Hollywood's New Private School Arms Race
L.A.’s most exclusive institutions rebrand as the wealthy move, heads of school exit, and college grows more confusing
In the heated battle for primacy among Los Angeles’ toniest private schools, a new front opened recently in the most unlikely of places — the corner of Sawtelle and Santa Monica Boulevard. Actually, it’s not so much on the corner as it is a couple of stories above it. There, towering over this highly-trafficked intersection just west of the 405, stood a billboard that usually features ads for cannabis collectives or prestige films seeking coveted eyeballs of awards voters. But for several months it was selling something else: A $50,000-a-year private school.
The billboard was part of a recent rebranding by the Archer School for Girls, an exclusive college preparatory academy with deep ties to some of the entertainment industry’s heaviest hitters. Bad Robot’s head of motion pictures Hannah Minghella sits on Archer’s board. So does Vin Diesel’s wife, Paloma Jimenez, and Oscar-winning producer Frank Marshall (and, it should be noted, The Ankler’s Janice Min). Oprah Winfrey and Kerry Washington have delivered commencement addresses, and more recently, a growing number of fresh-faced Archer alumni, including Gracie Abrams — a.k.a. Taylor Swift’s opening act —actress Emma Roberts, director Gia Coppola, and Kate Berlant and current Oscar-nominated May December writer Samy Burch (both class of 2005) — have made big-time names for themselves.
With its sprawling Spanish Colonial Revival compound at the corner of Sunset and Barrington, Archer’s proximity to Hollywood has always been about more than geography. Started out of a Pacific Palisades dance studio in 1996 by Family Ties creator Gary David Goldberg, his wife Diana Meehan, filmmaker Megan Callaway and novelist Victoria Shorr, Archer now claims a student population of roughly 500 high achievers and a Top 50 ranking among all-girls schools in the country.
Still, there was a time not too long ago when a school like this could simply rely on word-of-mouth referrals to keep enrollment up and its endowment growing.
But that’s not really the case anymore as teachers and school administrators across Los Angeles contend with a growing list of demographic shifts — and headaches — that have sent some heads of school heading for the exits.
Brentwood School’s head of school Mike Riera, who, during his 13-year tenure was at the center of a string of controversies, including a lawsuit that alleges the school had been discriminating against its Jewish students, recently announced that he would be stepping down. Santa Monica’s progressive New Roads School is currently searching for a new head of school after its earlier one hightailed it right before this school year started. And after 35 years as the head of Windward (grads include Anna Paquin and Zoe Kazan), Tom Gilder is calling it quits — although several parents stress that Gilder’s decision had nothing to do with the current climate.
That may well be, but in today’s cutthroat private school scene, where every word out of a headmaster’s mouth is scrutinized, soft-serve machines and sushi are di rigueur, and exmission stats are under a microscope, independent schools are being pushed to greater and greater extremes to compete. What was once a seller’s market is turning into a buyer’s one and parents — who fork over huge sums of money each year — are turning increasingly discriminating (and, often, antagonistic). “Outside of New York, Los Angeles has the most competitive independent school market in the country,” says Archer’s head of school since 2008, Elizabeth English. “Parents have a lot of great choices.”
English insists that her school’s new awareness campaign, like the billboard at the corner of Sawtelle and Santa Monica, isn’t a sign of distress. In fact, she says, Archer’s recent admissions events have been fully subscribed and that there has been no drop-off in enrollment. Furthermore, the school currently has an $8 million endowment and, between 20-25 percent of its student body receives some form of financial aid. Says English of the billboards, “They are a celebration of who we are. Sure, we want the kids and families who are the best fit, and we hope that they think about Archer, but that wasn’t the impetus. Schools are striving to distinguish themselves and find the best possible kids and families that align with their mission, and you have to be clear about who you are and what you do.”
Archer may not be strapped for cash or applicants, but, like many other private schools in the city, it finds itself in a familiar predicament: the constant need to keep up with its rivals and ensure its reputation maintains its luster. While the school is currently in the midst of a $37 million capital campaign for campus improvements, including a new gym and performing arts theater, a number of other prestigious independent schools also are raising and spending enormous sums to update — and in some instances expand — their campus footprints. It’s no coincidence there’s an emphasis on sports facilities as athletic recruitment into college remains one of the last solid “hooks” to get your kid into a top school, as “legacy” admissions and SAT scores disappear (83 percent of four-year U.S. schools have now adopted test-optional and test-blind admissions), and racial preferences were overturned last year by the Supreme Court.
The Brentwood School, where tuition runs more than $50,000 a year, and whose alums include Adam Levine and producer Ryan Kavanaugh, recently completed the first phase of its “30-Year Master Plan”, which will add a gym, a performing arts center, an underground parking lot and several new buildings servicing the upper and lower schools. In November, the L.A. City Council approved plans by Harvard-Westlake (where tuition is a bargain at $49,000 a year) to develop the 17-acre Weddington Golf & Tennis site in Studio City into a new sports facility that will boast an Olympic-sized pool, a track and eight tennis courts. The school purchased the property in 2017 for $42 million. Meanwhile, schools such as the Episcopalian K-8th grade St. Matthews in Pacific Palisades have hired outside consultants to help them stand out.
For Schools, a Perfect Storm
Needless to say, recent shifts at schools have been seismic — and relentless— beginning with the catastrophically disruptive Covid pandemic. As in-class teaching was replaced by home-schooling overnight, many parents began grappling with the question of what a modern-day education even meant anymore. Remote learning and school closures, along with mask and testing mandates, contributed to isolation, yes, but also terrible fights between faculty, administrators and parents. Some parents opted to homeschool their children; many others simply picked up and moved out of the state (particularly among the wealthy, according to a recent story in the Los Angeles Times).
Across California, hopes for a full post-Covid rebound in TK-12 enrollment have yet to materialize. In 2020-2021, the first year of the pandemic, enrollment in California public schools fell by 2.6 percent and dipped another 1.84 percent the following academic year. That drop in enrollment slowed to a more modest 0.67 percent in 2022-23, but the trend-line is still negative and consistent with a longer-term assessment by state officials that California’s enrollment would decline (11.4 percent between 2020 and 2031), amounting to a loss of 703,000 students.
One might assume that falling public school enrollment would reflect a surge in private school enrollment. But according to the Public Policy Institute of California only about 12 percent of the decline is “attributable to families substituting private schools for public.” Falling birth rates and relocation out of state are primary causes for the drop-off, says the report, and these “population pressures will also affect private schools: they will be competing with public schools for a dwindling pool of school-aged children.”
But declining numbers of potential students is just one challenge in maintaining private school enrollment.
In response to national outcry after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, a number of L.A.’s private schools answered the call for increased Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) with curriculum overhauls. But critics said it was too much and too quick — and backlash came (consider it a microcosm of the conversations roiling Ivy League schools today and our endless culture wars). Reports of parents pulling their kids out of elite independent schools across the country abounded. Some of which might explain why more “traditional” and cost-effective parochial schools such as Milken Community School, Loyola and Marymount have seen a spike. More recently, Jewish parent groups, since the breakout of war between Israel and Hamas, have advocated for more curriculum and programming around antisemitism, also reaching out directly to heads of schools to take a stronger position on support for Israel — creating another issue to manage among a not-always-aligned population.
Meanwhile, all of this is happening against the backdrop of an adolescent mental health crisis. In a series of recent articles, the Los Angeles Times shined a spotlight on a string of horrific tragedies that beset Harvard-Westlake, a school whose notable alums include Past Lives’ Greta Lee, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Segel and former L.A. mayor and current U.S. ambassador to India, Eric Garcetti. During the 2022-2023 school year, three students at the school and one parent of a student died by suicide in the span of a few months. Then, this past fall, another parent followed suit, prompting another wave of grief, and spawning initiatives to better recognize and support student mental health.
Harvard-Westlake has long had a reputation for being one of the most rigorous schools in the city. And while it’s impossible to identify a single cause for the recent student deaths, one obvious worry is whether, at these elite schools, the general emphasis on excellence-at-all-costs can impose additional costs on vulnerable students. Studies have shown that adolescent students who attend high-achieving schools often suffer higher rates of anxiety, depression and substance abuse at two or even three times the national average. Among the dangerous environmental conditions that affect children, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently included “excessive pressure to excel” on its list alongside poverty, trauma and discrimination.
It’s yet another psychic pressure that parents must weigh in their school decisions.
A spokesperson for Harvard-Westlake declined to comment.
For the moment, however, L.A.’s private schools seem to be as competitive as ever, even if the market shifts (Harvard-Westlake had an admission rate of 24 percent in 2023; a similar acceptance rate at colleges like Emory and Carnegie Mellon). “People are putting more effort getting their kids into private elementary schools than I did applying to colleges 25 years ago,” says Collette Bowers Zinn, whose consulting firm helps parents through the admissions process at these schools. “Between the campus tours, the fees, the deadlines and understanding which events you need to attend — it’s become a full-time job.” According to Bowers Zinn, the number of educational consultants has soared in recent years, which reflects not only the variety and competitiveness of the independent school scene but the lengths that wealthy Angelenos will go to secure spots at elite institutions. (Exhibit A: the Varsity Blues scandal, whose Ground Zero was L.A.)
Though one recent story discussed how some wealthy parents are moving out of certain states to less competitive “markets” for college admissions (think Wyoming vs. California), it’s hard to imagine 1 percenters bypassing the trappings of wealth, particularly in a city like L.A. that's all about the flex. L.A. ranks near the top of U.S. metropolitan areas in terms of income inequality, and, according to the residency and citizenship consulting firm Henley & Partners, the city is currently home to 205,400 millionaires, 480 centi-millionaires and 42 billionaires. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the country, serves 565,479 students. “The public schools here have never been amazing, but they were at least viable options that weren’t failing kids — especially kids of color — at astronomical rates like they are today,” says Bowers Zinn. “The pandemic highlighted how certain kids are overlooked and underserved and now you have the Supreme Court abolishing race-based admissions. College education is the key to upward mobility. It’s more of a determining factor than ever before and your best shot at a college education is through private school.”
However, Nick Melvoin, an LAUSD board member who happens to be vying to fill the congressional seat vacated by Adam Schiff, has witnessed increasing disillusionment: “My peer group growing up in L.A. mostly went to independent schools,” he says. “But elementary schools have become so prohibitively expensive. At some of these private schools, parents don’t feel like they’re getting the value for the money and, as a result, I’ve noticed a generational shift. It’s led to a re-investment in certain public elementary schools from people who might otherwise have sent their kids to private school. Parents would rather give a few thousand dollars during the school’s annual giving drive and donate time rather than pay $40,000 a year.”
Does the Chaos End?
At this very moment, application season is in full swing for both colleges and L.A.’s independent schools. But the tensions between schools and parents appear to remain at a simmer across the country.
“So much of what’s going on now stems from Covid because parents had so much more say in their children’s education than normal,” says a parent and English teacher who’s taught at the same independent L.A. grade school for more than a decade. “[During the pandemic] parents were deeply involved — more than ever before — and the schools were much more forgiving and flexible and it’s really hard to come back from that. If you give families a little bit of power, they’re not going to let it go.”
The head of one co-ed school on the Westside put it this way: “There’s a difference between what parents need and what students need. Parents often want their school to be an extension of their social circle — to share their same values or political beliefs. They want the school to be an arm of their personal lives and it’s got to check a lot of boxes. But that’s not what our students need. So which of these constituencies are you supposed to be serving? And what happens when the interests of the parents are no longer aligned with the needs of the students?”
English, for one, is eager to tackle the issues roiling independent schools.
“Schools are an easy target because they’re value-laden and as soon as someone feels their values are at odds or in jeopardy that’s when you start to hear and feel the friction,” says English. “We don’t have as many leaders in this country who try to uphold the ideas of the common good and unity in the way that past leaders did. That’s all been turned on its head. Our tack has been to partner with parents to offer conversations and community whereever possible. We have to try to overcome the fear that’s been stoked by all of this division. I think it’s our only hope.”