La Jolla public schools seeing decline in social and other skills; most enrollment figures trail projections

The La Jolla Cluster Association heard Oct. 21 how the first two months of the school year have been going.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Some public schools in La Jolla are seeing a loss of social interaction and other skills, the La Jolla Cluster Association heard during its first meeting of the academic year, held virtually Oct. 21.

The Cluster Association is composed of staff and parent representatives of the five San Diego Unified School District sites in La Jolla.

Two local elementary school principals noted being unable to invite parents onto campus due to COVID-19 protocols that bar schools from allowing anyone but staff and students.

Bird Rock Elementary Principal Andi Frost said “it’s difficult for our parents not to be on campus. We are an incredibly community-oriented school. Our parents love to be on campus, we love to have our parents on campus.”

Frost said teachers miss the usual volunteer support from parents.

La Jolla Elementary Principal Stephanie Hasselbrink said “it’s really challenging for our parents in a way that was unanticipated. … Parents are still wondering what’s really happening in the classroom because they’re not in the classroom to witness [it], so they’re kind of developing some of their own narratives.”

To mitigate that, LJES teachers are providing more photos and videos from classroom activities to parents, Hasselbrink said.

Due to students having spent months at home learning online because of the pandemic, Frost said “we’re seeing some social immaturity with some of our upper-grade kiddos because they weren’t able to consistently have [in-person] interaction with same-age peers.”

Further hampering social dynamics is the mandated mask-wearing, she said. “It’s really tough to just see what a person is thinking or feeling or reacting with [only] the top part of their face.”

“The positive of that is … we’re able to have a lot of teaching opportunities and learning opportunities around the social dynamics and the social interaction,” she added.

Hasselbrink said her staff also is working to reteach communication and interaction.

Cluster Association co-chair and LJES fifth-grade teacher Heather Polen said she and her students are “doing a lot more work on social-emotional [learning] and making sure that we are clearly communicating in order to then be successful … and learn all the academics.”

La Jolla High School teacher Kerry Dill said she and her colleagues have been reteaching “executive functioning skills.”

Now that students are back to a full day of six classes, Dill said, “it’s been a tough transition for them” to manage more homework time, do long-term planning and increase their attention spans.

San Diego Unified Area 5 Superintendent Mitzi Merino said she would work on providing parents ways to support their children’s executive functioning skills at school.

Despite the struggles, Merino said that in her visits to schools the past two months, “I was beyond impressed with the teaching and learning that’s happening in our classrooms in our cluster. I was amazed at the careful planning that the teachers do and the high levels of engagement.”

Merino said the district is focusing on literacy acceleration with the help of curriculum experts and consultants.

“The second thing we’re focused on,” she said, “is really creating classrooms where all students feel valued and will be highly successful.” She said she’s proud of the “anti-bias, anti-racist work” that’s begun.

Other cluster news

Enrollment: Enrollment at La Jolla Cluster elementary schools is down compared with district projections.

Torrey Pines Elementary has 460 students currently enrolled, according to Principal Nona Richard. That’s less than the projected 482.

Frost said Bird Rock Elementary currently has 355 students, compared with the projected 410.

Hasselbrink said La Jolla Elementary has 440 students, less than the projected 494 but “nearly identical” to last school year.

Principal Jeff Luna said Muirlands Middle School has 730 students enrolled and noted that district demographers had projected exactly that.

La Jolla High Principal Chuck Podhorsky was unable to present at the cluster meeting due to time constraints. However, at an Oct. 14 La Jolla Town Council forum on education, he reported enrollment of 1,290. The district had projected 1,299.

Coronavirus testing update: Susan Barndollar, executive director of nursing and wellness for SDUSD, said the district was managing 56 active cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus, reported both through weekly district site testing and independent testing.

If a positive case is reported through a rapid antigen test — the type of test administered at district elementary and middle schools — the result is “always double-checked with a PCR [polymerase chain reaction] swab,” Barndollar said. “If that PCR test is negative, that person gets to come back.”

She said the district recently added a PCR testing facility at its central office at 4100 Normal St., San Diego. The facility is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

It is open to all students and staff to help those who need “a negative PCR test to be able to come back to school or come back to work,” Barndollar said. “That’s been a huge asset and a huge help for staff and students.”

She said “the district is constantly reassessing the situation” to determine whether coronavirus testing — currently optional for most students and vaccinated staff members — will continue weekly in the future.

“If our case rate … goes down and stays down, our cadence may change,” Barndollar said, adding that the cadence is determined by state guidelines.

The purpose of weekly testing, she said, is “to find asymptomatic cases in the schools and try to isolate those cases, so then we prevent the spread of infection symptomatically or asymptomatically in the schools to keep our students safe.”

Math update: “We have absolutely no plans to eliminate acceleration in San Diego Unified,” said district instructional support officer Wendy Ranck-Buhr, addressing rumors she said she heard that SDUSD is eliminating accelerated math courses.

“We’re looking at increasing options for students to access more advanced math courses,” she said.

She added that she would return at a future cluster meeting with a longer presentation about district math instruction.

Next meeting: The La Jolla Cluster Association next meets at 4:15 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 9, online. For more information, go to