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San Diego’s Private Schools


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 We tell you what you need to know about independent college-preparatory schools (that is, private schools), consider whom they serve best and break down the application process. Plus: Meet teachers, and check out our handy list of schools.

Historically, private schools have been perceived as learning institutions for the privileged and pipelines to the nation’s top universities. But sustaining their longstanding reputation for excellence — one that justifies the high expense — has been the impetus for local private schools such as Francis Parker School and The Bishop’s School to evolve. For starters, they have tossed out the word “private” in favor of “independent college-preparatory,” a title that better describes their mission.

“ ‘Private’ has a secluded sense to it,” explains Bishop’s head of school, Aimeclaire Roche. “And there is the sense of exclusivity. Given that we have moved to a place where we are trying hard to not be exclusive but to be diverse, we all tend to use the term ‘independent.’ ”

The move toward diversity is just one way independent schools are transforming. Providing financial aid to qualifying students is another. Independent schools charge tuitions that can range from $16,000 to $28,000 per school year, a fee many families were forced to reconsider when the economy went south and the landscape of education shifted.

Private/independent school enrollment dropped 2.5 percent from 2006 to 2009, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Education. Though government projections estimate independent schools could lose an additional 28,000 students this year, some have a waiting list, especially for certain grades. Enrollment is up at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla and at Francis Parker School in Mission Hills — but so are scholarships.

“The school and the board of trustees continue to make an extraordinary commitment to financial aid,” says Kevin Yaley, interim head of school at Francis Parker. “Next year, nearly $3 million will be dedicated to financial aid. About 20 percent of our families receive assistance, which ranges from a few thousand dollars to close to $20,000 for some kids. The mission of the school is to be accessible to all students and representative of the San Diego community.”

The Fitness Test

What takes precedence over financial considera­tions, those heading our independent schools say, is deciding if a place is the right fit for the family and the student.

For many parents, tuition is both a sacrifice and an investment. Before searching for an independent school, parents need to assess their student’s educational abilities and the motivation to develop his or her strengths, then research the learning communities that will support those strengths. Some students thrive in a public-school environment. For others, small class ­sizes, a more creative and challenging curriculum and personal interaction with teachers — hallmarks of a private-school education — enable them to reach their highest potential.

 “We are not a school for every type of learner,” explains Yaley. “Some students might find the work too difficult. But as a culture, we are open and welcoming.”

Michael Marsch is 26 and working toward his MBA at UCLA’s Anderson School of Bus­i­ness Management. He grad­u­ated from Bishop’s in 2001. Marsch remembers himself in sixth grade at Rancho Santa Fe Elementary as the “quiet, overweight, bookish type.” He was at a crossroads. He could have continued at his public school and gone on to Torrey Pines High School, a choice he says many of his friends made. But he was looking for more of a challenge. »

“We walked around La Jolla Country Day, Bish­op’s and Francis Parker,” says Marsch. “I had heard Bishop’s had more of what I like, and I remember having a really good experience on the tour. The Bishop’s School was very academically rigorous. It got me prepared for college and put me on the path of being aspirational.”

Another advantage private schools have: They are not constrained by state curriculum guidelines or a lack of funding. They can offer a range of programs that enrich life skills and prepare students to interact with a global awareness. Students might elect to learn Mandarin Chinese, for instance, or study the politics of literature and social justice.

Religious Schools

At the San Diego Jewish Academy, Judaic studies and learning Hebrew are required. Interestingly, being Jewish isn’t. Many religious schools do not require a student to belong to a specific faith, but they are expected to study the religion the school espouses.

 “I get asked quite often if the school is all Jewish,” says Renee Sherman, director of admissions for the San Diego Jewish Academy. “We are a pluralistic community day school, meaning we don’t teach one specific level of observance. We have families who are Reform [Judaism], families who are Modern Orthodox, families who come from interfaith marriages. A lot of the families who are not Jewish are interested in us because we have a values-based curriculum. That is important to a lot of people.”

During her freshman year, Estee Einhorn attended La Jolla High School, but she missed her former school.

“My brother was at La Jolla High, and he was having a great time,” says Einhorn, 17. “I thought I would try it, and I don’t regret going. But I missed the quality of education I was getting — and the extra attention. At public school, I was skimming the surface and getting the requirements down, but it wasn’t an interactive education.”

And so Einhorn returned to San Diego Jewish Academy, where she is a junior taking two honors and three advanced placement classes. “I wanted to push myself,” she says. “You learn more when you can ask more questions.”

Special Needs

Some independent schools are geared toward students who struggle in a conventional learning environment. The Winston School in Del Mar is a state-certified nonpublic school, which allows it to negotiate with public school districts to accept students who don’t succeed in a traditional school setting. Winston receives the tax dollars that otherwise would go to the district. School districts pay Winston about $23,000 per academic year for each student it enrolls, based on an individualized education program that might include services such as occupational and speech therapy. Some parents opt to pay the tuition at Winston because their child’s learning issues are not addressed in a public-school setting.

When Susan Koehler was searching for the right educational fit for her son and daughter, she chose two very different private schools. “I have a sophomore at Winston School and a junior at Francis Parker,” says Koehler, director of development at Aseltine School, a nonprofit, nonpublic school that accepts students with emotional and conduct issues. “My daughter has a learning disability, and when she was at Canyon Crest, a public school in Carmel Valley, I was paying for a tutor three times per week because I was committed to her not failing. But she couldn’t keep up. I enrolled her at the Winston School in Del Mar, and now she’s an enthusiastic student — she loves it. My son has a 4.0-plus average and attends Francis Parker. I love both schools; both of my kids are doing well.” 

About Accreditation

All of the independent schools mentioned in this story are accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. Each WASC-accredited school has paid a nonrefundable $150 for educators with a range of experience and expertise to visit and judge operations. The team assesses whether the school is a trustworthy institution of learning and accomplishing its stated purpose. WASC is affiliated with other accrediting and governing organizations, including the California Department of Education and the California Association of Independent Schools. What parents need to know: The more accreditation, the better.

Teacher Focus

Philip Trotter, Francis Parker

Now in his fourth year at Francis Parker, Philip Trotter has taught advanced-
placement social-studies courses for most of his career. He also has developed a course for seniors on social justice and global issues, which empowers students to develop citizenship skills through initiated projects in the community. The class studied refugees and launched an after-school tutoring program with the International Rescue Committee. A graduate of the University of Redlands, Trotter has learned firsthand about other cultures from his travels to Latin America, Asia and Africa. He says he’s passionate about traveling so that he can bring world issues to life for his students. “We are finding in this new global world that we need to have a deeper understanding of the complexities of culture and a greater awareness of our role and responsibilities in the world,” Trotter says. “I have helped to develop a trip to the Philippines that is centered on home stays and service for students. This is one of six trips students have the option of taking at Parker.”

Melissa McKinstry, San Diego Jewish Academy

Melissa McKinstry has taught high school English since 1988 and has served the San Diego Jewish Academy for 11 years. She is the co-creator of WriteDesign, a combination writing workshop and graphic design class that helps students use language and design to express themselves and interact with ideas, each other and the world around them. The WriteDesign course is offered at SDJA every other year as an elective. McKinstry currently teaches advanced-placement English language and composition, and she takes her inspiration from the ways literature and history reflect the human experience. As humanities department chair for the academy’s Maimonides Upper School, she oversees a chronological class in which history, culture and literature are taught in coinciding units. For example, students study the politics of World War I with the history teacher while reading All Quiet on the Western Front with the literature teacher as they consider early-20th-century technology, society and art with the culture teacher. “I’m passionate about literature and writing,” says McKinstry. “I’ve had such strong models as teachers, and strong students who inspire me with their insights, questions, and integrity.”

Richard del Rio, The Bishop’s School

Richard del Rio’s career as a history teacher includes 15 years in the San Diego Unified School District. Four years ago, he was hired at The Bishop’s School, where he has created and implemented new courses in Latin-American history, advanced-placement U.S. government and mock trial, and junior model United Nations. The latter are examples of applied learning, in which students sign up for a course enhanced by a culminating major project. The government course, for instance, teaches the AP curriculum and integrates the annual mock-trial competition, at which pupils learn public speaking, argumentation, legal procedures and teamwork. Students are coached by attorneys from the San Diego district attorney’s office and private practice. This year, Bishop’s won the county championship and represented San Diego at the state tournament in San Jose. “It was an incredible experience,” says del Rio. “Each student now has a much more sophisticated thought process with regard to citizenship and the law, and many have become convinced that law school may be an option.”

Building a Better Future

  • The Bishop’s School in La Jolla will break ground on the $10 million Manchester Library & Learning Center next year, with state-of-the-art classrooms and architecture that complements the existing Irving Gill – designed buildings on campus.
  • A 32,500-square-foot high school, expected to cost $20 million, will be completed this fall at Pacific Ridge, a new independent college-preparatory facility in Carlsbad. The building is expected to receive Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) certification, with solar panels and energy-efficient gas water heaters and air conditioning.
  • The Francis Parker School recently completed a six-phase renovation and construction project, fulfilling the school’s master plan. Last October, the 255-seat J. Crivello Hall on the Linda Vista campus opened for music recitals, along with a state-of-the-art dance studio.
  • La Jolla Country Day School opened its 8,500-square-foot LEED-certified kindergarten facility last year. The four-classroom building features skylights, sheltered windows and an outdoor drought-tolerant garden.

Admissions and the Application Process

The admissions process for independent schools is extensive. Parents and students should start the search at least a year prior to enrollment. Tour campuses and attend as many open ­houses as you can. Some schools allow shadowing a student through the school day.

Tuition, often expected in two payments, won’t be the only expense. Books, lunch and transportation are often separate charges that can add as much as $2,000 to the annual cost per student.

Independent college-preparatory schools typically require testing and interviews with the parents and separately with the student. The new Pacific Ridge School in Carlsbad, which charges a $22,400 tuition fee per academic year, currently serves grades 7–11. Twelfth grade is being added for 2010-11. Director of admissions Jean Nassif says the application process is designed to identify students who will engage in the Pacific Ridge classrooms and contribute to the school’s artistic, athletic, global or service learning activities.

Some questions Pacific Ridge asks students in its application:

  • How would your friends describe you?
  • What are you really good at in school and out of school?
  • What do you wish you could be better at?
  • If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go, and why?
  • Name your favorite book, movie, television show and musical group.
  • Tell us about your best experience in school and your best experience out of school. What made each of them the best? 
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