Fitting In

Is your kid an artiste, a science geek, a future Mother Teresa — or all three? PDX has a school for that.

Finding the right school for your kid could be the biggest decision you’ll ever make as a parent. Their friends and their teachers will be some of their biggest influences, and the lessons learned will stay with them for a lifetime. There are tons of great choices in the Portland metro area, so do your homework. Here’s a cheat sheet to help you out — but remember, all these schools, and so many more, are much more than just words on a page. To truly take the pulse of a school, consider an in-person visit. Details on open houses can be found throughout this guide.

If your kid would have fit right in at the Fame school:

Arts and Communication Magnet, Beaverton:

The cast members of this artsy school’s recent production of Pride and Prejudice didn’t just put on a show. They used the opportunity to rewrite Jane Austen’s classic for the Tumblr generation — picture a snapshot of the actor playing the disdainful Mr. Bennet, tuning out his nattering, marriage-obsessed wife, perfectly captioned with “DO I NEED TO SPELL OUT TO YOU HOW MUCH I DO NOT CARE.” ACMA, a lottery school for grades 6 to 12, is also home to the pre-professional Dance West program and has its own classical orchestra. Its students have gone on to attend some of the finest arts-focused colleges and universities in the country, including the Berklee College of Music in Boston, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Fashion Institute for Design and Merchandising in San Francisco.

Vancouver School of Arts and Academics:

At this focus-option 6-12 grade school across the Willamette River, the arts are woven into the academic curriculum. And it goes both ways: Students are expected to take what they’ve learned in core courses like language arts, social studies, math and science and apply it to their arts-based projects. Open to all Washington state residents, but students from within the Vancouver school district boundaries get preference.

Milwaukie Academy of the Arts:

Tucked away inside Milwaukie High School, this small public charter school for grades 9-12 lets students get in touch with their inner artist. Last spring, students helped a local artist paint a splashy, colorful mural to celebrate Latin-American culture; at its unveiling, the new mural was blessed by traditional Mexica Tiahui and Aztec dancers in full ceremonial costume. Students can also focus on digital design, photography, theater and music.


If religion is front-and-center for your family:

Living Wisdom School:

Quiet meditation at Living Wisdom School.

Quiet meditation at Living Wisdom School.

This sweet, small school for pre-K through eighth grade is based on the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda, and emphasizes universal spirituality in all its many — and practical — forms. Students, who are placed in multiage classrooms, might begin the day at morning circle with yoga poses or a prayer for those in need of healing; each classroom (with a maximum of 12 students) has an altar to which kids are encouraged to bring items they hold dear, from a handdrawn picture of grandparents to a favorite rock, rubbed smooth with use.

Portland Jewish Academy:

Celebrating with friends at Portland Jewish Academy.

Celebrating with friends at Portland Jewish Academy.

First up: You don’t need to be Jewish to take advantage of PJA’s program, for preschool through eighth graders. Plenty of non-Jewish families are drawn to PJA for the small classes and excellent facilities, including an on-campus art studio. Jewish values are a core part of the school though, and parents should know that kids spend part of the day learning Hebrew, studying Jewish history and are immersed in the seminal concept of tikkun olam — the responsibility to be a caretaker of the world around you. This SW PDX school also offers great afterschool programming that draws kids from surrounding public schools, too.

Trinity Lutheran School:

One of Portland’s oldest private schools, Trinity Lutheran is clear about the school’s Christian-focused mission. Students from preschoolers through eighth grade spend a portion of each day with Bible study and prayers; younger grades may spend time singing and storytelling, while older kids delve into the deeper meanings of the Old and New Testaments alike. But there’s also plenty of time in the school day for traditional academics, team sports, Spanish class, arts, music and even a little urban farming. Bonus: The close ties to nearby Concordia University, which was founded by church members.

College Prep

If you’re looking for a college prep experience that matches New England’s finest:

Oregon Episcopal School:

One of the region’s most prestigious schools for preschoolers through 12th graders, OES is also one of Oregon’s most globally aware schools, with an international student population who live in on-campus dorms and overseas exchange programs that span six continents. Unsurprisingly, college admissions is taken seriously here: admissions deans from all over the country visit to field questions from students, and juniors go on college counseling retreats every fall to help them navigate the competitive applications process and find the right fit, whether that’s an Ivy League school or a big public university. Graduates attend schools including Stanford, Brown and the honors college at U of O.

Riverdale School District:

All smiles at graduation from Riverdale.

All smiles at graduation from Riverdale.

Riverdale is a bit of an anomaly. It’s located within city limits, at the leafy edges of Southwest Portland, near Lewis and Clark College and a stone’s throw from Lake Oswego. But the K-12 district is separate from Portland Public Schools, and each year, families from around the area pay separate fees so that their kids can attend classes there (though, as with any public school, it’s free to kids within attendance boundaries.) The best students there go on to the University of California system, Duke University and Dartmouth College, among others.


If your kid never wanted to leave their Montessori preschool in the first place:

Renaissance School of Arts and Sciences:

They aren’t Waldorf, or Montessori, or play-based, they follow no textbook. So what are they? A K-8 school that values civic engagement where kids are encouraged to ask as many questions as they want — and to investigate the answers. And all the better if that leads to more questions along the way.

Franciscan Montessori Earth School/Saint Francis Academy:

A light-filled classroom at Franciscan Montessori Earth School.

A light-filled classroom at Franciscan Montessori Earth School.

It’s unusual to find a Montessori school that extends into the middle grades; even more unusual is that FMES does this on a 10-acre campus in outer Southeast Portland, allowing space for a school kitchen garden that provides the raw ingredients for student-prepared meals. Students go on overnight expeditions all over the Pacific Northwest; poetry lessons might take place in a wooded glade and for a lesson on flood plains, students might seek out a working geologist to observe the professional in her native habitat.

Montessori School of Beaverton:

Deep in concentration, at Montessori School of Beaverton.

Deep in concentration, at Montessori School of Beaverton.

Talk about intelligent design! The preschool-sixth grade campus here is so well thought out, with natural light filled classrooms that open into separate “extension gardens.” Kids move back and forth from inside to outside for their learning. Classes are mixed-age and Spanish is integrated into classroom learning. In science classes, kids here learn about everything from what makes a volcano explode to how wind and water produce energy, via demonstrations, field activities and experiments.

Community Service/STEM

If your kid wants to think global, but act local:

Northwest Academy:

Working at GeerCrest Farm during a Northwest Academy community service day.

Working at GeerCrest Farm during a Northwest Academy community service day.

This private middle/high school prides itself on its downtown Portland location — most of its student body either bikes or takes public transportation to get to school. And its students can be spotted all around the city during all-school community service days held every fall and spring. Kids might pull ivy at Tryon Creek or perform in a concert for senior citizens, work a shift at the food bank or help fix bikes for community cycling organizations. Seventh graders have a semester-long community service unit where they volunteer for 12 hours and then channel their experience into artwork that’s presented to their class; to graduate, high schoolers must complete a 30-hour community service requirement.

Gresham High:

At one of the state’s most diverse high schools, students have a long tradition of reaching out a helping hand to those in crisis, whether raising money for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Phillippines via a massive gaming tournament (all proceeds to typhoon victims) or by giving out homemade tamales to the homeless in downtown Portland.

If you’ve got a budding coder who wants to get her Series A funded before she hits 21:

School of Science and Technology, Beaverton:

Get this one out of the way first: If your kid isn’t self-motivated, he might not do well at SST, amidst the children of Intel engineers and other Silicon Forest techies. This is a high school for kids who are passionate about science and math-driven projects. SST is known for setting its students up with internships at local government agencies and private corporations; computers are de rigeur in every classroom. No sports, but a well-regarded robotics team and a mock trial club, too.

Catlin Gabel:

Hard at work on robotics at Catlin Gabel.

Hard at work on robotics at Catlin Gabel.

At Catlin Gabel, one of Portland’s most prestigious and academically challenging private schools, with programs for pre-K through 12th grade, the motto might as well be “No robots left behind.” The introduction to robotics starts early, when kids learn programming in the graphical EV-3 language. (No biggie, right?) From there, they progress to building their own Lego robots. And there are no limits — you want to make a robot that can Sumo wrestle? Go for it. Feel like designing a flying version of the aerial tram? Can’t wait to see it. By the end, every student can consider themselves an engineer. (PS: Catlin students often represent — and place — at the Robotics World Championships.)


If your kid aspires to the ex-pat (or Peace Corps!) life:

The International School:

Studying Argentina in Spanish class at The International School.

Studying Argentina in Spanish class at The International School.

Seeking a truly immersive experience for your kiddo? The International School fits the bill. Choose either the Spanish, Japanese or Chinese track and from day one, your child’s teacher will speak to him almost exclusively in the chosen language. For preschoolers and kindergarteners, at least 80 percent of the day is non-English; that drops only slightly in first through fifth grades. There’s full-on cultural immersion too, with kids attending celebrations of all three linguistic cultures throughout the year.

Northwest Chinese Academy:

Immersion schools can be daunting for parents who don’t speak the language their kids will be learning — help with homework? Sorry kiddo, you’re on your own. But at Northwest Chinese Academy in Beaverton, there’s a special “homework hour” from 3-4 pm every day for kids whose parents don’t speak Mandarin at home, and it’s even included with tuition. Parents are a big part of the pre-K-8th grade school, too — all families are asked to commit to 25 hours of volunteering per school year. The aim is for all students to be fluent in Mandarin by graduation. Administrators there are planning a trip to China for upper-schoolers in spring of 2017.

French American International School/Gilkey International Middle School:

Quiet reading time at the French American International School

Quiet reading time at the French American International School

Students here are prepared to face tout le monde (all the world) upon graduation. On an idyllic campus in SW Portland, first graders have learned all about the threat of bee extinction and the mechanics of pollination, getting hands-on experience with on-campus beehives. Fifth graders studying the environment could recently be found passing out pamphlets on pollution at local bookstores. The immersive experience continues at Gilkey, which offers an international curriculum, and special offerings for kids who are fluent in French, German, Mandarin and Spanish.

German International School:

Students at the German International School compare food culture in the US and in Germany.

Students at the German International School compare food culture in the US and in Germany.

The kids at this gemütlich school in Beaverton get plenty of hands-on learning. Case in point: for a recent unit on trash, kindergarteners did a deep dive — so to speak — creating their own mini-landfill on a corner of campus to see what would decompose first — banana peel, glass bottle or plastic bag. They experimented with turning trash into art, and campaigned for more eco-friendly practices school wide, including cloth instead of paper napkins.

Small Classes / Special Needs

If your kid needs some extra-special attention:

Tucker Maxon:

A Dr. Seuss birthday celebration at Tucker Maxon.

A Dr. Seuss birthday celebration at Tucker Maxon.

Tucker Maxon has many of the trappings of an awesome Portland private school — a rock-climbing wall, organic gardening, goats and chickens on campus and a well-regarded summer camp. But the school also has one thing that sets it apart from the flock: It’s designed as a school for deaf kids to learn and listen alongside their typically developing/hearing peers. They’ve got programs starting in preschool and running through fifth grade on their Southeast Portland campus.

Goddard Schools:

A national group of schools with campuses in Portland, Clackamas and Hillsboro, Goddard is a great option for kids who aren’t quite ready for the whirl of kindergarten at their local public school. Their kindergarten class sizes are very small, and lots of attention is paid to the fundamentals, from learning the difference between left and right to the basics of story composition. They’ll work with local districts, too, to help smooth the transition to first grade.

Bridges Middle School:

Bridges is a safe haven for kids who are on the autism spectrum or who have attention deficit disorder, and may have struggled (or been bullied) in elementary school. Here, fifth through eighth graders benefit from small class sizes and individual attention from teachers. In addition to core academic courses, students can take electives including keyboarding and art therapy. The goal is for graduates to be able to navigate life in a traditional high school setting, and to stand up for themselves — really, to find their voice.

CLASS Academy:

Showing off strong work at CLASS Academy.

Showing off strong work at CLASS Academy.

Bright kids can sometimes get overlooked, with teachers focusing on kids who are struggling academically. Not so at CLASS Academy in downtown PDX, a year-round pre-K through eighth grade school where teachers keep a special eye on advanced kids. Small class sizes — a 1:10 ratio in the lower school — help, too. Public speaking is emphasized at all grade levels.

Julia Silverman

Julia Silverman

Julia is a former Associated Press Oregon education and politics reporter, who has also worked as a web editor at Oregon Public Broadcasting. She likes reading, cooking, hiking, swimming, and being left alone at the end of the day to watch some pretty bad TV. Her twins, Ben and Elly, like making trouble.
Julia Silverman

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