Lessons learned in applying for private school

By Becky Koppenhaver

As a parent, I remember how confusing it was when I was trying to figure out where to send our older son to school. Part of me wanted to show support, and be a part of the community, and it seemed the best way to do that was by sending our son to our neighborhood elementary school with other kids from the neighborhood. An equal part of me felt I needed to stay true to my strong belief in progressive education, and search for school that could better accommodate my child who wouldn’t and couldn’t sit still for a second. Ultimately, it is a deeply personal decision. It meant a financial sacrifice for our family, but we haven’t been sorry. For parents who are thinking of private instead of public school in the future, here is a little insight into what to expect.

Application season in full swing

The application process for private school can cause a lot of anxiety for parents. Presently, most Los Angeles- area private schools are in full swing of admissions tours, visitations, interviews, and the application process, which for most schools, usually runs into the first week of February. Next, hopeful parents will wait anxiously for the mail when acceptance-or rejection letters begin to arrive in mid-March.

It can be an entirely harrowing experience for parents who are trying to get their kids into schools where there are only a few openings, and usually an abundance of qualified applicants. This year, the process is already in full swing, but for parents who hope to get their child into a private school next year, the more informed you are, the better.

Look before you apply

First of all, start looking early. Private schools vary in their teaching methods and philosophies. Some schools emphasize academics, others take a more progressive/developmental approach to learning. Do some research and make sure the schools you plan to apply to match your own ideas about how a child should be educated, and more importantly, a good fit for your child.

Most private schools start giving tours in the fall. Find out when those tours start and sign up early, or even better, ask if you can visit the school before the tour starts. Some schools will allow visitations, some don’t. Tours give parents a chance to ask questions and see teachers and kids in action. It’s best to go on as many tours as possible and some schools are booked far in advance.

Applications & recommendations

Next, send in your application along with the usual application fee, which usually ranges to $50 to $100 per application.  In most instances, you will be asked for an assessment or recommendation from your child’s former teacher. This is your child’s chance to shine, and hopefully your child’s teacher will take the time to write a thoughtful and insightful recommendation for your child. It can make a big difference.   However, a good recommendation is not the sole criteria, in many instances, according several admission directors I spoke to, the letter also offers insight into a child’s learning habits and personality. Many schools like to balance outgoing personalities with introverts, leaders with followers etc…, and just because a child may have had some difficulties before does not automatically exclude them, especially when applying to a private elementary school.

Don’t be afraid of tuition

Don’t rule out a school because it is too expensive- all schools offer financial aid or indexed tuition. You might qualify even if you think you don’t.

Getting to know you

Next step, sign-up for a visit/orientation. Many schools use this time to get to know the parents and the child. More than likely, parents will have a chance to talk to an admissions committee. This is the most important step of the process and this is where your research can pay off. Many schools consider the family as a whole, and not just the child when deciding who gets in and who doesn’t. The attitude at many schools is “how can you help in your child’s education process.” Chances are, the school encourages and relies on parent participation. Offer what your school is looking for, in other words, how can you help and what skills do you have will benefit the school. Emphasize what you can do- or have done in the past, that the school might find useful e.g. fundraising experience, helping in the classroom, gardening, building, writing, tutoring etc.. And of course, if you know someone that is already at the school, it almost always helps to have someone put in a good word for you.

Prepare for rejection & next year

And a last bit of advice, apply to several schools and keep a positive attitude. All private school admissions directors lament the fact that there usually many wonderful qualified, families who apply, and not nearly enough spaces. Many families get put on a waiting list, which is a schools way of saying, we want you here, we just don’t have room right now. If your child gets put on a waiting list and you are serious about getting into the school, let the admissions director know it right away. But don’t stop there, make yourself known throughout the year with an occasional email expressing your continued interest in the school, and show your support by showing up at school fundraisers or other activities throughout the year. All schools private and public appreciate dedicated families.

Becky Koppenhaver is a freelance writer covering schools. You can send Becky story tips and ideas at becky@theEastsiderLA.com

Photo by Knittymarie/Flickr


  1. This is the perfect Echo Park post. But I’m confused. Did you really not send your child to the neighborhood school for which you wanted to show support because he can’t and won’t sit still and because you have strongly held beliefs in progressive education? Or is it because the children in your local school are from working class families, and your child is not? Or is it because the public school system is dysfunctional and any thought of participating in its betterment is soon pushed aside by thoughts of the advantages that your child will accrue from a private education? I’m not saying I wouldn’t make the same choice as you have, but I think I might be more honest about my reasons for doing so.

    As for acceptance-or rejection letters for elementary school applicants, they are a feature of life in Los Angeles for those who can afford them. From my perspective, these schools can be selective and expensive precisely because public schools are so bad. It’s a bit like having to pay for first class, I suppose. If coach were more comfortable, first class could not be as expensive. The value of one is dependent on its distance from the other. In this way, you are still very much a part of the community and making a difference. However, instead of making schools better, you are making them worse.

  2. Oh my! This is reminiscent of the “Modern Family” segment in which Mitchell and Cameron try to get Lily into an upper crust pre-school !!
    Very funny………but I guess not if you’re the parent!

  3. This post kind of bugs me. I agree with Martin’s comment 100%. Also, I know people that were once wealthy and sent thier kids to private school throughout their childhood and the kids did so well that they got into prestigious colleges. The parents had financial aid throughout the grade school and high school years. Even w/ financial aid these schools are crazy expensive. Needless to say, the kids got a good education, but mom and dad are now broke and lost their house to foreclosure during the recession. I learned a valuable lesson from these folks. My kids are in public school, and I’m a part of the community there. They are doing fine. With the LAUSD budget cuts things are tight, but the parents ROCK. We’ve raised our own $ to make up the difference. And when I write that check, I also know I’m helping other families that can’t write one.

  4. To Martin,
    I knew I would get at least a few negative responses after I posted this article. I was being honest. But as I said, deciding what school to send your child to is a personal decision and some parents, including myself have more to consider than what is best for the community/ school. If you are a parent, I would hope you could understand, if you are not a parent, well then I don’t expect you to.

  5. I also agree with Martin. It’s like the ongoing pack of preschool parents who all agree to go to public elementary together and on the first day, only one kid from preschool is there.
    It’s almost a verboten topic in many circles – between the private school guilt and the public school self-righteousness.
    If we had limitless funds, we’d choose private too. If for no other reason than to avoid the exhausting fight for every single paper towel in LAUSD. But, we don’t, so we work, like many other parents to make these public schools even better. We hope our kids will thrive because of, not in spite of, our decision. There is a wonderful community that grows out of that. I hope our kids learn and benefit from that and know that we were active (and activist) participants in their education.

  6. Hey Martin did you go to an inner city public school that was low performing in a system that was also very low performing, as would describe, say, Logan, the main Echo Park school? Because I did, every last day of my education was public and inner city, in a school system that was 8 percent white and 60 percent dropout. And I don’t want that same experience for my child, and so I am hoping to put together enough financial aid to send him to private school. Each person should make a decision for themselves and their kid and not be so quick to judge others. My childhood presence in a public school did not deflate the class system, the perilous dip toward privatization, one iota. The only structure it affected was the structure of my own life, psyche, future. If you want to experiment on your own kids, fine, even valiant, but don’t be accusatory to people who aren’t interested in sending their kids to public school, especially when the reasons you argue for doing so are purely ideological. Children are not walking threads of parent ideology.

  7. PARENTS are the rock behind any school. As a parent you have to invest time with ur kid doing homework, talking to the teachers, dropping into the classroom when you are not expected. One of my granddaughters is advanced 2 grades she started H.S at age 12. they wanted to advance her a grade again, her folks said NO socialization is a big part of school, another granddaughter at Sal Castro Middle is in honors classes both these girls love math and science, me I can’t balance my checkbook! Math was never my strong suit, I never had anyone at home that could explain the formula’s. I know a woman who drives a new Mercedes Kompressor one of her kids went TO UCLA changed his major 3 times, THIS so called KID DIDNT MOVE OUT UNTIL HE WAS 36, one left to go out of state and is now back at UCLA, THE OTHER KID COMMUNITY COLLAGE last I heard. Good thing for her kids, but she has NO TEETH can’t afford implants much less dentures. I do understand we must get the best education for our kids but at what expense our own personal heath, no teeth! Good thing her house is paid for. Public/private we all want the same for our kids only the BEST. But at what cost???

  8. Public education will only improve (reduction of standardized testing, restoring arts and physical education, promoting conceptual and project based learning to instill a love of learning, more time for play for kindergarteners, etc.) when parents who care about those things don’t abandon their neighborhood schools at the drop of a hat. I respect that parents make different choices in regards to what’s best for each individual child. Public school, which tends to be more rigorous in the early years and have more structure, may not be the best choice for every child and I also totally respect Tyrone’s reasons for wanting to send his child to private school. However, I think too often, many parents who talk the talk of community participation and social justice, barely give their neighborhood school a first look. I agree with Martin that Becky’s reasons for not putting her son in the neighborhood school sound pretty weak. I have the same concern about my very rambunctious 4 1/2 year old, who is in a non-instructional play based nursery school, and I will also give him the support he will probably need to adjust to a more structured environment. As for his academic and arts education, when he needs more there are a multitude of ways that those things can be supplemented. I want to be someone that walks the walk and I want to my son to learn that, too, and if he was a different kind of kid, the decision would probably not be so easy.

  9. @Tyrone. I don’t think I was being overly judgmental in my comment. I even wrote that I might make the same choice as Becky had. As far as the reasons behind my argument being ideological, I don’t deny it. In as system such as ours, for good or bad, no one can escape ideology, and those who think they can will find help in the most unlikely places. Further, I respect your decision to send your child to a private elementary school, and I hope that you will find Becky’s article useful in having your child accepted. I only wonder why it is necessary to have written recommendations for a child entering elementary school and why parents need to meet with an admissions committee (actually that is explained; it’s so that the school can see for themselves if the child belongs to the “right” family) and why, if all else fails, one is encouraged to attend “fundraisers.” Considering there are so many parents in your situation who do not want to send their children to a public school, why is all this necessary? If it’s because there’s a scarcity of private schools, then the question must be, why? If there is not a scarcity, then the article must be intended for those who wish to send their child to an elite private school for elite families. I’m of the opinion that this is the case here, and to present the parent’s choice as being between that and a public school is I think disingeneous at best. In any case, I wish you the best of luck in putting together a financial solution for getting your child the education he or she deserves.

  10. Like anything else, it’s what you make it, public or private.

  11. As a parent with a 6 year old at a high ranked public school I have to say that if u believe in progressive education there is nothing you can do to improve a lausd school . … I had hoped for the best and put 100 percent of my time into the school but I will put her in a progressive private school in a heart beat if I can get her in. 20 pages of homework a week for a six year old? I feel like she is being robbed of her childhood … Kids get no Social help in the younger grades and then the school wonders why they have bullies in the upper grades. It’s lord of the flies. Sure kids adjust and figure out how to fit it but they are being taught to be compliant and how to memorize not how to think. Kids who are creative out of the box thinkers are pushed into the arts because that is where they are appreciated … But creative thinkers are needed outside of the arts too. If a traditional education works for your child and you want to support lausd then by all means … That’s great but you shouldn’t criticize another parent for feeling that a traditional education won’t work for their child. No matter how much you put into a local public school it will never be progressive. And some children will not blossom by being forced to be a square peg in a round hole.

  12. Like anything else you should choose a private school that best fits the child. Also see how they teach and decide if that’s the way you want your kids to be taught. After all you’re going to pay for it might as well get what you want out of it.

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