The Principal’s Office: Meet Jim Solo. Classroom visits, collaboration key to Torrey Pines Elementary principal’s success in La Jolla
• VIDEO: Watch part of the interview with Jim Solo, principal at Torrey Pines Elementary School in La Jolla, by clicking on the image above, or go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXHnntUMgEs
• EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth of a 13-part series bringing you interviews with principals of the 13 schools in La Jolla every other week.
By Catherine Ivey Lee
When Jim Solo says he likes to spend a lot of time in the classroom, it’s clear he’s telling the truth.
On a recent tour of the K-5 campus, the Torrey Pines Elementary School principal cheerfully greeted students, teachers and volunteers, easily explained what large bell-shaped curves hanging in many classrooms had to do with literacy (they represent the arc of a story and help students to track critical themes) and inspected a grinning student’s loose tooth. “Ew. You know I hate that,” he said. “I know!” the boy replied.
For Solo, in his 10th year as the school’s principal, being in the classroom isn’t just enjoyable. “If I’m not in classrooms, I don’t know what’s going on,” said Solo, who reserves several hours each morning for classroom visits. “It’s a way that I can hold the teachers accountable for learning. They’re used to me just wandering through. It’s my job. If they need anything to support them, I need to be able to provide that.”
It’s also a leadership style that appears to be successful. During Solo’s tenure, Torrey Pines has been named a California Distinguished School twice, a designation given to the top 10 percent of public schools. The school’s Academic Performance Index (API) score jumped from a respectable 848 in 2002, Solo’s first year, to an off-the-charts 991 last year — the highest score of any elementary school in San Diego County. The score is based on student scores on tests of state standards.
In addition, the school has returned to being a neighborhood school. More than 90 percent of students live within the school’s boundaries, up from 50 percent when Solo started and many area students were attending private or charter schools.
Solo, an energetic and fast-talking man who not only works out but also reads the paper before arriving at school at 7 a.m., is quick to credit dedicated teachers, supportive parents and hardworking students for the successes. “It’s not about me. It’s a team,” he said.
But his competitive nature and strong belief in public schools have played a role, too. “I always believed it could be better,” Solo said of the school’s API score. “It’s my nature. I never rest on my laurels.”
Education is actually a second career for Solo. The Los Angeles native initially pursued a career in retail management. After realizing it wasn’t his passion, he turned to teaching, inspired by one of his own teachers.
He earned a teaching credential at San Diego State University and took a job teaching at an elementary school in La Mesa. He was named the San Diego Unified Teacher of the Year in 1999-2000.
“It’s absolutely amazing to see the growth of a child over the course of a year,” he said.
After briefly overseeing the district’s history and social science curriculum, Solo said he felt ready to lead a school.
He was appointed interim principal at Torrey Pines Elementary in 2002 and became its permanent principal a year later.
“I felt that I was good at relationship building and that was what the district was lacking,” Solo said.
Solo set out to do just that. Having concluded that learning looked different in many Torrey Pines’ classrooms, Solo urged teachers of the same grade to work together and rearranged their schedules so they could. Some teachers resisted and left, but many stayed, he said. A rise in test scores followed, as did a sense of common purpose.
“The test scores weren’t really what I set out to change,” he said. “Today, we work as a team. I think that was the missing link. It’s no longer ‘just the 30 children in my classroom.’ We all feel responsible for every child. We’re quicker to identify problems early on and to ask, ‘What else can I do to support this child?’”
Solo attributes students’ high test scores to his staff’s strong knowledge of state standards, but is quick to say they are just one aspect of a Torrey Pines education, which also includes classes in chorus, art, and P.E.
Solo is preparing for a rollout of new state standards, which are expected to place a greater emphasis on the development of critical thinking skills in reading and math — something Solo agrees with.
He is particularly proud of a school-wide literacy curriculum developed by one of his teachers. The Seminars in Critical Literacy program teaches students to look for main themes in literature and to write essays that go deeper than retelling a story’s plot.
Solo is also optimistic that the school’s new approach to math, which includes an emphasis on multiple approaches to problem solving, is preparing students well.
“Torrey Pines is a remarkable school,” he said. “Our children perform well on academic tests, but we really go much deeper than that.”
Torrey Pines Elementary School
• Address: 8350 Cliffridge Ave., La Jolla
• Type of school: Public
• Year established: 1962
• Number of students: 475
• Grade range: Kindergarten to 5th grade
• School mascot: The Torrey Pine Tree
• Tuition: None
• Phone: (858) 453-2323
• Website: torreypineselementary.org
• UP NEXT: Meet Evelyn Terry, head of school at The Children’s School, in the Jan. 17, 2013 issue.
• “The Principal’s Office” Archives: You can read profiles of principals from previous issues at: http://www.lajollalight.com/la-jolla-news/news/schools/the-principals-office-schools/
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- The Principal’s Office: Meet Alison Fleming. Powered by hugs, the head of La Jolla’s The Gillispie School strives to lead by example
- The Principal’s Office: Meet Jill Platt. Coffee, prayer and love of students fuels All Hallows Academy principal in La Jolla
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