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The Children’s School in La Jolla celebrates 50 years of empowering students in ‘partnership’

The Children's School in La Jolla is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The Children’s School in La Jolla is celebrating a half-century of empowering students as agents of their own education.

The private school follows what is known as the emergent educational philosophy, which starts with the youngest students and is incorporated all the way through middle school. For all the students, emergent curriculum means “the skills we’re going to teach are set,” Head of School John Fowler said, “but the context in which they’re set can evolve and change.”

That might mean a three-week science unit is made longer by diverging into different topics. But “if the kids are learning what they’re interested in, they’re going to be much more focused and more engaged,” Fowler said.

The method has been TCS’ way all along.

And now the school plans to host an alumni event in November and a larger all-family celebration as part of its annual spring gala to commemorate the anniversary.

TCS, which occupies 6½ acres on Torrey Pines Lane near the intersection of Torrey Pines Road and La Jolla Shores Drive, wasn’t always part of the La Jolla landscape.

The school was founded by a former administrator at San Diego’s Francis Parker School after “a big revival in the late 1960s of progressive education,” Fowler said.

TCS — which has no affiliation with Francis Parker — opened with 80 students in September 1972 in Point Loma. It then moved to Sorrento Valley.

The school moved to La Jolla in 1983 after Scripps Elementary School, part of the San Diego Unified School District, closed and the property became available.

The Children’s School now serves 262 students from toddlers through eighth-graders. They come from all across San Diego County.

The Children's School makes use of several outdoor areas, like this classroom space in a garden.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The toddler program begins with 2-year-olds as a “Parent and Me” program, Fowler said. “This is their very first experience in school and it’s their first time away from their parents. We want it to feel really safe and comfortable.”

The school exists for the students, Fowler said. “This is their school.”

“The core to our philosophy is the idea that it’s a partnership,” he said. “It’s the idea that we address the whole person. We spend a lot of time not just working on them as scholars and intellectuals but as people with feelings.”

That starts with students and staff members using first names with one another to facilitate easier communication.

“Hands-on and project-based [learning] and recognizing the whole person … are really critical. We’ve quietly always been doing it, and we always will.”

— Head of School John Fowler

Empowering TCS students continues with daily lessons on social interaction. Fowler noted that children are never left to figure out academic concepts without guidance and that social-emotional learning should be no different.

“We obviously understand that teaching reading, math and writing is really critical,” he said, “and [schools] do it in a very structured way.

“One of the most important skills we need as adults is how to get along with other people. And [schools] don’t teach that in any kind of structured way. We assume that kids just figure it out.”

At TCS, teachers work with students to navigate conflict and differing opinions the same way they offer academic instruction.

“As [students] negotiate their world out here, they’re constantly interacting with each other,” Fowler said. “We know there’s going to be conflict. And we don’t try to avoid that, because conflict in life is part of being a person.”

The names of graduating eighth-graders are listed alongside this Socrates quote at The Children's School.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Fowler, now in his ninth year at the school, said the staff takes advantage of the sprawling campus and the San Diego climate to teach outside as much as possible and that all students have recess together so older students can model positive interactions and help with conflicts when necessary.

The Children’s School’s use of the outdoors was a boon during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The school reopened to all students full time as soon as it was allowed.

“It was never an option for us not to be here for the kids,” Fowler said.

He said he’s most proud that the school has never wavered from its educational vision.

“We don’t let trends in education steer us away from doing what we really believe is best,” he said. “Hands-on and project-based [learning] and recognizing the whole person … are really critical. We’ve quietly always been doing it, and we always will.”

As the school heads into its next 50 years, Fowler said he hopes TCS will “continue to be this real stalwart in not just creating scholars but creating really good people. We’re not going anywhere.” ◆