The Principal’s Office: Meet Dana Shelburne. La Jolla High principal is proud of school’s landscape, autonomy gains [VIDEO & STORY]

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• VIDEO: Watch part of the interview with Dana Shelburne, principal at La Jolla High School, by clicking on the image above, or go to:

Dana Shelburne is the principal at La Jolla High School in La Jolla, Calif. The public school enrolls students in Grades 9-12. (Photo by Daniel K. Lew)

Editor’s Note: This is the 10th of a 13-part series bringing you interviews with principals of the 13 schools in La Jolla every other week.

By Catherine Ivey Lee

Principal Dana Shelburne remembers his first visit to La Jolla High School some 30 years ago. He was an English teacher at a high school in Mission Valley when he came to the campus for a track meet. He had the idea that a high school in La Jolla “ought to be a pretty nice place,” he recalled.

That wasn’t what he found, he said.

“You came down the hill and what you saw were a bunch of rickety-old bungalows and a hodge-podge of architecture” and parking lots of busted asphalt, he said with a laugh. “I thought, ‘What a dump!’”

It’s little surprise then that as he looks back on his 18 years as La Jolla High’s principal, Shelburne believes part of his legacy will be his role in improving the school’s campus, including getting rid of the old bungalows and making way for the Coggan Family Aquatics Complex.

“I’ve had a hand in changing the look of the school very much for the better, I believe,” said the 61-year-old Shelburne, who plans to retire in the next six years.

It’s also little surprise that after spending more than half of his many decades as a teacher and administrator at La Jolla High, Shelburne is especially fond of the school, which serves 1,550 students in grades 9-12. “I love the place; I love the community support and the kids. I couldn’t ask for a better job,” he said.

After graduating in the mid-1970s with a degree in English from University of Southern California, Shelburne took a while to discover his calling in high school education. The San Diego native believed he’d become a college professor one day but, in no rush, he worked in Antarctica, earned a second bachelor’s degree and toiled as a gardener and bartender at a yacht club. Then a friend encouraged him to apply to teach at the high school where he worked.

Shelburne did, drawn in by the promise of “real money” — an $8,000 annual salary — and was hired to teach English at the University of San Diego High School, now Cathedral Catholic High School.

“It turned out that I loved it,” Shelburne said. “I loved the interplay with the students. They were actually able to hold the kind of conversations I was thinking I was going to find only in the college setting.”

Shelburne taught for 15 years before shifting to administration. He became La Jolla’s principal after working as both a teacher and a vice principal at the school.

Today, the self-described “nerd” and English buff (Shelburne’s office houses a collection of old and rare books), says he loves watching the evolution of teens during high school. “From the time they enter as ninth-graders and leave as seniors, they are in this growth pattern that is marvelous to behold,” said Shelburne, whose college-age sons both attended La Jolla High.

He credits the school’s diverse makeup with adding to the experience at La Jolla High. About 45 percent of students come from outside La Jolla, and students learn how to get along with others, he said.

“If you go to a school that is all one sort, that’s not what you’re going to meet when you get out in the real world and you have to learn to how to be comfortable around people of different walks, different looks, different accents,” he said.

Shelburne called the state’s fiscal “crisis” the biggest challenge in education today. “We are currently in about the seventh year of a fiscal downturn and Prop. 30 is not going to provide enough to save that crisis from still having its impact,” he said, adding that he works hard to protect critical student classes and programs from being affected. “Students are still receiving a top-flight education.”

Despite the tough fiscal climate, Shelburne has overseen numerous improvements to the school. He raised money for a synthetic football field, making the high school the first in Southern California to install one. He also initiated construction of an Olympic-sized swimming pool and aquatics center, then raised funds to replace the aging bungalows that were displaced at the pool site with a two-story math and science building. Other improvements included adding a synthetic softball field and giving the girls’ locker room a makeover, he said.

Shelburne and his staff also negotiated a unique “autonomy agreement” with the San Diego Unified School District in 2000, becoming the first school to secure the right to determine which courses to teach and when, as well as what textbooks to buy. The school must meet certain academic benchmarks to keep the agreement in place.

“That really was a heady decision back then. When you say we would like to chart our own course, you are wholly responsible for the results of charting that course. When you are doing what the district tells you, you can point and say, ‘It’s not our fault. That’s a bad plan.’ By taking it on as our own personal challenge, we did accept that responsibility,” he said.

Talkative, cheerful and colorful by nature, Shelburne said he prefers to lead through “the power of personality” rather than the “power of the office,” and to talk through issues to reach consensus with others as much as possible. But he acknowledges that his decisions have not always been controversy-free. “I don’t know that there is anything you can ever do that’s going to please everybody,” he said. “Somebody’s always going to be upset.”

Type of school: Public, no tuition
Year established: 1922
Number of students: 1,550
• Grade range: 9-12
• School colors: Red and black
• School mascot: Vikings
Address: 750 Nautilus St., La Jolla, Calif.
Phone: (858) 454-3081

Up Next: Meet Aimeclaire Roche, head of The Bishop’s School, in the March 28, 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 Christine Hargrave. Muirlands Middle School chief strives to meet the needs of all [VIDEO]
  2. The Principal’s Office: Meet Christopher Schuck. La Jolla Country Day’s head of school aims to help students find ‘their best selves’
  3. The Principal’s Office: Meet Donna Tripi. La Jolla Elementary principal strives for continual improvement
  4. The Principal’s Office: Meet Evelyn Terry. For teacher, transition to Head of The Children’s School in La Jolla is rewarding
  5. The Principal’s Office: Meet Patricia Lowell. Principal of Stella Maris Academy keeps children in mind

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Posted by Staff on Mar 13, 2013. Filed under Featured Story, News, Schools, The Principals Office, Video. 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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