La Jolla Cluster Association reports on social support during local schools’ distance learning

Members of the La Jolla Cluster Association discuss social-emotional support for students at their Dec. 17 meeting.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The principals of the La Jolla Cluster of schools, composed of the five public schools in La Jolla in the San Diego Unified School District, reported last week on progress toward improving social support for students while schools are closed to in-person instruction.

La Jolla High School Principal Chuck Podhorsky told the Cluster Association at its Dec. 17 meeting online that the school’s counseling team has begun conducting office hours during which students can seek individual, private help.

“Students are really taking advantage of that,” Podhorsky said.

He encouraged parents to reach out if their child needs one-on-one counseling. “We have a lot of resources available at the high school level,” he said.

Podhorsky said a student intervention and support team made up of teachers, counselors, nurses and other school employees is meeting weekly “to look at our high-needs students, both with special needs and who are struggling from a social-emotional standpoint … to figure out how we can support them as we continue down this extended pandemic road.”

Christy Littlemore, LJHS parent representative to the cluster who also heads the cluster’s special-education parent group, said the “anxiety level is really high” among high school students with an individualized education plan, or IEP.

“The overall message that we’re hearing is that online learning is a struggle for students with IEPs,” she said, noting that the parent group decided to pilot an app that helps students “identify your feelings.”

Two months ago, the San Diego Unified School District announced a change in grading policy intended to make grading practices more inclusive, citing racial and other disparities in previous policies.

Muirlands Middle School Principal Jeff Luna said his school has been developing activities such as a virtual student recognition ceremony, an online Spirit Week and an online talent show “to increase the social aspect.”

“We’re working on trying to build the social component into” online curriculum and “more social interaction opportunities for our kids outside of the academics,” he said. “I know that’s lacking right now.”

“We have some really good ideas on that,” with a committee meeting regularly, he added.

As Phase 1 of the district’s campus reopening plan expanded this month to include middle and high school students who are struggling with online learning, Luna said “we’ve brought a few kids back on campus” to meet with counselors “either for academic one-on-one appointments or social-emotional kind of support — students who are struggling socially with the online format or in general.”

He said the school is looking to expand the one-on-one sessions to small groups as Phase 1 continues.

At La Jolla Elementary School, Principal Stephanie Hasselbrink said staff has “talked about how we’re concerned about our students’ social and emotional well-being” and is “thinking about out-of-the-box supports we can offer students.”

She said the school’s counselor is working “with a lot of students; that’s been really positive.”

Other cluster news

Classroom ventilation: Podhorsky said LJHS is working with San Diego Unified Chief Operations Officer Drew Rowlands to improve the school’s ventilation system. Rowlands is installing carbon dioxide sensors in the classrooms “to get a better sense of what the air turnover rate is,” Podhorsky said. Some teachers are on campus preparing for the Phase 1 expansion.

“We’re very confident that we have all the systems in place to welcome students back,” he said.

New Exploratory Wheel: Luna said sixth-graders are in the first year of the Exploratory Wheel program, a rotation through four different classes and teachers to prepare students for electives in seventh grade. The rotation through health, music, coding and general computer knowledge is “going fantastic,” he said.

Phase 1 reopening: Hasselbrink said the Phase 1 reopening at La Jolla Elementary has seen 35 students from transitional kindergarten through third grade on campus at various times. “We plan to serve additional kindergarten and upper-grade students starting in January,” she said.

Nona Richard, principal at Torrey Pines Elementary, said her school also will bring back more students in January. “We know that’s making a difference,” she said. “I think the most important piece is we’re finding ways to connect with [struggling] children so everybody can be successful.”

The La Jolla Cluster Association next meets at 4:15 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21, online. Learn more at