The Principal’s Office: Meet Alison Fleming. Powered by hugs, the head of La Jolla’s The Gillispie School strives to lead by example
• VIDEO: Watch part of the interview with Alison Fleming, head of school at The Gillispie School in La Jolla, by clicking on the image above, or go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gvh0XteuqCs
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a 13-part series bringing you interviews with principals of the 13 schools in La Jolla every other week.
By Catherine Ivey Lee
Alison Fleming was a recent college graduate working in marketing when her former elementary school principal suggested she was a natural educator. “She said, ‘You could teach ice-making to Eskimos,’” Fleming recalled with a laugh. The energetic and curious Fleming decided to try. Twenty-seven years, three La Jolla private schools (but no Eskimos) later, Fleming’s education career is still going strong.
“I love what I do,” Fleming said. “What a pleasure to have such joy in my day.”
No doubt part of that joy comes from the warm reception that Fleming, who is in her fifth year as head of The Gillispie School, receives as she walks around the toddler-age to sixth-grade campus on upper Girard Avenue. On a recent tour, two pre-K students squeal that Fleming must come see their caterpillars. A teacher tells Fleming how excited students are for her to read to them on the following week. And a crying child who has bumped her head walks over for some consolation. “I’m so sorry, Mia,” Fleming says as the girl hugs her leg. “Spontaneous hugs!” Fleming says later. “It’s just the best part.”
If Fleming is a natural educator, she’s also a local school success story. A native La Jollan, Fleming graduated from The Evans School and The Bishop’s School. After college and a brief stint in marketing, Fleming returned to both alma maters professionally. She first taught at The Evans School for three years (Gale Baer, the school’s then and current director, was the one to encourage Fleming to try teaching). She then spent 19 years at The Bishop’s School as a college counselor and middle school director.
As head of Gillispie, Fleming said she strives to lead by example. She arrives at school between 7:15-7:30 a.m. to get a head start on the day and to be available if teachers need her. Between then and 5:30 p.m., when her day typically ends, Fleming’s days are filled with meetings, yard duties and school tours. Fleming prefers to give prospective families tours herself so that parents can get to know her as they learn about the school.
Among the issues Fleming is overseeing this year are the school’s 60th anniversary celebrations and development of an athletic “Field of Dreams” adjacent to the school. Beyond these, each day brings fresh issues to resolve. Fleming keeps her office door open and strives to handle each concern from students, parents and teachers with integrity, collaboration and openness. “If you have a problem, let’s talk about it,” she said. “We all need to level with each other. We all need to be heard.” Being emotionally “present” for all of her constituents is the hardest part of her job, said Fleming, who unwinds over dinner with her husband, Brock, and son Jake. Another son, Bryce, is away at college.
The Gillispie School encourages students and faculty to be life-long learners, and Fleming is no exception. She takes educational articles home, constantly reevaluates school curriculum programs and keeps up with the latest buzz in education. Fleming said she believes it’s important for students to know that their teachers are constantly learning, too. Thanks to the school’s $4.5 million Endowment for Excellence in Teaching, she and other faculty routinely attend professional development courses and “share out” what they’ve learned with each other, she said.
Like many area schools, Fleming said, Gillispie strives to teach its students to be kind, respectful students who contribute to their community and to provide them with an excellent academic foundation. One area in which she believes Gillispie distinguishes itself is in giving students strong communication skills for the future.
“I can’t tell you, for example, that they are going to need this type of algebra,” Fleming explained. “But I can tell you they had better be good collaborators and good communicators.” Students hone speaking skills by participating in school assemblies, and, in fourth grade, by holding newscasts with live Q&A sessions. Fleming is particularly excited about a newly adopted writing program called Learning Headquarters. The three-part model involves teachers demonstrating writing skills, teachers and students practicing writing together, and students ultimately writing independently. Students learn the benefits of planning and editing and develop a shared vocabulary around writing. “I’ve got first graders who are talking about narrative hooks in their introductory paragraphs!” she said.
Fleming also firmly believes in teaching students that they don’t have to know everything. If she doesn’t know an answer, Fleming is quick to role model how to find it. “You don’t have to have all the answers,” she said. “You just need to know what to do when you get stuck.”
About The Gillispie School
• Address: 7380 Girard Ave., La Jolla
• Type of school: Independent
• Year established: 1952
• Number of students: 265
• Grade range: Preschool to Grade 6
• School colors/mascot name: Navy and white/A gecko
• Tuition: $18,000 (age/grade-level dependent)
• Phone: (858) 459-3773
• Website: gillispie.org
• UP NEXT: Meet Patricia Lowell, principal of Stella Maris Academy, in the Nov. 29, 2012 issue.
• “The Principal’s Office” Archives:
You can read profiles of principals from previous issues at:
- The Principal’s Office: Meet Jill Platt. Coffee, prayer and love of students fuels All Hallows Academy principal in La Jolla
- All Hallows Academy hosts Family Fun Night ‘on-the-range’ in La Jolla
- Taste of La Jolla raises $19,000 for La Jolla High School
- La Jolla’s Town Council, Planning Association discuss pending issues
- Slight declines in enrollment may impact La Jolla school budgets
Short URL: http://www.lajollalight.com/?p=97673