Monday, November 29, 2010

Private school tours: First cut

Notepad? Check. Told our respective work crews that, once again, we’ll be out all morning? Check. It’s Tourpalooza season, and for us, that includes both public and private schools.

We aren’t at all sure about going private, but as tour season kicked off, we were still curious to see some private elementary schools. What might, for good or bad, set these schools apart?

Answering that question, though, meant figuring out which schools to tour. We were curious, and wanted to see a mix of academic styles and educational approaches. But we’re not so deep in tour-junkie mode that we wanted to see everything. Since we have some important logistical constraints (like a dual southbound commute), we kept a fair number of private schools off our tour list:

  • Single-sex schools. We have an older girl and a younger boy, and can’t face the idea of doing this whole process again in two years. We also aren’t looking at Catholic-affiliated schools, which nixed the Convent-Stuart Hall combo.
  • Schools too far off our commute path to be practical for the next decade or so. Since we live northwest-ish (as in north of Noriega and west of Webster), that eliminated schools like Live Oak, Adda Clevenger, and Synergy.
  • Schools that are relatively new and still finding their feet. Since we’re in learning mode, not “Gotta go to private school or bust” mode, we preferred to see long-running programs in the city with established parent communities we could turn to with questions. For us, that meant leaving Stratford, Alta Vista, and Escuela Marin Prep off our list.
I also decided against touring one school, San Francisco Day, simply because it didn’t feel like a possible fit right up front. I know it’s a popular place, and offers free Open House visits. But to see classrooms in action, you have to fill out a lengthy application and pay $90 before you can formally tour. I’m sure the school has its reasons – tours are disruptive, tours should be set aside for serious prospects, etc. And maybe, since private school means money, SF Day is just being more direct about that fact up front. But most other campuses, public and private, find ways to manage school-time tours without a steep cover charge. We chose to pass.

I fully realize that the schools we opted against touring are a promising fit for other families, so if anyone out there has visited any of these campuses and would like to share their impressions here, please do. If you are interested in the single-sex options, you’ll also find discussions about them on The School Boards site.

Even after eliminating all of the above from our tour list, there remained a wide range of campuses to consider, including San Francisco Friends, Marin Country Day, French American International, Chinese American International, and Presidio Hill. We’ve also toured one parochial school, Zion Lutheran. I’ll post about some of these tours soon.

If you’ve been touring private schools, where did you decide to tour, and why?


  1. I agree that SF Day's policy sounds outrageous and that you made the right call to pass. My impression is that SF Day caters to families for whom $90 is not any big deal.

  2. I too found the $90 upfront fee to tour a big "ouch." It sends the message that middle-class families are not welcome.

  3. Seattle I'm glad you mentioned that about SF Day's tour policy. I too found that unwelcoming but thought I was the only one. I guess I'm just not sure how I would know if I wanted to apply if I didn't take a tour, right? Anyway, I do have two friends who have really liked the school though, so I haven't completely ruled it out.
    As for my private school tour list, I'd like to check out Live Oak and Friends, but time is dwindling on me!!

  4. Not quite sure how friends meets your geographic restrictions but not synergy. They are blocks away from each other. Synergy is also much cheaper.

  5. Synergy and Friends are at opposite ends of Valencia, which can make a difference when you come from one end or another of Valencia.

  6. A couple of years ago, I actually asked SF Day if I could tour before putting my application in as I wanted to see whether it was a good fit for us and it would help me fill out their form. They were fine with that, so if you're interested in the school it might be worth asking.

  7. So the eight blocks between Synergy and Friends are worth the approximately $90,000 difference in tuition over the course of nine years?

  8. 8 blocks? More like 1.3 miles. I can easily see how someone commuting from west side to downtown could justify the (minor) detour across Market Street down to SF Friends but balk at the 1.3 mile each way, stoplight every corner, 11+ block detour down Valencia (major bike corridor, so not a speedway like, say, Geary) to Synergy.

  9. To 1:32 and others re. the Synergy/Friends logistics, here was my thinking (apologies to you who will find the following way more detail than is interesting):

    * Frankly, since we live on the other side of town, and both commute down to Silicon Valley via car or CalTrain most days, none of the private schools in the Mission/Potrero area make a lot of logistical sense for us. But because we're in learning mode, I wanted to see one.

    * In responses to earlier posts, people drove home the importance of logistics. So I looked at locations, and picked the one with the least awful logistics for our commute. Friends is closest to the Duboce and Octavia freeway onramps, which we sometimes use on our 101 days, and to the main CalTrain station.

    * Even with Friends' at that location, it probably wouldn't work for us. The SF-Silicon Valley commute works best when we have two freeway options in and out -- 101/Octavia or 19th Avenue/280.

    * Cost is certainly a huge factor. With two kids in school within the next two years, we frankly couldn't afford Friends OR Synergy without financial aid.

    * Our touring decision is in no way a slam on Synergy. I know a couple of families there who enjoy it. But I've also occasionally tried to do pre-work errands deep in the Mission, and like 4:32 said, the detour adds 30 minutes to my already lengthy drive and makes me late to work. No can do.

    * If anyone out there has thoughts or comments on Synergy, please add them! I certainly agree that for families with less challenged commute logistics, comparing Synergy and Friends makes a lot of sense. I'll post details on our Friends tour soon.

  10. And hi, Emily! I think Friends has an open house this weekend -- maybe try that? And if you do tour Live Oak, please post on it. Would love to hear your impressions, since we won't be touring there.

  11. There's a CalTrain stop pretty near Live Oak. Drop, park, ride...

  12. I would find out how many open spots they are at SF Day, even a ball park figure before I applied. I understand last year that they had 3 non-sibling boy spots and undoubtedly got hundreds of applications. IMHO it is sort of misleading to not disclose that 85% of the spots will likely be filled by siblings.

  13. and did you have to pay the $90 to find out that useful info during your tour? crazy, wasteful way to handle things.

  14. Our child is at Synergy now and we are really really happy. The feel and educational approaches of the schools we were considering (Friends, Live Oak, SF School, Synergy) were very different. All had great strengths, and part of the benefit of visiting different schools is being able to evaluate which is the best fit for your family. Regarding Synergy, I love the warm, cozy feel of the school, the educational philosophy, the teacher co-op model (no one ever seems to leave - the teachers are a truly inspiring, talented and happy bunch), the diversity. The extra minutes of commuting attending the school adds in the morning was an okay trade off for us since the school itself was the best fit for us (and after a few weeks, we figured out the fastest routes and have set up a carpool with other families to make things easier).

  15. We are at SFDS and I did not know that the application was $90.

    I don't quite understand why its that high, nor did I understand why you have to fill out an application to visit the school, but I think you can go to the open houses for free, no?

    I also did not want to apply to the school because I felt it a school for the extremely wealthy and entitled (one of the same reasons I never looked at MCDS), but I'M SO GLAD WE APPLIED TO THIS SCHOOL!

    Do I see some of the parents of my kids classmates in the society pages? I sure do.

    But its like they're two different people (what you see in the newspapers versus who they are in person). They are never exclusive or snobby and while they seem busy, they're not clubby. Its been fine, and I'm glad they're so generous with their time and money!

    We are so happy there--although the school represents considerable expenses in communting and tuition, etc. They are very focused on every child's whole growth, and are totally accepting of the individuality of every child.

    If your child is a "normal" child, they will be nurtured. If your child is exceptionally bright, they will be nurtured; if your child is experiencing a LD, they will be nurtured--how many privates can even begin to do this?

    It was not always this way at SFDS, but it is now, and the school has the will and the resources to ensure this will be the case for years to come.

    Plus this school has some serious diversity--of all types (obvious or not)--which makes my family feel comfortable, and is conducive to learning. I have never seen the kids dress a certain way or talk about Hannah Montana, and I have only seen real empathy and inclusiveness amongst the children.

    my two cents.