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WOMAN OF PRINCIPAL: Stephanie Hasselbrink bridges La Jolla Elementary gap

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Stephanie Hasselbrink is the interim principal at La Jolla Elementary, filling in for recently departed Donna Tripi during the search for her replacement.
(COREY LEVITAN)

Getting called to the principal’s office is usually not a good thing. For Stephanie Hassebrink, it was a career highlight.

“I have had the best week serving as La Jolla Elementary’s interim principal,” she told the Light on Friday, Jan. 11. “Everyone has been so welcoming and positive, and I feel like I’m on cloud nine.”

Early in the new year, San Diego Unified School District superintendent Mitzi Moreno asked Hasselbrink if she wanted to fill in for recently departed Donna Tripi during the search for her replacement. (The 19-year La Jolla Elementary principal announced on Dec. 3 that she was leaving to become superintendent of the Rancho Santa Fe School District.)

“When I received the call, my initial reaction was surprise, as it wasn’t something that I had been expecting,” said Hasselbrink, who was serving as an in-school resource teacher at San Diego’s Marshall Elementary School at the time.

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“My next reaction was excitement,” she said. “I absolutely loved teaching at La Jolla Elementary, and the opportunity to return to serve the community just thrilled me. “ (Hasselbrink taught fifth grade at La Jolla Elementary from 2011 to 2015.)

This is Hasselbrink’s first stint anywhere as a principal. However, as Marshall’s resource teacher for four years, she said she “had the opportunity to run the school operationally and instructionally” and that “I would say you could probably liken it to a vice-principalship.”

Hasselbrink described her primary goal during this transition as “to listen to parents and teachers and to continue the amazing work they’ve been doing.” She also noted that retired principal Julie Martel will be in two days a week to help and advise her.

As for whether Tripi also gave her any advice, Hasselbrink said: “I didn’t connect with her on the phone prior to coming in, but we texted and we’ll be speaking sometime later.”

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Being a temporary anything always has a twinge of surreality to it. For instance, the walls of Hasselbrink’s new office are bare because her old office at Marshall still awaits her return.

“All of my stuff is there and I literally just packed a couple of items in a bag,” she said. “I’m an interim, so that’s still my position and this is my temporary position.”

Of course, it’s possible she may not return — if she applies for Tripi’s position and gets it.

“I might when it’s been posted,” she said. “In my life, I definitely look ahead to the long-term. But right now, I’m just trying on Miss Tripi’s shoes to see if I can tackle some of the many aspects of her job.”

Tripi was the fourth La Jolla public-school principal to leave her job in 2018, following the principals of Bird Rock and Torrey Pines elementary schools and Muirlands Middle School.

“I think the parents see this as stability, because I’m somebody from the community who’s familiar, so I’m kind of able to pick up where Donna left off,” Hasselbrink said. “And I’m committed through the end of the process. It’s not like I’m going to be here for a couple of days and see if it’s OK and if it’s not, I’m going to leave.”

Hasselbrink estimated the length of that process as anywhere from three to nine months.

“It seems these days that oftentimes positions get re-posted,” Hasselbrink said, “especially at a school like La Jolla that’s had incredible leadership and has a very clear picture of the leader they would like.”

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Hasselbrink brought up an analogy used often in education — that of an airplane being built while it’s flying. It suggests uncertainty about the destination.

“Here at La Jolla Elementary,” Hasselbrink said, “the plane is built, it has comfortable seats with a screen on the back of each one, and they know exactly where they’re going because they’ve had such an organized leader and such an amazing group of teachers, parents and parent volunteers who have created this plan.”

Asked if she expects any turbulence, she replied: “I wouldn’t call it turbulence. I think there might be a couple of birds flying around that you have to navigate your way around.”

MEET STEPHANIE HASSELBRINKAge: 40.Married: ‘To my career.’Raised: Santa Clara, Calif.Current residence: Downtown San Diego.Surname derivation: Dutch, her German family believes, having ‘something to do with a hazelnut tree on a rolling hill.’Favorite part of the day: Visiting classrooms and seeing teachers engage their students in all different types of learning.Least favorite: Fighting the traffic home.What’s in her lunchbox right now: ‘A chicken-and-rice something.”


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