The Bay Area Private School Guide
Our comprehensive guide to everything you need to know about private schools in Marin and beyond.
Now that it’s September, as the air cools and kids head back to school, it’s a good time to think ahead about your child’s education. Is a private school the right fit? If so, now is when to consider it for the next academic year.
In our 10th annual Bay Area Private School Guide, we present resources and information to help you pick the ideal educational setting. You’ll find features on mindfulness training as well as on how schools are embracing diversity, equity and inclusion, plus a list with particulars on more than 140 private schools in San Francisco, Marin and Sonoma counties and the East Bay. It’s a comprehensive guide designed to provide the tools you need to evaluate options for the 2020–2021 school year.
The below information will help you come to understand what types of private schools are available, translate what different accreditations mean, and help you to get acquainted with new innovations.
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An Inclusive Education
Private schools are increasingly embracing diversity, equity and inclusion, weaving these ideas into the fabric of the school community.
IT COULD BE A reflection of what is going on in today’s larger society, but many schools, especially independent schools, are formally initiating policies around diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI for short. This movement has been building for the past few years, with many private schools now adopting the concept and making parents aware of it early in the admission process.
The biggest benefit of DEI is that it makes students feel they are all on equal footing and ensures that everyone feels included. Studies show that DEI can also derail bullying and counter the social media shaming that can happen at the middle school level and above.
“DEI has only been formally recognized by the National Association of Independent Schools since the early 1980s,” says Alison Park, founder of Mill Valley–based Blink Consulting, which works with schools to help them articulate and advance their DEI visions and initiatives. “While it is a researched field of practice, it is still new in implementation in independent schools.”
According to Park, it’s important to first understand how the terms of diversity, equity and inclusion are defined. Park’s definitions came in part from the book The Inclusion Breakthrough by Frederick Miller and Judith Katz. According to her research, diversity is characterized partly as aspects of identity that correlate with disparities of status, privilege, opportunity and access to resources within a community. The definition includes dominant social groups whose identity and culture set the norm against which perceived “differences” are defined.
Equity refers to equalizing the ability of diverse groups to thrive, by ensuring that everyone has what he or she needs and by addressing unfair biases and discrimination in the greater community’s culture.
Inclusion goes beyond simply being nice or prohibiting discrimination. It refers to how a group actively creates an environment in which diverse members “share a sense of belonging, mutual respect, being valued for who they are, and supportive energy and commitment from others so that they can do their best work.”
Brooke Wilson Broudy, admissions director at the Bay School of San Francisco, says that while more parents are proactively asking about the school’s DEI initiatives during the admissions process than they were several years ago, it is still largely up to the school to educate parents about those initiatives, even if the parents don’t initially recognize the importance of them.
“We all have work to do,” she says, “and there isn’t a person who isn’t impacted by the issues in today’s society. If you don’t have experiences with people unlike you, then you will be in a weaker position.” She points out that students need to be prepared for a multicultural world at the preparatory level, not just when they go to college or enter the workforce. “Kids are ready and willing to be challenged around diversity topics in a way that adults are not. There’s more flexibility there.”
One such student transformed by DEI initiatives is Damon, a Bay School graduate who was part of the school’s “White People and Learning Racism” affinity club. Wilson Broudy says the club is set up for Caucasian students to learn about the intrinsic challenges of being a person of color and opens up the conversation about that in a way that makes students feel safe to share without fear of judgment. Damon, who was initially timid about joining the club, ended up being one of the biggest advocates of it. “Damon was passionate about talking about issues surrounding race and actively encouraging his classmates to do the same, which was positive for everyone.”
At Mount Tamalpais School in Mill Valley, DEI concepts are introduced to students as early as kindergarten, according to Amy Pearson, the school’s director of admissions. “Our youngest students are typically our most open and inclusive because it comes with the territory,” Pearson says. “They are our best advocates and ambassadors for thinking outside of the box, taking on new perspectives, and trying something on without secondguessing themselves. Young children are used to falling down, making mistakes and trying again.”
Equity, in Wilson Broudy’s opinion, is a moral imperative. “It means that we treat all students the same — everyone has the same technology, the same access to special programs, even the same lunch,” she says. Lunch is served daily on campus, and although Bay School allows juniors and seniors to leave campus for it, they are not allowed to bring the food back with them or import it from outside. In other words, no one can pull a Fast Times at Ridgemont High “Jeff Spicoli” and order in pizza during history class.
“A community filled with individuals from different races, cultures, religious beliefs, socioeconomic backgrounds, genders, family structures, learning styles, and life choices ensures that we are learning from one another on a person-to-person basis, not by making assumptions based on lack of direct experience,” Pearson says. “The classroom is the microcosm of society; therefore, our priority is to create a safe space for our students to be who they are, honoring their cultures and celebrating our differences.”
Mind Over Matter
Mindfulness lessons at school help kids achieve clarity of thought and learn to create calm out of chaos.
AT SAN DOMENICO School in San Anselmo, you can find “glitter jars” in many of the classrooms. Students pick up the jars, swirl them around and see the glitter move about, then set the jar down to see how the glitter settles back in place. It’s a visual representation of how emotions work — shake it up and things get hectic, settle down and everything returns to a calm state.
It’s part of the school’s mindfulness program, designed to teach kids to gain a better grasp on emotions and handle stressful situations.
According to Mindful Schools, a Bay Area nonprofit that works with schools worldwide to create such programs and train teachers in the techniques, mindfulness helps people combat toxic stress, which occurs when life’s demands consistently outpace our ability to cope with those demands. For schoolchildren, these demands can be anything from test anxiety to conflicts with classmates to trouble paying attention in class. More and more schools are adopting mindfulness instruction and weaving it into daily student life.
At San Domenico, practices vary from class to class. Some groups might pause to observe a “mindful minute” at the beginning of the day; in others, a collapsible geodesic dome–like structure called a Hoberman sphere helps kids visualize breathing and expansion or transformation of the mind.
“Mindfulness is important in education as it teaches students skills to support their overall well-being, as whole, integrated selves,” San Domenico lower school counselor Lisa Richter says. “These are skills they can learn and use from the earliest ages in school and can build on throughout their lives.”
Students at Mount Tamalpais School in Mill Valley start off each morning in homeroom with a 30-minute mindfulness meeting that includes greeting each other face-to-face and verbally checking in about how they are feeling. Teachers lead them through visualizations, breathing techniques or yoga poses meant to connect body and mind.
But does all this really work? “Students frequently self-report to their parents, teachers and the counselor that they have found mindfulness to be helpful to them in reducing test anxiety,” Richter says. “It also helps students fall asleep at night, and they enjoy teaching their parents and siblings about the practice.”
Such methods seem particularly helpful for adolescents dealing with peer pressure and schoolwork stress. “Mindfulness gives teens tools to respond to situations thoughtfully rather than just reacting or being impulsive,” says Kathy Laughlin, San Domenico’s director of counseling. “The practice can be done anytime and anywhere, as it helps to ground you in the here and now.”
“Mindfulness is one of the many tools we teach our students to use to approach different feelings that they experience throughout the day,” adds Amy Pearson, Mount Tamalpais School’s director of admissions. “While we as adults may discuss mindfulness techniques, our students tend to embrace it as a very normal part of their day. In fact, many parents tell us that their 6- and 7- year-olds have very sage advice when they observe [parents] getting frustrated — in traffic, for example” — offering suggestions like, “ ‘Why don’t you use your breathing tool?’ ”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.