The Principal’s Office: Meet Donna Tripi. La Jolla Elementary principal strives for continual improvement

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Donna Tripi is the principal at La Jolla Elementary School. The public school enrolls students in kindergarten to 5th grade. (Photo by Daniel K. Lew)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the seventh of a 13-part series bringing you interviews with principals of the 13 schools in La Jolla every other week.

By Catherine Ivey Lee

Even as a child, Donna Tripi seemed destined for a life in education. On weekends, Tripi and her friends frequently rounded up the smaller children on her Long Island, New York block to play school.

“My best friend and my sister would be teachers and we would do these little day schools,” she said. “And I eventually would be the principal of that little school. So I always knew what I wanted to do.”

Today, Tripi is principal of La Jolla Elementary School, the oldest and largest public elementary in La Jolla, where she oversees the education of 645 students and manages a staff of 50. And while the kids from her old neighborhood are long grown up, Tripi herself is still in school on weekends: Each Sunday after attending church, Tripi heads to work until the afternoon. “It’s my quiet time,” she said.

Tripi, a dedicated individual who rises at 4:30 a.m. each day, works out nearly every evening and keeps her energy up with green veggie smoothies, has a career that has spanned four schools, three states and affected countless students including those at La Jolla Elementary, where she is in her 14th year as principal. “I love to watch students learn and see what they come up with in the process,” she said.

Under Tripi’s watch, La Jolla Elementary School has twice been named a California Distinguished School, a recognition given to the top 5 percent of schools in the state. The school’s API scores have soared to among the highest in the county and enrollment has risen — by more than 100 students in the last four years alone.

Despite these successes, the self-described “focused” and “intense” Tripi (“I can’t break it, I’m a New Yorker”) says she is continually striving for improvement. Arriving at school by 7 a.m., she is in meetings by 8 a.m. She typically spends several hours inside classrooms “to get to know the kids, to support teachers and identify ways to meet their needs,” she said.

Afternoons are spent writing, answering e-mail or in teachers’ meetings. Work comes home, too. Tripi often reads professional development materials in her down time.

“If something new is out there, I bring it to the teachers’ attention, and we look at it and decide if it’s something we want to take on. The teachers know that I’m always out there looking for the next thing,” said Tripi. “The teachers are as dedicated to that as I am; it’s an atmosphere of continuous improvement and always wanting to make sure we’re getting better.”

The supportive school ethos is one that Tripi experienced in Illinois where she relocated with her then-husband following her first teaching job (at the same Long Island school she attended as a child). She taught at a K-3 grade school in Chicago’s North Shore area and was principal of a K-4 school. The region’s support for education inspired her.

“The Chicago schools were cutting edge. The community worked together to make sure that the schools had all of the resources they needed to meet the needs of the students,” she said.

It was also an experience in educational “best practices,” which made her an attractive candidate to the San Diego Unified School District when she decided to move to San Diego a decade later. Then-superintendent Alan Bersin was embarking on a district-wide school reform effort and Tripi was hired to replace La Jolla Elementary’s principal who was among several Bersin had removed.

“In the 14 years, everything about our school is different,” she said. “We have looked at every piece of our curriculum. Each year we look at our test scores and student work and say, ‘Are we doing everything we can?’ We look at our fifth grade and ask, ‘What do they need to know and be able to do by fifth grade to be successful in middle school and beyond? Are they using mathematical reasoning and coming up with different strategies? In literacy, are they critical thinkers?’”

And while Tripi is pleased with the school’s rise in scores, she said she is not driven by testing and chooses programs that best meet student needs, such as the school’s Everyday Math program and its science program that allows students to study Earth, physical and life sciences in depth for 4-6 weeks each.

“If you have strong teaching, kids are going to do well on the testing. What drives me is what’s good for kids and what’s good for kids is that they understand the concepts that they need to be proficient or advanced at their grade level.”

Tripi said she is proud of having instituted grade-level collaboratives for teachers to plan curriculum and review student work together.

Tripi has also created a supportive educational community. Generous parents have transformed the school through landscaping, painting and a whimsical courtyard. The school has a family feel, she said. “I think we have families that are very pleased with what we’re doing.”

La Jolla Elementary School
Type of school: Public
Year established: 1897
Number of students: 645
• Grade range: Kindergarten to 5th grade
• School mascot: A blue whale
• Tuition: None
Address: 1111 Marine St., La Jolla
Phone: (858) 454-7196

UP NEXT: Meet Christopher Schuck, head of school at La Jolla Country Day School, in the Feb. 14, 2013 issue.

“The Principal’s Office” Archives, so far, for this ongoing series: You can read profiles of principals from previous issues at:

Related posts:

  1. The Principal’s Office: Meet Evelyn Terry. For teacher, transition to Head of The Children’s School in La Jolla is rewarding
  2. The Principal’s Office: Meet Patricia Lowell. Principal of Stella Maris Academy keeps children in mind
  3. The Principal’s Office: Meet Jim Solo. Classroom visits, collaboration key to Torrey Pines Elementary principal’s success in La Jolla
  4. The Principal’s Office: Meet Christian Jarlov. Seasoned bilingual educator proud of La Jolla’s French-American School
  5. The Principal’s Office: Meet Alison Fleming. Powered by hugs, the head of La Jolla’s The Gillispie School strives to lead by example

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Posted by Staff on Jan 30, 2013. Filed under Featured Story, La Jolla, News, Schools, The Principals Office. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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