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‘Climbing back up’: La Jolla Cluster Association returns for school updates and to clarify mission

SDUSD Area 5 Superintendent Mitzi Merino, second from left, says attendance is great at La Jolla public schools.
San Diego Unified School District Area 5 Superintendent Mitzi Merino, second from left, says attendance is great at La Jolla public schools.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The La Jolla Cluster Association, comprised of representatives from the San Diego Unified School District’s five campuses in La Jolla, heard principal updates and suggested revisions to its meeting schedule and mission. The Oct. 20 meeting, held at Muirlands Middle School, was the first meeting of the academic year — and its first in-person meeting since February 2020, just before the local onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Attendance and enrollment

SDUSD Area 5 Superintendent Mitzi Merino said La Jolla schools have attendance rates above the district average, with Muirlands in second place for middle school attendance and La Jolla High School in second place for high school attendance.

Enrollment is also up in the La Jolla cluster.

Bird Rock Elementary School Principal Andi Frost said 389 students are currently enrolled in her school. She did not give the previously projected number but said “we are climbing back up; we are closer to where we were before COVID hit.”

La Jolla Elementary School enrollment is at 500 students, higher than the projected 449, Principal Stephanie Hasselbrink said.

New Torrey Pines Elementary School Principal Keith Keiper updates the La Jolla Cluster Association.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

At Torrey Pines Elementary, where Keith Keiper is eight weeks into his new role as principal, enrollment is at 478 students, slightly below the projected 489.

Muirlands Principal Jeff Luna also did not give projected numbers but said the school’s enrollment is at 700 students.

La Jolla High School Principal Chuck Podhorsky did not attend the meeting; he later told La Jolla Light the school has 1,235 students enrolled of a projected 1,242.

Social-emotional learning

Work continues across the district to improve equity through increasing diversity and inclusion, but Merino said the approach has changed. “What we’re teaching into isn’t what to do, it’s how to do it,” she said, adding the district has adopted the “liberatory design” process based on the work of the National Equity Project. Liberatory design is a process to encourage problem-solving through self-awareness and liberation from inequitable practices that can perpetuate racism and oppression.

Merino said the approach will “help us improve outcomes for students.”

In other social-emotional learning efforts, Frost said BRES students are receiving lessons from LJHS Associated Student Body students participating in the “No Place for Hate” program. The lessons are adapted for younger children from those offered through the program to decrease bullying and increase inclusion.

Luna said outside agency Daybreak has been contracted to provide on-campus therapy and other counseling services to students.

In terms of future efforts, Cluster co-chairwoman Megan DeMott said the association is considering hosting a film called “Upstanders” that explores the topic of cyber-bullying in one of the school auditoriums.

In addition to cyber-bullying, Muirlands teacher Rob Tindall suggested the cluster promote lessons on executive functioning.

“The more that I share about this topic with my students, the more success I’m seeing in terms of their ability to self-regulate, to be reflective about their work and their behavior,” he said.

Future meetings and cluster mission

The Cluster Association typically meets the third Thursday of every month during the school year except in November, as the third week is parent conference week for the elementary schools.

DeMott asked whether all meetings were still necessary, prompting a larger discussion about the association’s mission.

When the Cluster Association launched in 2010, Hasselbrink said, “there was really a strong mission around our vision for our cluster. … There was a big movement to have some more autonomy within our schools.” Noting that autonomy has improved over the years, she said, “We’re in a different place than we were years ago.”

LJES teacher and cluster parent Aimee Lansky, who has been involved with the association for nearly nine years, said the organization’s original purpose was to “let the district know what was important to us.”

“It’s time to address [the mission],” Tindall added. “Times have changed.”

Hasselbrink added that during the height of the pandemic and school format changes, the cluster meetings changed to allow for more principal updates instead of focused cluster discussion that might no longer be necessary.

However, Tindall countered, “it frightens me to think that we that at some point won’t ever meet, because it has been such a powerful experience in terms of making change for the schools in the cluster.”

After a robust discussion, meeting participants agreed the cluster meetings are valuable; a survey will be sent to representatives asking whether to keep all monthly meetings or skip the January and March meetings.

The association will also revise and clarify its mission at the December meeting.

The La Jolla Cluster Association next meets at 4:15 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15, online or at the Muirlands Middle School library, 1056 Nautilus St. Learn more at lajollacluster.com. ◆