La Jolla school suspensions under district average

Compared to other school clusters in San Diego, the La Jolla Cluster — including La Jolla Elementary, Bird Rock Elementary, Torrey Pines Elementary, Muirlands Middle and La Jolla High schools — has far fewer suspensions and expulsions, it was announced at the Dec. 17 La Jolla Cluster Association meeting.

Comprised of teachers, parents and administrators from area schools, the La Jolla Cluster Association meets monthly. During its December meeting at Muirlands Middle School, area superintendent Mitzi Merino presented data that quantified suspensions and expulsions over recent years by demographics. The data represented number of students per hundred, with La Jolla schools at less than one or two suspended or expelled students per hundred per year.

“When we looked at the data, the La Jolla Cluster is well under the district average in suspensions and expulsions,” she said. “This is what we want to see when we’re looking at overall school climate and culture.”

She also presented suspension and expulsion rates by student group, comparing school years 2013-2014 and 2014-2015. Some demographic data was consistent across the board — chiefly that males are suspended more frequently than females, English-learners more often than English-speakers, and Special Education students and African American students are generally suspended at the higher rates.

“We still have work to do to support all students,” Merino said. “We use this data as a flashlight to point us in the right direction and where we need to continue to work.”

To assist the clusters with higher suspension and expulsion numbers, Merino noted efforts that Cluster members feel contribute to low numbers. “The work you are doing here is making a difference with keeping children in school,” she said. “There is a place for other clusters to learn from us, if we can share that information with them.”

Board trustee Mike McQuary credited teachers and administrators with being more “sensitive and real” about the base issues leading to suspensions, rather than responding to the negative action itself. “Teachers and principals are looking at the behaviors and doing restorative practices and that has translated into fewer students losing class time because they’ve been kicked out of school,” he said. “The effort you’re making to identify students in need of help, and counseling them through issues, is having a system-wide impact.”

Several Cluster members also cited parent involvement on campus and with school activities as a possible source of behavior adjustments. John May said, “I was at the high school today and one of my son’s friends saw me and told him ‘your dad is on campus’ … and that actually does produce some behavior changes.”

Amy Sanders, a third-grade teacher at Torrey Pines Elementary, said she used to teach in the southern region of San Diego. During her time here, she said, she’s observed more productive parent and teacher engagement with students. “What I was struck by is the more nurturing environment here,” she said. “The language used is much more nurturing, (for example) when a child is doing something wrong, instead of being yelled at loudly, it’s more getting down to their level and speaking to them kindly ... there is a very different vibe.” She added that La Jolla parents are also more receptive to concerns and they follow up.

As far as what teachers and administrators need to better serve students, Cluster members largely agreed they need more personnel for counseling or other forms of one-on-one time with students for mental health support. The current system is focused on academic counseling, but parents would like to see more engagement with students about day-to-day events and character development.

Natascha Vossen said though the counseling teams at La Jolla schools are strong, each counselor has hundreds of students for which they are responsible. With more personnel, there would be more opportunities for one-on-one interaction — without an agenda — to spend time with a student and see how they’re doing.

La Jolla Cluster Association next meets 4:15 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21 at a location to be announced.