The Bay Area Private School Guide

Our comprehensive guide to everything you need to know about private schools in Marin and beyond.
Marin Mag Private School


When you’re thinking about your child’s education, its important to consider if a private school is the right fit. The below guide will help you come to understand what types of private schools are available, translate what different accreditations mean, and help you to acquainted with new innovations. In addition, our Bay Area Private School Guide Directory offers comprehensive listings with particulars on more than 160 private schools in San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties and the East Bay.


A Big Decision

When you’re selecting a private school, it helps to narrow the field by deciding what kind of school you want your child to attend. The following categories are not mutually exclusive; some schools may fit into two or more, such as St. Helena Montessori, a Montessori school that includes Catholic teachings. Even so, knowing how the main types of schools are defined will help you advance your search.

Independent Schools

These schools are governed by their own board. Some are secular, while others have a religious mis- sion but are not part of or dependent on a specific church or temple. Independent schools in Marin County include Corte Madera’s Marin Country Day School, Mill Valley’s Marin Horizon School, San Rafael’s Marin Academy and San Domenico School.

Catholic Schools

Although there are schools affiliated with most every religion, the Catholic school system is such a major institution — enrolling 38 percent of all private school students nationwide, according to the National Center for Education Statistics — that it deserves its own category. A Catholic school may be established and supported by a parish, a diocese or a private order such as the Jesuits or Franciscans.

Not all families who choose Catholic schools subscribe to the faith; nationwide, 17 per- cent of their students are non-Catholic, according to the National Catholic Education Association. Catholic schools in Marin include Kentfield’s Marin Catholic High School, Novato’s Our Lady of Loretto School and Tiburon’s Saint Hilary School.

Non-Catholic Religious Schools

If you add up all the other types of religious schools — conservative Christian, Jewish, Lutheran, Seventh Day Adventists, Quaker and others — they enroll about as many students as Catholic schools do, nationwide. Non-Catholic religious schools in Marin include San Rafael’s Brandeis Marin (Jewish) and Good Shepherd Lutheran School and Marin Christian Academy, both in Novato.

Montessori Schools

This approach to education has been around for more than a century, but it’s enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent decades as parents increasingly embrace Montessori’s focus on the whole child, with independent activities and materials that appeal to kids’ senses. The North American Montessori Teachers Association estimates there are about 4,500 Montessori schools in the United States, most of them private. Maria Montessori originally developed her teaching philosophy for preschoolers, and the majority of Montessori schools still focus on early childhood education. But some include elementary and even secondary grade levels. Montessori schools in Marin include Corte Madera’s Marin Montessori School and San Rafael’s Montessori de Terra Linda School.

Waldorf Schools

Less common than other private school models, with only about 150 schools in North America according to Waldorf Answers, this is nonetheless an attractive educational philosophy to many progressive parents. Waldorf is sometimes categorized alongside Montessori since both allow students to move beyond the desks and worksheets of today’s mainstream class- room. However, Waldorf schools in practice are fairly distinct from Montessori. Students in a Waldorf school may spend more time creating things, whether it’s artwork or knitting with wool. Another distinguishing factor: Waldorf schools don’t teach academics until first grade. For more on what defines Waldorf, see this article on Waldorf versus Montessori.

Alphabet Soup: Accreditation Organizations

AIS, NAIS, NCEA, WASC — a list of private schools can look like a jumble of radio call signs to the uninitiated. What do all these letters mean? Many of them represent the organization that accredited the school —the folks who examined the school to make sure it meets standards. The accreditation process is a lot like peer review for a scientific paper: educators or administrators from outside the school come in to audit how the school functions and suggest ways it could improve. Here’s a look at the most common acronyms used to describe Bay Area private schools, including organizations and the accrediting bodies evaluating schools.

While accreditation is optional for private schools under California law, it’s a good idea for parents to make sure their school of choice has been examined by at least one recognized accrediting organization. Besides assuring parents that the school they’re enrolling their child in meets standards and goals set forth in the organization’s guidelines, accreditation also ensures that the academic credits will transfer if your child changes schools. Schools may be accredited by more than one organization.

The Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) accreditation is required for all public schools in California; many private schools seek WASC accreditation as well. Private schools with WASC accreditation include Fusion Academy Marin, Our Lady of Loretto School, Brandeis Marin, Marin Primary and Middle School, and Marin Academy.

You can view a full list of WASC-accredited schools at the directory on the WASC website. WASC is one of six regional accrediting agencies in the United States, and its accrediting commission is composed of representatives from educational organizations such as the Association of California School Administrators, the California Teachers Association and the California Association of Independent Schools. WASC advocates a student-centered approach and encourages staff to improve through continuing education.

Formed in 1941 by educators concerned that not all private schools were producing graduates meeting the standards of the University of California, the California Association of Independent Schools (CAIS) today has 219 member schools, just under half of them in Northern California, and serves as the accrediting organization for independent nonprofit schools in California. CAIS’s accreditation process involves both an in-depth self-study on the part of the school and a school visit by a team of educators to make sure the school is adhering to standards and continually improving. “The standards address all areas of school life, including the following: mission, governance, finance, program, community of the school, administration, development, admissions, personnel, health and safety, facilities, student services, school culture and residential life (where applicable),” the CAIS website says. In Marin County, CAIS-accredited schools include Marin Horizon School, Mount Tamalpais School, Marin Country Day School, Marin Montessori School, Marin Primary and Middle School, San Domenico School, Brandeis Marin, The Marin School, Mark Day School, The Branson School and Cascade Canyon School. CAIS is devoted to maintaining “standards without standardization,” noting on its website, “Because each school community is unique, the accreditation process permits the school to use considerable flexibility in its approach to the self-study yet still be linked to sound components of a quality self-assessment.”

The National Association of  Independent Schools (NAIS), formed in 1962, is not an accrediting authority but a membership organization providing services to more than 1,800 independent, private, non-profit K–12 schools and associations of schools (such as CAIS) in the United States and abroad. Most private independent schools in the Bay Area belong to NAIS.

More so than with other kinds of schools, the letters that come after the name of your Montessori school can tell you what philosophy the school likely embraces.

The Association Montessori Internationale/USA (AMI) is the domestic branch of the original organization founded by Maria Montessori; schools that list AMI recognition cleave closely to Montessori’s original methods, and every classroom has a head teacher trained by the organization. In the Bay Area, AMI/USA recognizes Corte Madera’s Marin Montessori School and San Rafael’s Montessori de Terra Linda School.

Schools accredited by the American Montessori Society (AMS), formed in 1960, may have teachers trained by a number of Montessori organizations. These schools have more freedom to supplement Dr. Montessori’s meth- ods with other resources and ideas — although they still must maintain Montessori practices such as self-directed learning based on kids choosing, using and then putting away materials. In the Bay Area, AMS-accredited schools include Brush Creek Montessori School in Santa Rosa and Petaluma’s Spring Hill Montessori.

The Western Catholic Educational Association (WCEA) is the main organization accrediting Bay Area Catholic schools, including Santa Rosa’s Cardinal Newman, San Anselmo’s St. Anselm School and Larkspur’s St. Patrick School. WCEA’s directors and members include representatives from archdioceses and dioceses all over the western states, and it accredits both elementary and secondary schools to ensure they are performing well on two fronts: faith formation and educational excellence.

You may also see the letters NCEA listed with a Catholic school’s name; they stand for National Catholic Educational Association, which is a membership group but not an accrediting body.

Project-Based Learning

A major innovation in 21st century education is PBL, which Marin’s own Buck Institute for Education defines as “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.”

The efficiencies and flexibility of hybrid or blended education lend themselves to PBL, but this innovation is also being embraced by schools independent of technology use.

Just two of many examples: K-8 Jewish day school Brandeis Marin, in San Rafael, lists PBL as one of its core educational pillars, noting that it “fosters creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and problem solving.” Mark Day School, also in San Rafael, incorporates PBL into its first-grade curriculum when students create worm bins to process compost and then create books to educate others about vermicomposting.

“We don’t want to just focus on lecture format, where the teacher’s just giving all the information and the kids are memorizing it and taking a test,” says Raquel Rose, assistant superintendent at the Marin County Office of Education. “Project-based learning is more about focusing on the 21st century skills of collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity.”


Check out our Bay Area Private School Guide Directory for more information.

Categories: Marin Matters