Fostering Success

South Bay private schools teach learning for life

In the school’s common room, Waldorf High School senior Laila Waheed shows another student her zoology textbook, which she wrote and designed herself.

Photograph by Lane Johnson

Certain characteristics have always identified students who succeed: curiosity, confidence, insight, and creativity. Cultivating these traits through the tumultuous years of middle and high school is challenging at best, which is why the Bay Area’s private schools tout their advantages: small class sizes, exceptional teaching, and individualized attention to students.

At these college-preparatory schools, academic rigor is of the utmost importance, but since getting admitted to the country’s best undergraduate programs requires a well-rounded resume, they also offer an array of extracurricular activities, including drama, art, dance, music, horseback riding, and archery—luxuries that have long since been cut from the budgets of most public schools.

Of course, all of this comes with a hefty price tag—typically about $25,000 to $35,000 per year—which is what prompted this look at four popular South Bay private schools. Our findings? Although these schools operate under very different educational philosophies, they share the common goal of creating bright, confident students who possess the tools to succeed as adults.


The Girls’ Middle School in Mountain View is an all-girls school with a total enrollment of 153 students in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades.

“Middle school is the most creative time for girls,” says Deb Hof, the Head of School. “Yet studies show that in opposite-sex classrooms, teachers call on girls only half as often as boys.” Students at The Girls’ Middle School, removed from the pressure of competing with boys, “get to finish growing up.”

The school prides itself on encouraging its female students to be “problem solvers, not answer-givers,” says Hof. The school’s lessons are “project-based. We have no desks. Instead, the girls sit at tables in teams of four, where they are encouraged in a collaborative, team-building approach,” says Hof. “This makes sense, given that girls learn differently from boys.”

The school’s academic emphasis is on math, science, engineering, and technology, as well as the humanities and “social and emotional learning.” Each class has an average of 16 students, and rather than being divided into beginning, intermediate, or advanced groups, each student simply progresses individually. “We let them learn,” Hof says.

With two daughters attending The Girls’ Middle School, parent Ann Smith says, “Students learn in a collaborative, child-centered way. It’s good training for life. The fact that it is a girls’ school is an added bonus. It’s less competitive and more about learning.” Smith, who previously sent her children to public schools, says she appreciates the way The Girls’ Middle School combines “traditional and alternative educational philosophies, but they’re not too far from the mainstream.”

Still, learning and grading are much more flexible than in most public schools. Instead of letter grades, students receive written evaluations, to which they add their own comments and present a portfolio to their parents at the end of the year. Smith says she appreciates the fact that her daughters contribute to their evaluations. “This is a really wonderful way for us to know what they’ve learned,” she says.


At Waldorf High School of the Peninsula in Cupertino, you won’t find a traditional textbook lying on any desk or stuffed into any locker. Students research and develop their own textbooks, documenting each of their learning projects with drawings, photographs, and written descriptions of what they discover.

Like other Waldorf schools, the Cupertino school’s academic curriculum is based on the work of Rudolph Steiner, an early 20th century Austrian philosopher who emphasized humans’ relationship with nature. The curriculum at The Waldorf School of the Peninsula includes traditional and nontraditional subjects, including eurythmy (an art of movement that engages the whole human being), gardening, and music. One term of each academic year is devoted to a single course of study, in which teachers of all disciplines focus their lessons on one broad subject, such as water, air, or fire.

Muneer Waheed’s daughter Laila will graduate from Waldorf School this spring. He says, “We wanted a school where children could be curious and engaged, a place where they were prepared to be better human beings, not just to pass tests.” Like most Waldorf parents, Waheed says he is closely involved with his daughter’s education. “Instead of a letter grade, we receive—and participate in—a detailed evaluation of our child’s progress and success in learning. Every child has a unique gift, and at Waldorf, the school finds those gifts and helps them grow.”

Waldorf of the Peninsula’s co-ed students participate in a variety of learning activities outside the traditional classroom setting. Students are “constantly asked to explore outside their comfort zones,” says Mary Jane Di Piero, High School Coordinator. During field trips, they’ve learned how to make compost, studied geology, and watched a traditional buffalo slaughter. A majority of Waldorf’s teachers, including Di Piero, have children who attend the school.

“At Waldorf, we teach students that the questions are more important than the answers. Learning, not answering test questions, is at the forefront,” Di Piero says.


San Jose’s Harker School was founded in 1893 essentially to serve as a “feeder school” for Stanford University, although the name “Harker” has only been in use since 1992. The upper division of the school (grades 9 through 12) opened in 1998 and enrolls about 700 students.

The Harker School has one of the highest tuitions of South Bay private schools (approximately $38,000 per year), but it also has impressive academic credentials. The school is ranked number one in the world by The College Board for its students’ test scores in several Advanced Placement (AP) courses. More than half of each graduating class has received National Merit Scholarship recognition. In the last decade, seven students have been named as semifinalists in the Intel Science Talent Search.

Still, the co-ed student body is not just concerned with making grades. In the past few years, Harker students raised enough money to build a school in Cambodia and have contributed significant amounts to relief efforts in Darfur, cancer research, and the American Heart Association. Christopher Nikoloff, head of Harker School, says, “The school encourages students to stretch themselves and try new things to discover their passions.”

The high school campus recently completed a $28 million expansion, which includes a science and technology building that was awarded LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environment) Gold certification from the United States Green Building Council. The “Gold” rating can be partly attributed to Harker’s students, who developed its exhibits on green living and green building construction.


In 1959, Gwen Riches started what is now the Pinewood School as the “Creative Workshop.” It was a place where Riches, a mother of five, taught neighborhood children to gain confidence in public speaking, drama, art, and dancing.

Today, with approximately 300 students enrolled in grades 7 to 12 at its co-ed Los Altos Hills campus, the Pinewood School is run by Riches’ grandson, Scott Riches. Riches says that his grandmother’s legacy lives on at Pinewood. For example, “drama is a required course here.”

With an average class size of 17 and a student-teacher ratio of 7 to 1, Pinewood is able to promise individualized attention and a curriculum that is “designed to surpass the minimum course requirements for admission to highly selective colleges and universities,” according to the school website. Extracurricular activities are a large part of Pinewood’s program, from its high-scoring basketball team to the Pinewood Singers and three other choral groups.

Following graduation from Pinewood, approximately 95 percent of each class enrolls at a four-year college or university. The remaining 5 percent enroll at two-year community colleges with the intention of completing their education at a four-year institution.

In most schools, the use of computers and technology is introduced as early as kindergarten. But Pinewood takes a more cautious approach. “Technology can never replace a teacher,” says Riches. “Our students have plenty of exposure to technology at home. At school, we keep it to a minimum.”

As with most other Bay Area private schools, the depressed economy has had little impact on the Pinewood School; its small-school appeal attracts plenty of would-be students and their parents. “The economy hasn’t reduced our enrollment. It might have made the waiting list a little smaller,” says Riches. 

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