‘A home away from home’: La Jolla’s Gillispie School celebrates 70 years of education

Gillispie School has evolved from a cottage intended to serve children during the Depression to a 300-student campus.
Gillispie School in La Jolla has evolved from a cottage intended to serve children during the Depression to a 300-student campus.
(Gillispie School )

What began as a Depression-era cottage for needy children now has 300 students from toddlers through sixth grade.


Though much has changed since Gillispie School was founded, its home-away-from-home philosophy has remained the same. This year, the La Jolla private school will celebrate 70 years of educating area children — and 90 years of serving them — with a gala on Saturday, March 11.

Gillispie School began in 1933 as a cottage that served hot meals to the children of single mothers or working parents in La Jolla during the lean years of the Depression.

For the record:

9:11 a.m. Feb. 24, 2023This article was updated to correct the spelling of Moreen Fielden’s first name.

“Its founders — pediatrician Samuel Gillispie and his wife, registered nurse Ada — had the prescience to offer the children in their care early-childhood learning and opportunities long before nursery school was the norm,” according to the school.

“We basically had five children who were living here,” said current Head of School Alison Fleming. “They were wards of the state, and there was a time in which Gillispie brought in children whose families were either having financial difficulty or there was a separation from the mother and father.”

At the time, the school was known as The Cottage. “It is our ambition to have The Cottage develop into a real home for every child who lives there,” according to a handbook from that era.

The Cottage started the legacy of Gillispie School.
The Cottage started the legacy of Gillispie School.
(Gillispie School)

In 1953, with support from the La Jolla Kiwanis Club and others in the community, Gillispie broke ground on its current site at 7380 Girard Ave. in The Village and became a formal school. Early development was supported by proceeds from a thrift store the school owned further up Girard Avenue.

“Those funds were critically important to the operations of the school,” Fleming said. Eventually, enough was raised to buy the property on which the school sits.

The school expanded in the 1980s, 2010s and as recently as 2021.

“It went from about 1 acre to now about 2.3 acres,” Fleming said. That includes outdoor spaces so children can learn from the land.

The most recent 17,000-square-foot expansion, called “The Sandbox,” includes a new 7,000-square-foot building just north of the main campus. It houses a multipurpose room intended to function largely as the school’s first dedicated theater space, along with a music room, a kitchen, a science and design center and more.

The rest of the project includes adjacent outdoor spaces that contain lunch tables and a maker deck, along with a parking lot.

Through it all, the school’s early message of being like a home has stayed consistent.

When the curriculum was expanded in the 1990s, then-Head of School Moreen Fielden wrote, “The Gillispie School offers developmentally appropriate instruction to children from toddlers through sixth grade in a nurturing home-away-from-home environment.”

“I think it is just so interesting because it’s still so prevalent,” Fleming said. “It’s really a home away from home for the entire family in many instances.”

For a time, the parent community included Fleming, whose children went to Gillispie before she joined the board and later became head of school.

From an education standpoint, she said, “students are encouraged to take risks, learn through experimentation, communicate effectively and make decisions. We want to foster the joy of discovery, and I don’t think that has ever changed.”

The students also are encouraged to be volunteers and participate in projects to try to make the world a better place.

For example, Gillispie School has been hosting blood drives since 2010. In 2015, a group of third-grade students created a video encouraging people to donate and/or buy treats, with proceeds going to the San Diego Blood Bank. The class raised $2,326.

Every year, students also have a classwide “Big Project” surrounding a theme. In 2018, the kindergarten class was inspired by an image of a sea turtle caught in a net with a plastic straw stuck in its nose and banded together to reduce the use of single-use plastic straws on campus. The school stopped offering single-use straws and the students asked their schoolmates to switch to biodegradable straws or reusable metal or plastic ones.

The school also participates in food-packing projects to create meal boxes and recycles lightly used uniforms.

“It’s a mission, but also more than a mission,” Fleming said. “It’s something that has to do with how you want the world to be. That’s the thing about education. There’s something about it that is futuristic, and I think that is important to really help children to be these ethical human beings who will problem-solve in ways that will better the world.

“Ada and Sam Gillispie got it. They saw right away that they’re the children who needed to be taken care of. That’s the legacy.”

Today, the school has about 60 teachers and staff members who serve 300 students. Tuition starts at $15,200 for toddler programs and goes to $27,550 for sixth grade. The school offers financial assistance to those who need it.

“It’s something that has to do with how you want the world to be. That’s the thing about education. There’s something about it that is futuristic.”

— Gillispie Head of School Alison Fleming

Fleming said the school is looking to expand its endowment program that started in 2009 in an effort to secure and retain the best teachers. At the time, according to the school, an anonymous donor family seeded the endowment with a $1.5 million gift and offered a challenge grant to match gifts and pledges from the community for an additional $1.5 million. In 2011, the Endowment for Excellence in Teaching was established with a total of $4.5 million.

For the immediate future, however, Fleming said she is looking forward to celebrating the school’s 70th anniversary with the March 11 gala, themed “California Dreamin.’” It will be held at the Pendry San Diego hotel.

To learn more about the school and the gala, visit ◆