options? I was recently talking with a friend about the school dilemma, and after listening to me think out loud for a few minutes, she laughed. “You, yes you, should think about a Jewish school!” When I gave her the “Huh?!?” look, she said that, in her view, her faith and culture are built on thinking and asking lots of questions. “You guys, at least in that respect, would fit right in,” she said. I have to confess that I’d never considered the possibility. Has anyone else?

To all of you in the know about parochial schools, thanks in advance for your answers. If you have insight into Catholic schools, please know that your comments are welcome – while my family isn’t considering Catholic schools, many others out there are. And fellow school seekers, please feel free to add your own EiRs. I have a feeling that I’m not the only one out there with some plaid elephants.


  1. Part 1: Our family is not religious and our child is at a non-Catholic parochial elementary school, Zion Lutheran. I hope my comments will be of interest to you. My husband is the product of a Catholic family who went to public schools from K-UCLA. Our older child went to Convent for HS after 9 years of public school. I am the product of an atheist family that sent me to Catholic schools from 8th grade through college.

    We have tried the public lottery for the last 3 years but have never been assigned to a school that worked for us. We cant afford the $25K/year secular or religious privates but $7 to $8K per year is manageable.

    We're not opposed to religion and like the idea of our kids learning about religious traditions and making up their own minds. If you are of the Christopher Hitchens "religion poisons everything" mindset, obviously parochial school is not for you!:)

    Eir1: Given our budget and our lottery luck, we were driven to parochial. We looked first at Catholic because we've been there and we think they beat public schools by a mile in every category, even though post-Prop 8, we had serious concerns. However, they have big classes and our younger kid is not good at sitting still, so it was mutually agreed we needed to look elsewhere. Someone recommended we look at Zion Lutheran so I toured. The physical plant is dreary, but I've probably toured 25 schools, and hands down, the kids were the most happy and engaged I'd seen in any classrooms. A teacher would ask a question and every hand in the room would shoot up. My 2nd grader has 18 kids in his class. They have choral music, an annual musical production, and hour and a half of art each week, a weekly computer lab, PE twice a week, and a monthly field trip. The several recesses each day give our kid a chance to run and stretch. I would compare the curriculum and extras at Zion L to to those at the public schools with the strongest PTA funding (which we did not get in the lottery). The 8:30 start time is perfect for us. Bottom line: We felt Zion Lutheran was the best, most convenient school we could choose for our child on our budget. I do supplement with sports and dance after school off campus.

    EiR2: Most families at Zion Lutheran are not Christians of any denomination. The principal said there are people of all religious backgrounds and no religious background. As one would expect in the Inner Richmond, it's mostly Asian. People are friendly and concerned that their kids get a good education, just like parents at most schools. Other than St. Brendan's, my impression is that members of the affiliated religious body are in the minority at parochial schools. NDV and several other Catholic schools in SF are known for welcoming gay and lesbian families. Zion Lutheran is pretty quiet about that. Lutheran schools are usually Missouri Synod, which if you at Wikipedia seems more conservative than Evangelical Lutherans.

  2. Part 2: EiR3: We tell our kid that different people believe different things, and he should learn about different beliefs and decide for himself. Right now he believes in God and Santa Claus and the Loch Ness Monster.

    EiR4: Zion Lutheran School is openly considered part of the missionary aspect of the church. The kids have religion class daily and memorize Bible verses weekly. Right now my kid is learning that God has a plan for him. If you look on most religious schools' web sites other than Brandeis, their top stated priority is producing "active [fill in religious tradition]." How that plays out in practice varies. Our older kid survived 4 years at Convent with her atheism intact but joined the Unitarian Church in college. Our younger kid is going through a religious phase, but atheist relatives who send their kids to secular schools say their kids are going through the same thing. As a business proposition, Zion Lutheran and most parochial schools other than St. Brendan's would not have enough kids to operate a school if they limited enrollment to church members.

    Eir5: In general you should ask the parochial schools if you want information about policies and governing boards. It's not secret but they don't always put it on their web sites either. Some private for-profit schools are run by their owners and have no governing boards, but religious schools generally answer to the religious bodies that run them.

    EiR6: Some Catholic schools have highly competitive enrollment (e.g., Notre Dame des Victoires, and don't even try St. Brendan's unless you're a parishoner), but a good number are open-enrollment. Open-enrollment means a school takes kids on a first-come, first-served basis. I don't know about West Portal Lutheran. Zion Lutheran can take up to 25 kids per class so it has room in most grades.

    EiR7: All the Brandeis families I know are Jewish, but their web site says they welcome everyone. They're $22K per year and up. I don't know the tuition at Lisa Kampner Hebrew Academy or whether they admit non-Jews.

    Other: Most private and parochial schools do not accept children with significant learning challenges or behavior problems. Ethnic diversity at the $7K to $8K per year parochial schools seems on par with high-demand public schools.

    Winding up (aren't you relieved?:)): For people who do not object to religion and prayer in school, many parochial schools are in fact pragmatic "back-ups" to the public lottery because they are open-enrollment. You pay your deposit ($500 or so typically) and hold your place. If a seat at the public school you want opens up in the 10-day count, off you go (or not if you decide you're happy where you are). Some parochial schools, like NDV, are considered among the best in the city, period. (By the way, NDV should not be considered a backup, as admissions are highly competitive, not open-enrollment.)
    Just as with publics and the $25K- per-year privates, parochial school reputations, curricula and cultures vary widely.

  3. GREAT response, thank you!!!

  4. EIR8: What about non-traditional families? The first commenter mentioned gay and lesbian families a bit, and I was happy/surprised to see that there is some acceptance. But what about divorced parents? Single parents? Welcome?

  5. If you are a non-traditional family interested in a parochial school, you can ask when you call the admissions office to set up a tour. I'd expect they'd be pretty honest, since it would be a waste of everyone's time for you to tour a school that would not welcome you because your family structure is non-traditional.

  6. We didn't end up at a parochial school, but did consider two.

    One is Zion Lutheran. The other is St. Johns in Glen Park. I've heard great things from many parents who, I would say, fall into the agnostic category.

    They are very welcoming toward non-traditional families of various assortments.

  7. St Cecilia has plenty of single and divored parents. It does take parish member first and can be difficult to get into if a large sibling class is expected. Altough this does not apply to your family, it may to others looking at parochial's. The larger parachials, such as St. Gabs or St. Cecilia and Holy Name are popular with families of twins as they have 2 classes per grade and the twins are typically split up after Kindergarten.

  8. I hear St. John's is gay and lesbian family friendly - at least it is mentioned in the tour.

  9. First off, pretty much most people say parochial and it means catholic. So if you want a non-catholic school that is offiliated with a church, I wouldn't really refer to it as parochial. After the catholic schools in SF (and jewish ones, you didn't say if you were interested in that), there aren't that many protestant christian church schools. Two Lutherans, Zion and West Portal. One Episcipal, Cathedral, but only for boys. Then there are several sort of evangelical protestant schools SF Christian School(baptist), SF Adventist (7th Day Adventist), Cornerstone (baptist). You won't hear from anyone on this blog going to these schools. Then of course there is Friends school (Quaker) but most don't put it in the religious school category. Anyway, my point is there are very few options for religious schools outside of catholic. We looked into this last year.

  10. I should say there aren't many protestant christian options in SF.

  11. "First off, pretty much most people say parochial and it means catholic. "

    No. Parochial school is used to refer to any school that has a religious affiliation. It is usually used to refer to a school with a Christian affiliation and it is certainly used in the UK for most Protestant affiliated schools.

    EPISCOPAL? It is true that there are not many Protestant parochial schools in San Francisco.

  12. I don't care what they call it in the UK, in San Francisco if you say parochial school, people think you mean catholic school. Nobody refers to Cathedral or Cornerstone as parchial schools. Just sayin.

  13. Two Episcopal-affiliated schools: Cathedral, of course, only for boys and K-8; and the Bay School in the Presidio, 9-12, which treads very lightly but was founded and is funded by the Episcopalians.

  14. EiR1: Most catholic schools need the enrollment (they can even more cash-strapped than the publics) and so welcome non-catholics. St. Philips will admit neighborhood non-catholics before catholics out of the neighborhood.

    EiR7: A few of the catholic schools are competitive to get into (i.e. even parishoners scramble for places) - e.g. St. Brendan's, NDV, and St. Cecilia's, but most need the enrollment from either out-of-parish catholics or non-catholics, including solid schools like St. Philips, St. Paul's, Epiphany, St. Finn Barr's, and Corpus Christi.

    Are they for everyone? No, but if you think you can explain Cafeteria Catholicism to your kid, they're a good option, especially in the SE where the public GE programs are weaker and the independent privates don't have much footprint.

  15. With the middle class hurting under Obama, fewer can afford private school, catholic schools excepted due to their low cost structure. Impoverishment always brings more believers into the fold.

  16. Cathedral (strongly Episcopal), Bay (apparently Episcopal lite, )Friends (Quaker), the Convent/Stuart Hall schools (independent Catholic), and Brandeis (Jewish) are in the $25K per year range.

    However there are a few other schools besides Catholic parochial schools that are under $10K per year including fees. One is secular.

    West Portal Lutheran under $7K per year.

    Zion Lutheran about $8K per year.

    San Francisco Christian (Baptist) around $7K per year.

    San Francisco Adventist under $7K per year.

    Cornerstone Academy (Baptist) around $10K per year.

    KZV Armenian (Armenian Apostolic Church) around $8K per year.
    Armenian language instruction.

    St. John Orthodox (Eastern Orthodox) around $6K per year.

    Hillwood Academic Day School (secular) is $7K per year including hot meals and after-care and has a year-round calendar.

    Schools for which I was unable to find tuition were:

    Bais Menachem Yeshiva Day School (inner Richmond)

    Lisa Kampner Hebrew Day School

    Voice of Pentecost Academy

    Living Hope Christian School

    Muhammed University of Islam

  17. 10:24 AM: That's a great lists, thanks!

  18. 8:50: "EiR1: Most catholic schools need the enrollment". This is so true! Outside of St. Brendan, NDV and maybe St. Cecilia, many Catholic schools need the enrollment. I think 4 Catholic schools in the archdiocese have closed in the past 10 years, St. Elizabeth's most recently.

  19. On behalf of all of those of us who think the public system is a lot more grief than it's worth, THANK YOU for this post and the answers. I don't look at SFK too much because it's all about public school. Lots of us out here want other choices.

  20. OP, my husband is sorta like you and I am sorta like your husband. The wise way he chose to handle this was by being open to investigation - touring, etc. - and not giving much in the way of opinion! Eventually, we did apply to one Catholic school, kid didn't get in, & I (who led this process) find myself actually relieved. The school is very highly regarded, & the people in charge seemed really nice - but in retrospect, the place was highly Catholic, and all that that entails in SF, and we didn't really fit in with that.

  21. I live near the Voice of Pentecost Academy and recently had a postcard dropped off on my porch that advertised their school, including the interesting fact that they do not assign homework. It seemed quite the opposite of what I would expect from a school affiliated with a fundamentalist church. (By the way, it also said that their pastor was praying for us.)

  22. Thanks to all for the great responses so far! Very helpful...and I'm especially enjoying the alternative holy trinity comprised of God, Santa Claus, and the Loch Ness Monster. :)

  23. Just a quick note in response to the first poster, we're a non-Jewish (and not very religious - husband raised Catholic; I was raised Protestant) family who sends our kindergartener to Brandeis. It's a great school and we couldn't be happier! Although many/most families seem to have at least one parent who is Jewish, it's certainly not everyone. Brandeis has everything we wanted in a school curriculum-wise, plus a real (and sincere) emphasis on being a kind person. And our daughter is learning a foreign language, which she LOVES. Also, we just had "back to school" night, at which her Hebrew/Jewish Studies teacher described her approach to teaching Jewish studies as one that emphasizes critical thinking. She's not just teaching the kids stories, but is getting them to think, question and come up with their own interpretations. This is consistent with your friend's observation that Judaism is built on asking lots of questions. So, if you are open to considering a school that does have a religious bent (and full disclosure, this is the only such school we considered), I encourage you to check out Brandeis.

  24. Glad to hear about the great experience you're having at Brandeis and that the web site welcome to everyone is authentic. Neither the price nor the location work for us, but I've never heard a bad thing about it.

  25. I agree with several comments posted - parochial schools offer an outstanding education and alternative to public schools for middle class families, or anyone not keen on increasing expenditures in these economic times, and who are comfortable with religious indoctrination, because they were raised with religion or identify as spiritually-minded, etc.

    Additionally, parochial schools require parent participation and therefore tend to have highly active parent groups and dialogue.

    There are several Catholic schools in the SW of SF that have smaller class sizes between 20 -25 students (for those of you with kids that are easily distracted in large groups) and well-rounded, active classroom schedules (for those kids that can't sit still for an hour in Kindergarten). Like another poster commented, we liked the idea of having our child learn about religious traditions and making up his own mind about it. We also believe that the ‘meta’ teachings at these schools – kindness, compassion, tolerance – are very important behavioral goals. Further, they are inclusive of families of all faith backgrounds. This should be stated on the school website. At our school, Saint Monica School, there are families who identify as Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Episcopalian, Buddhist and no-faith.

    We also had serious concerns post-Prop 8, but it was clear to us as we toured these schools and attended events that all families were equally welcomed. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Catholic ‘profile’ in SF is different than with other locations. Many of my friends and colleagues identify as Catholic, and yet they are just as liberal and concerned about civil rights as our family.

  26. NAEP studies show Catholic Schools the lowest quality education. Private schools almost as good as public. Although public schools are not the vanity choice, which is a big consideration in SF, they do provide the best education. Also, it can be hard to reconcile the narrow minded views of private and Catholic school with the progressive spirit of SF.

  27. Is NDV really much better academically than parochials such as St. Brigid and St. Vincent de Paul?

  28. NDV looks better on paper because their cutoff is September first. Most of the kids that attend are a full year older than their counterparts at other schools.