Education

Why I Chose Private Elementary School Instead Of L.A. Public School

This is a guest post by Christina Simon

Since I’m the co-author of a book for parents applying to private schools in L.A., and I blog about the same topic, it’s natural for parents to be curious as to why I chose private school for my kids. I’m a graduate of LAUSD public schools. Both my parents were LAUSD teachers and I’ve never attended private school. So why didn’t I continue with our strong family tradition of public school education and advocacy for public schools with my two kids?

When it came time to look for kindergarten for my daughter, I kept an open mind. We lived in a Los Angeles neighborhood with a top public elementary school three blocks from our house. This school has very high student test scores and seemed like a real possibility for my daughter. Our preschool director spoke highly of the school and parents I knew who lived outside the district were vying for permits to send their kids there. Still, I had some reservations based on my own public school experience that include bullying and overcrowding.

Another mom at our preschool and I set up an appointment to meet with the principal and tour the school. The day of our appointment we arrived on time just to learn that the principal was “unavailable.” So, we waited, politely sitting in the front waiting area. Finally, after about 20 minutes the receptionist told us the principal wouldn’t be able to meet with us. We asked if a teacher could show us the school. A very nice kindergarten teacher gave us a quick tour and told us the principal was now available to see us in her office. We sat down and introduced ourselves. The principal seemed uninterested in us and bored with the conversation. We asked about class size, hot lunch and homework. Waving her hands and practically shouting us down, the principal didn’t answer our questions. Instead, she aimed a pointed question at me, “is your daughter smart?” she demanded to know. She didn’t ask the other mom the same question. My response was, “I live in your district.” In other words, you have to enroll my kid, whether or not she’s smart. I refused to answer her question. I found it offensive. We asked to see a 1st grade class. The principal said no. As we were leaving, the kindergarten teacher told us, “just be quiet, I’ll show you the 1st grade class.” We peeked into the 1st grade class and I instantly knew why the principal didn’t want us to see it. It was a Korean-language immersion class. None of the kids in the class spoke English in a school that is predominately Korean and Korean-American. The principal was also Korean. Could she have been subtly trying to discourage me from enrolling my daughter in the school?

A few months later, I went back to the public school again during a school community fair. I tried to like it, but with nearly 1000 elementary students, I felt my shy daughter might be lost in the crowd. And, I knew I wouldn’t be able to deal with the principal’s abrasive personality. The mom from our preschool who toured with me decided to enroll her child. Her perception of the school was vastly different than mine. Then again, the principal never asked if her white daughter was “smart.” That question was reserved for me, the African American mom.

Despite living in a “good” public school district, my husband and I decided private school would be the best option for our kids. And so began the hellish, ultra-competitive process to get our daughter into a top private elementary school in L.A.

Ultimately, the decision to send your child to public or private school is a very personal family decision driven by your own educational experience, finances, and geography. I believe I made the right choice for my kids. That said, private schools aren’t perfect. They have their share of bullies and elitism. Authentic diversity is difficult to find in many of LA’s private schools. These aren’t your neighborhood schools, so driving time can be tedious. But, what our school offers my kids is a small community where everyone knows their names. They are inspired by the progressive educational philosophy, taught by excellent teachers, on a wonderful urban campus that sparks creativity and imagination. The technology program is state-of-the-art and is integrated into other aspects of the curriculum.

Ironically, one of my longtime friends is a board member of LAUSD. My husband and I were proud to contribute to her first campaign and her subsequent re-election effort. I commend her for working incredibly hard on behalf of the kids in LAUSD. She respects my work helping parents navigate the competitive private elementary school admissions process. We each know that as moms our only goal is to find the best education possible for our kids, whether that is at public or private school.

Christina Simon is the co-author of “Beyond The Brochure: An Insider’s Guide To Private Elementary Schools In Los Angeles.” She writes a blog on the same topic, Beyond the Brochure. Christina is the mom of an 8 year-old son and an 11 year-old daughter who attend The Willows Community School in Culver City. Her work has been published on Salon.com, BlogHer Syndication, Mamapedia, The Mother Company, Offbeat Mama, Macaroni Kids and other sites.

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16 comments

  1. Practical Parenting 21 November, 2011 at 09:49 Reply

    It really depends on where you are and what is the best fit for your child. All children are different. One might crave the larger class size while another needs a small, contained environment. It’s disappointing that the director treated you in such a manner. I was a school administrator for many years, and even on my worst day I would have taken the time for a good tour and answered questions. We moved to one of the beach towns with a great district so that we can go public, but if it ever wasn’t working we could always downsize and go private. Bullying is everywhere. I went to a very elitist new England prep school…and it was right there.

  2. Jenny Heitz 21 November, 2011 at 10:26 Reply

    As someone who has experienced both private and public schools with my child, I too opted for private. My child has never been happier. Where we live, the public system is struggling. The larger class sizes (I don’t think larger is EVER better), lack of funds for even a librarian or custodian, adherence to test taking, and constant panicked parents just didn’t work for us. It’s a shame. Private school might not cut down on bullying, but it offers so many other wonderful things. It just costs a bundle. Great and very honest post about what worked for you, Christina.

  3. Salt & Nectar 21 November, 2011 at 10:33 Reply

    I agree that the best approach is finding a school, whether public or private, that is the best fit for your child and his/her educational, social, and personal wants and needs. I think the bigger problem in cities like LA is that it’s hard for parents to feel like they have a real choice in the matter. The public school system unfortunately leaves a lot to be desired, while many private schools are unattainable due to their extreme cost. When you only have one or two desirable public schools to compare to the many private schools that offer the same or better caliber programs, you feel like your stuck and you deal with a lot of parental guilt and worry wondering about whether to go public or private. It’s very appreciated that you help demystify the entire process of finding the right school.

  4. Laura Gerson 21 November, 2011 at 11:20 Reply

    Christina’s book is the go-to-guide for parents applying to private elementary school for the first time. It is an easy read, well-written, organized and very helpful! The tips she offers about interviews and what to expect during the application process have my my fears aside. I know I will be going back to her book again and again as I embark on this journey this year. Thanks Christina!

  5. Missy 21 November, 2011 at 11:31 Reply

    Thanks for sharing your own personal journey through the school selection process. It is a different world than when I was a kid and went down the street to the neighborhood public school with all of my friends. I completely agree with your last line – it comes down to finding the best education for your kids, whether it’s public or private. I also don’t believe one is necessarily better than another. You have to find what fits for your child and your family.

  6. The School Boards 21 November, 2011 at 12:04 Reply

    Thank you for sharing your thought process when choosing a school for your daughter. As you said, the decision is so personal and should be based on the best fit for your child and your family rather than test scores and reputation. I’m just really surprised how that particular principal acted during your tour – how disappointing.

  7. Gina Osher 21 November, 2011 at 12:23 Reply

    Although I went to a public high school, my elementary school years were spent at a very small private school (15 kids in the graduating class!) and I have wonderful memories of the way teachers taught and the sense of excitement I had about learning. Our local public school is, like yours, within walking distance and I would have loved to send our children there. However, I was disappointed by large class sizes, the lack of enthusiasm shown by the kids, the lack of creativity shown in the artwork and writing assignments oh, and the one day I saw 3 children beating up a smaller boy in a corner of the yard with no supervising adult anywhere near by! Besides that incident, which obviously could have been an anomaly, there was little about the school that made me feel secure that my kids would come home each day full of enthusiasm and wonder about their day at school.

    I know how lucky we are to even have the choice not to send our kids there and I totally relate to what Salt & Nectar said about many parents feeling guilty! I have a friend who is so committed to a better education for her sons that she is spending countless hours as a founding parent to start a new charter school in her neighborhood because they can’t afford private school, but her local public school is an unacceptable choice.

    Thank you for this post – I think it really helps parents to see that it’s not just about having all the bells & whistles, it’s about finding the school that will be the best place to nurture our children.

  8. Andrea 21 November, 2011 at 12:34 Reply

    When I was expecting our first son, my husband and I did a brief contemplation of public vs. private schools. We did this in order to determine in which neighborhoods we would conduct our search for a bigger house. Both of us had gone to private schools (while each of our siblings had gone to public), he here in So. Cal and I, in New England, and we felt that our college choices were widened as a direct result. I asked myself: if money weren’t an object, where would I educate my child? I decided to continue on my career path in part to ensure that money, and lack thereof, would not stop us from giving our children “the best.” So that was it – it was thus decided that we would go private and not be limited in our search for homes. This “approach,” if you can call it that, was not only incomplete, but can be labeled as naive at best. So here we are – 9 years into a private pre/elementary school journey. While we have been very happy with the quality of education, social issues are a greater concern given the homogeneity of the population and power of money to corrupt, but as you say, Christina, no school is perfect and ours is not the exception to the rule. Knowing what I now know, and acknowledging how much further we have to go on this train, I think we should have given more consideration to going public for elementary school with the aim of moving into private middle and high schools, thereby saving hundreds of thousands of dollars between our two sons. This is a risky startegy, of course, as It depends on the child and his/her ability to perform well both on the admissions tests and, once admitted, to hold their own confidently in an extremely competitive environment. I do say, once you start private, it is hard to go the other way. Luckily, I like what I do… I will be doing it for a long time to come.

  9. Anne Simon 21 November, 2011 at 12:52 Reply

    The struggle to support public education and be part of a community is always difficult to balance with our instincts to protect our children and find the best possible environment and academic program for them. There are so many issues: safety (both physical and psychological), location, diversity, community, academics, enrichment, cost – just to name a few. In the final analysis, it is a very personal choice for each family. You have presented this with tremendous sensitivity and no judgement – congratulations.

  10. Pauline Gaines 21 November, 2011 at 14:45 Reply

    Great piece, Christina. There are pros and cons to every school, public or private. And, as your story makes clear, elitism isn’t found solely in private schools! It’s so important to like the people who run your kid’s school, since they set the tone for the students and the teachers.

  11. Sam 21 November, 2011 at 21:22 Reply

    I think Christina captures the struggle many of us face re: whether to send our children to public or private school. Since my children have attended both public and private schools, I can honestly say that private school has been a better fit for both of my children for a variety of reasons. While they are both very different, private school has stimulated them and challenged them in ways that public school did not. But sending kids to private school is a difficult choice both socially, financially and geographically. Many of my closest friends send their children to the public school down the street from me and often I find myself defending my choices and justifying my decisions. However, my children have had amazing experiences at their private school and have developed a love of learning that was definitely absent when they were in public school. Their educational instruction is also individualized for them as they both learn in different ways, something that was missing in public school. But finding the right school – whether public or private – takes a lot of research, time, visits and tours. We visited many public schools as well as private schools to find the right fit and were actually surprised at some of the schools we liked or didn’t like. None of the schools are perfect. But both you and your child will be part of this community for many years, so it is important that both the parents and the kids feel comfortable with the values, philosophy and approach of the school so you can decide if it is right for you.

  12. Wendy 21 November, 2011 at 22:22 Reply

    Thanks for sharing this! As a public-school graduate myself asking many of the same questions, it’s great to ‘see’ the thought process of a fellow parent going through these kinds of tough decisions.

  13. Carpool Goddess 22 November, 2011 at 14:10 Reply

    I went to public school as a child and always thought my kids would too. But the schools in our neighborhood were struggling as well, so we decided to put them in private school. The academics were great, but their friends were scattered from one end of the city to the other making it tough to have playdates.

  14. Laura 28 November, 2011 at 09:00 Reply

    Great post, Christina. You really touched on so many of the issues my husband and I are thinking about before our daughter starts kindergarten next year.

  15. Marthe Mekuria 4 January, 2016 at 09:59 Reply

    Great Article, Although I was eager to hear some name dropping as to where you enrolled your children. I am going insane over here trying to find the right thing for my child. I’m a single mom in Los Angeles but I grew up in Holland and was horrified attending a few years of U.S. public school myself growing up.

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