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Guidance on picking the best private school

Original post made by JK on Aug 7, 2007

I did not grow up in the US and so have never tried to master the public school system. My daughter goes to private school in SF. We plan to move to Palo Alto and I was hoping someone could give me guidance on non-denominational, co-ed or all girls High schools in Palo Alto or close by. My research is drawing a blank. Thank you in anticipation.

Comments (40)

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 7, 2007 at 7:57 pm

Castilleja is all-girls, non-denominational. Expensive, competitive.
On the free-floating, progressive side, you have the Peninsula School in Menlo Park.

Posted by Anamika, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 7, 2007 at 9:15 pm

If you plan to move to PA, then why not try PA schools?

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 7, 2007 at 9:50 pm

SF has good private high schools. Why not let her go to school with her friends?

Posted by realist, a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 7, 2007 at 9:54 pm

JK's husband may be a venture capitalist or hedge fund manager. They're not allowed to send their kids to public schools.

But you do have to wonder, why bother to move to a city with an outstanding public school system if you're intent on private school? And how hard is it to figure out how to enroll your child in public school?

Posted by Why, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Aug 7, 2007 at 10:07 pm

Hmm, slow night, Realist has nothing better to do than belittle somebody asking for advice. Nice welcoming committee. Realist must be somebody who has underperformed his/her ambitions and deals with it make belittling folks who may have done better.

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 7, 2007 at 10:14 pm

Do we have hedge-fund managers around here? I thought we had VCs and mega-wealthy entrepreneur types.

But I've met a fair number of people who live here, but send their kids to private schools. A lot of it seems to be a background thing--they went to private schools, so their kids go to private schools.

On the East Coast, there's a whole segment that just never-ever consider public schools. The class distinctions don't seem to work quite the same way here--the west seems to have a desire to appear more democratic that way--so, rich kids might go to high school with everybody else . . . well, only some public school districts are a bit more equal than others.

In Woodside, Portola Valley and Atherton, it seems like kids go to the small public elementaries and then go private for the upper grades--thus a huge difference in the quality of the grade schools v. the high schools.

JK, we don't know your situation, but if you want private schools and an estate, Woodside, Atherton and Portola Valley are probably better bets. Steve Jobs keeps a gorgeous house on a corner in PA, but his estate's in Woodside.

Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2007 at 1:13 am

The perfect family to move to Palo Alto - hopefully they buy a multi-million dollar home contributing tens of thousands of dollars per year to the school system, but by sending their kids to private school, won't contribute to the overcrowding! Roll out the welcome wagon.

Posted by Private or no private - that is the question...., a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 8, 2007 at 6:14 am

Here is a list of Private schools in the entire bay area and surroundings:

Web Link

It has more than you asked for.

Now my experience with private schools:

I sent my daughter to Challenger and things went well in KG - however when she went to 1st grade it was a disaster. She used to get homework (and/or assignments) that went on till midnight. Constant scolding to finish her work made her a very quiet person. I simply did not think it was that important to be a know-all when you end up lacking a sense of confidence. 2nd grade onwards she went to PA public schools.

She simply excels now, particularly in Math and Science. Like father like daughter. No regrets. Father's a first generation immigrant.

Posted by Happy School Parent, a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2007 at 7:57 am

"I did not grow up in the U.S." is significant. I didn't grow up in the U.S. either, and came with the conventional attitude from Britain that all public schools are for the lower classes, and if you can afford it you send your children to private schools.

Let me assure JK that Palo Alto has the best public schools in the nation and everyone attends public schools, and most important the children love their schools. My kids went through the entire public school system in Palo Alto, one works for GOOGLE and the other is a climate schientist working for NASA, so you see they did OK! Save your money for your daughter's college education.

Posted by public/private parent, a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2007 at 8:22 am

To original poster: popular private high schools for Palo Alto area are Menlo School, Woodside Priory, St. Francis, Pinewood School, another catholic school in Menlo/atherton area- I forget the name. Some people travel further south to Harker school or north to Notre Dame in Belmont. If you can afford private high school I think its your safest option, personally it would be a financial burden for me so my kids will begin in public high school, after private middle school. I tell my kids when they go to public high school (as I did) its like a crowded freeway were you really have to watch out for yourself, the private school has been a smooth, pleasant country road.

To private or no private: Different experiences depending on the child and teacher, difficult to generalize. I had the opposite experience, we had a very disappointing experience in Palo Alto from 2nd to 5th, changed to Challenger for middle school. My quiet kids gained great confidence in Challenger school and never spent unusual hours on homework.

Posted by JK, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 8, 2007 at 8:47 am

To the sincere and gracious posters who gave me the advice I asked for – thank you. To the rest – oh dear, how sad! I never intended to stir up such ugly, nasty resentment. So the facts just to set the record straight – so you can think twice next time. I am an immigrant and a cancer survivor. I do not have a husband. I do not have child support or alimony. I am not a hedge fund manager nor a VC. I do not have family money. I will not be buying a mansion anywhere. I have one daughter who has severe nerve damage in both eyes due to an early childhood illness. A private school can accommodate her disability and she may have an opportunity to fulfill her dreams – which is what, I believe, this country is all about and way I am here. So please think twice next time.

Posted by Be sure to ask, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 8, 2007 at 9:41 am

JK, it's worth inquiring about how PAUSD would accommodate your daughter's disability. They do such accommodations, often with excellent results, though I don't know how it would compare with the private schools you're considering. I suspect each school deals with these things differently, so you'll want to inquire carefully at each school. Best of luck with your decisions.

Posted by Palo alto mom, a resident of Professorville
on Aug 8, 2007 at 10:14 am

The private schools application process usually requires kids to apply by January and they are notified in March of their acceptance. They may be able to make an exception for your daughter. The Catholic School in Atherton is Sacred Heart. T

If you want to try the Palo Alto schools, talk to Student Service. Carol Zepecki is the head of Student Services for the district. I have found her to be very responsive and caring.

Posted by Anamika, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2007 at 11:28 am

JK - definitely check on the Palo Alto schools; they do a wonderful job in accommodating disabilities. If disability is the only reason why you are leaning towards the private schools, then this investigation may save you some money.

Posted by practical, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 8, 2007 at 5:24 pm

The private schools around here are pretty selective, and the odds of their taking a disabled child are not great. The public schools are much more likely to provide accommodations as well as a real world experience.

Posted by nancy, a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Aug 8, 2007 at 7:54 pm

I recommend Nancy Gill's book, "Parents' Guide to School Selection in San Mateo/Santa Clara County." The evaluations of local private schools seem even-handed. I heard her speak long ago and appreciated her common-sense advice. In a nutshell: unless your public schools are lousy or cannot meet your child's needs, you probably don't need a private school. The emotional consideration of wanting your child to go to a school with a certain image or to go to school with the children of like-minded parents should also be taken into account. (That last point doesn't sound relevant to JK.)

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 8, 2007 at 11:56 pm


Good luck with your daughter. It is worth checking with the district about your daughter's needs and how they could be accommodated here. Private schools are expensive down here and can be very competitive.

Several of the schools mentioned do have religious affiliations--i.e. Woodside Priory, Sacred Heart. I believe there is a Web site on Bay Area Independent Schools. Google the phrase and it should come up.

Posted by dnftt, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 9, 2007 at 9:28 am

JK, the "Town Square" is not the place to ask for advice on schools. There's just too much history here that's going to come out regardless how you phrase your question. The anonymity doesn't help and there is little respect here (it goes hand-in-hand).

The "Parents' Club of Palo Alto and Menlo Park" would provide you with more pertinent information. Web Link

They have dossiers on all schools in the area (both public and private). They would also provide a reach-out point for you to meet/talk with others in a similar situation.
They have a mailing list that often talks about these issues and also provide an anonymous posting service for a specific request to this list if it's required.
It's a much better forum than the "Town Square" for the sort of questions you're asking.

Posted by bemused, a resident of Professorville
on Aug 9, 2007 at 2:02 pm

PAMP focuses on families with children ages 0 to 5. Most members have no personal experience with high schools, unless they themselves grew up here and attended local schools.

I don't know what SF private schools are like, but if my child were disabled, I would not send her to a private HS here. Those rich kids can be awfully nasty.

Posted by Castilleja Parent, a resident of Atherton
on Aug 9, 2007 at 2:51 pm


Unlike some posters, I am taking your question seriously. You may want to consider Castilleja School, an all-girls private school in Palo Alto for grades 6-12. The school is academically rigorous and challenging, with a strong atheletics program and a so-so arts deparatment. Castilleja emphasizes the development of independence and assertiveness, as well as academics, and it encourages students to take on responsibilities and to make decisions on their own. Moreover, without any boys on campus, girls seem to be more willing to be themselves, take on risks, and develop their talents and interests in "unfeminine" subjects, such as math and science. Thus, Castilleja girls are typically NOT "shrinking violets"; rather, they tend to be of the "take charge" persuasion.

In high school, there are about 60 girls per grade. The student population is quite diverse, both ethnically and economically. Tuition runs about $25,000 a year, but substantial financial aid is available. There are a number of children whose parents are "rich & famous" (nationally as well as locally), but there are lots of ordinary folks from down the street who send their daughters to Castilleja as well. Although non-denominational, the school tends to "politically correct" and might be said to worship in the "Church of Global Warming" or other left-wing stations of the cross.

Graduates of the school tend to go to well-known colleges. For example, of the class of 2007's 57 or so members, Stanford will welcome about 15% of the class; Penn, Georgetown and USC will each matriculate about 10%; Harvard, Princeton, Brown, Berkeley and UCLA will each get about 5%. These are rough numbers (official figures have not been published), and the admission figures vary a bit each year.

Hope this helps.

Posted by Another Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 9, 2007 at 4:22 pm

Castilleja, from my experience, wants a lot of family participation. I know of one family where the wife was dying of cancer and the husband told the school at the interview he was looking for a school where he could pay the money and know his daughter was getting the best education possible while he cared for his wife and family at home and also ran a high tech business. The daughter passed the interview and tests, but the family did not get in because of the father's comments. If this is the type of expectation that the original poster has for a private school, the same could apply here.

Posted by Palo alto mom, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 10, 2007 at 7:59 am

Castilleja is a great school - if you LOVE academics. Anyone else will spends hours on homework, without much of an outside life. Girls who belong there love it, girls who don't are miserable.

Posted by natasha, a resident of Meadow Park
on Aug 10, 2007 at 8:35 am

Castilleja girls are the only group of teenagers I know who, as a rule, look you in the eye when they are talking to you and engage thoughtfully and respectfully. It is always fun to talk to these lively, bright, energetic girls. The school takes the building of character very seriously, and I am consistently surprised that they can gather than many girls in one place and keep it from devolving into a clique-y nightmare. At least, that's how it was when I was there and that is how it looks to me from seeing and talking to my friends' daughters who are there now.

That being said, I hear consistently that it is academically VERY rigorous, and the pressure is (still) there to go to an Ivy League rather than "just" a UC, which is a shame. If your daughter is one who likes to step up to meet challenges, this might be the place for her. It is very nurturing of its students, worth talking about accomodations that might be made.

From my experience, Castilleja girls graduate more educated and well rounded at 18 than most of the graduate students I met later in life. But hey, there's no place I'd rather send a daughter than my alma mater, so I am biased.

Posted by pragmatist, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 10, 2007 at 9:16 am

Castilleja students look you in the eye and engage in thoughtful discourse because the admissions process keeps out the girls who can't conduct themselves in that manner. The school just doesn't accept shy girls or inarticulate geeks, or girls who lack Ivy potential, whereas the public schools accommodate all.

Casti offers a fine education, no question about that, but so do the public schools, and the public schools also give students the multiple benefits associated with a relatively diverse community. It's oh so very pleasant to spend your days among nice girls, but it doesn't teach you how to deal with bullies or wackos or help you acquire the kinds of life skills that will come in handy many times down the road.

Being a parent at any local private schools takes a lot more than plain tuition. When your kid is at Casti, you don't invite her classmates over for a birthday bowling party--nope, if you don't fly a dozen of them to Mexico or treat them to a day at a spa, you'll be perceived as a piker and your daughter will feel forever humiliated.

Posted by natasha, a resident of Meadow Park
on Aug 10, 2007 at 9:34 am

Pragmatist, is that right? That was not my experience and it isn't the experience of the girls I know who go there now that they have to fly everyone to Mexico to be a "player." I am wondering if you are basing that on having been a Castilleja parent or what. Yes, Palo Alto high schools offer great educations, for the honors kids. My brother went to Gunn and was not AP track and his education was perfectly adequate but nothing exceptional. And my kids have experienced bullying in the most outrageous levels in elementary school. They have learned how to deal with bullies, but I see no reason why one would want to force one's child to endure that. And I also don't think it's the case that Castilleja only accepts fully-formed alpha girls. I wasn't one, and I knew plenty of girls who grew in self-esteem and self-confidence from having gone there.

I'm not saying Castilleja is the place for everyone, or that you can't get a great education in the Palo Alto high schools. But I think it's unnecessary to bash it for being a lovely environment to grow in, and I wonder why you have that chip on your shoulder. If you don't want to, don't send you kid there. No big deal.

Posted by Palo alto mom, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 10, 2007 at 9:59 am

I agree with pragmatist. Casti accepts a certain type of girl, academically inclined, confident but not neccesarily outgoing. There is some diversity in skills and personalities mainly due to siblings getting preference, those that might not have gotten in otherwise.

There are bullies at every school including Casti. It is hard to be a student there without a Coach purse, cool vacations to report on etc. In general, the private schools in the area are very competitive and every girl I know with an eating disorder has attended a private school, Casti and others.

On the positive side - the girls receive a wonderful education, the teachers are caring and well qualified, their instruction in more in depth than a public school.

Posted by Recent Casti Alumna, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 10, 2007 at 10:07 am

When I was at Castilleja, I found it a nurturing place where the girls-only, focus on personal development and achievement, and uniform-wearing environment protected me in impressionable years from what Palo Alto has become - a place where one is often judged on conspicuous consumption. I found the other schools in the area - public and private - had MUCH more of the "flying your kids to Mexico to be a player" than Castilleja's environment ever did. At Castilleja I was judged on interpersonal skills, academic achievement, well-roundedness, etc. NOT on what car I drove (I didn't have one), what I wore (everyone wore the same thing) or what kind of house my parents lived in.

Some may call that 'sheltered,' but I found it a positive experience to have the worry of bullies, boys or judgment of wealth removed for a short period in my life while I focused on school, friends, sports and becoming a good person. There's plenty of time for learning all that in college and I have the increased self- assurance to deal with it better.

Posted by Carol, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 10, 2007 at 10:18 am

I went to an all girls private school. I was sheltered and protected. Yes, it was a great place to grow up. However, I left school with a completely ignorant attitude of what happened in the real world. I was very intolerant and naive. I think (hope) that my subsequent life experiences have changed all that, but I am still very much the product of that school. I had no brothers and found that even entering into mixed society was difficult.

I personally am against all girls schools although I do see some advantages. I am also against a strict school uniform although I again see the advantages. I would prefer a much less strict uniform, just perhaps colors and styles rather than "you must wear this skirt, this shirt, this sweater, these socks, this jacket, this type of black laced shoes, bought at this very expensive store".

Posted by natasha, a resident of Meadow Park
on Aug 10, 2007 at 10:36 am

And that is why you should absolutely not send your daughter to one. People who want to send their daughters there like the benefits of single sex education and a uniform. The less strict a uniform, the more variation in quality and price and satus of the articles (Target polo shirt vs. Bloomie's oplo shirt, for example), so most people who like a uniform like it to be pretty minimal in the choices it offers. But again, that's a consideration.

I also have the feeling that you did not go to Castilleja, so let me tell you that I have not found the girls there to be intolerant and naive, and have found them to be very educated and informed and engaged on global issues.

But again, I don't see the point of bashing Castilleja on points that are not evwen accurate. Just don't send your child to an all-girls' school. If you don't like them, this is certainly NOT the place to put your child.

To bring it full-circle, however, I'll just point out that the original poster asked about all-girls' AND co-ed private schools in Palo Alto, so obviously she does not share your aversion to girls' schools. Discussing the pros and cons of single-sex education on another thread would be interesting, but is off-topic for what this poster requested.

Posted by Carol, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 10, 2007 at 11:03 am


Sorry, I did not go to Castilleja and didn't mean to give the impression that I did. It was an all girls school, not round here and I have no idea about Castilleja from any kind of experience. I was just sharing my experiences as general information. I am sure that some girls do much better than others in this type of environment and I was just giving my feedback for overall consideration.

Yes, I do agree that there are some topics here that could be discussed on another thread.

Posted by Alumna Parent, a resident of Menlo Park
on Aug 11, 2007 at 1:36 pm

Peninsula School is not a high school; it only goes through Grade 8. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Public schools in every district are required to accomodate children with disabilities, while private schools are free to reject them. Palo Alto has more money, so probably would take better care of your daughter.

Congratulations on surviving cancer!

Posted by SpeakingFromExperience, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 11, 2007 at 7:16 pm

Palo Alto has the best public schools in the state. That is the good news and the bad news. While they may be better than any other public schools, they are not set up to deal with people who deviate substantially from the norm. If you have a child with any special needs, either physical or mental, you will find yourself very frustrated with PAUSD schools, particularly in middle school and high school. Budget cuts have eliminated most of the counselors and support that would help those who need a little extra attention. If your children are normal and healthy they should do fine in public school, otherwise there are private schools that specialize in teaching various groups of kids who were not served in public schools. Each one may be "best" for some kids and inappropriate for others. Shop around and have your child visit each school for a day, shadowing a current student. Talk to parents with children at the school. Take your time, but if you make a mistake you can always change later.

Posted by also speaking from exeperience, a resident of Professorville
on Aug 11, 2007 at 10:30 pm

I have found PAUSD to be very supportive in providing services if you are an assertive (calm, polite but persistent parent). Don't follow the chain of command, politely start with the principal, wait only a few weeks (3-4) and go to Student Services - someone in this thread mentioned the contacts. Once you are in the program, in my experience, PA has been wonderful - and from what I understand they are even better with physical than LD issues. Do not be patient, but be polite, expect the best, your daughter deserves it. There are wonderful, caring professionals in this district and the kids (most of them) have been taught to enjoy and embrace their fellow students with "differences".

Posted by chong, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 12, 2007 at 11:22 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Castilleja Parent, a resident of Atherton
on Aug 12, 2007 at 3:38 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by xSIpar, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 16, 2007 at 5:16 pm

Our experience mimics that of SpeakingFromExperience. Our daughter's disability was not addressed in Palo Alto public schools despite a tremendous amount of effort and time on our part. She has found a nuturing home in private school. I do agree that Carol Zepecki at PAUSD does a wonderful job. The public schools are just limited in terms of resources and staff for accomodating children with disabilities. All the private schools I know of have scholarship programs. For non-denominational, I've heard good things about Castilleja.

Posted by school advice, a resident of another community
on Aug 31, 2007 at 11:26 pm

JK, There are many good options near Palo Alto for high school education, both public and private. For anyone who seeks an academically challenging private high school education, probably the top three private schools on the peninsula are Menlo School, Crystal Springs and Castilleja. Much has already been said about Castilleja, so I won't bother to add to that. Menlo School is widely regarded as one of the top private schools in the country. The academic environment is very engaging and intellectually stimulating. The campus operates more like a small liberal arts college, with frequent guest lectures and an emphasis on developing the "life of the mind". The coed student body has about 140 students per grade, small enough to be highly personal, yet large enough to encompass many varied interests from music to sports to extracurricular academic interests to public service. Scholarships are offered based on financial need. The downside is that it is very competitive to gain admission (it's easier to get into boarding school at Andover or Exeter!). Crystal Springs is also well-regarded, although the HIllsborough location makes it less desirable for PA residents.

Posted by sfmom, a resident of another community
on Oct 4, 2007 at 12:32 pm

SF private schools are very weak academically, so the child would not be prepared for public school.

Posted by bevan, a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Aug 4, 2008 at 10:09 pm

Boarding Private Schools is where students are away from their home. In these boarding schools students can learn many new things to accomplish their goals and ambitions. So for the welfare of the students these schools are a very best choice.

Posted by HA!, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 6, 2008 at 11:23 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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