Full STEAM ahead! La Jolla Cluster Association champions inter-school links and more

It’s been six months since the La Jolla Cluster Association (LJCA) — a collective of educators and parent volunteers from La Jolla’s five public schools — reached its Partnership Agreement with San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD). With the completion of that formidable task, LJCA efforts are now redirected to exploring ways to improve school programs.

The Agreement was three years in the making and gives the Cluster representing La Jolla High School, Muirlands Middle School, La Jolla Elementary School, Torrey Pines Elementary School and Bird Rock Elementary School the ability to make decisions and changes for the betterment of students, said Donna Tripi, principal at La Jolla Elementary School and Partnership Agreement co-chair.

“Once we organized as a Cluster Association, we wanted to affirm our role with the district, so we formed the Partnership Agreement,” she said. “Now we can say that if we feel that our kids have needs we need to look at — some need the district is not meeting — we have some flexibility and we can talk to the district and put in a program to meet those needs. We’re just beginning that work and looking at what those needs are.”

LJCA board member Fran Shimp said the decision to form a Partnership Agreement spawned from teachers disliking the one-size-fits-all approach SDUSD was using.

“A lot of our educators did not agree with some of the mandates the district was saying they had to follow,” Shimp said. “So originally, we were trying to find a way to give our educators a way to do what they thought best with regards to educating our children.”

Although Shimp said LJCA has a great relationship with SDUSD superintendent Cindy Marten, “that hasn’t always been the case and I would like to think this agreement helps protect us if, in the future, that is not the case.”

In addition to drafting the terms of the agreement, the now 25-person LJCA meets monthly to schedule parent education programs (such as the March 2014 lecture on Internet Safety held at La Jolla High School), seminars to help parents and students prepare for college, and educational film screenings.

Cluster Association time and energy is also focused on improving relationships between La Jolla’s schools and exploring opportunities for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) learning.

“Before we started the Cluster Association, each of our five schools worked on their own,” said Shimp, adding that principals participated in district-mandated meetings. “Since we formed the Cluster Association — and especially since we started working on this Agreement — all of our principals meet far more regularly.”

The principals and teachers implemented “vertical teaming” and “horizontal teaming.” With vertical teaming, teachers in the later years of elementary school and earlier middle school, and teachers of middle school and early high school students meet to ensure an easy transition between schools. In horizontal teaming, teachers of similar departments and similar grades meet to make sure the same information is covered, so each student is equally prepared to transition to Muirlands Middle School and then La Jolla High School, Shimp said.

Taking advantage of a “groundswell” of support, LJCA is also investing more energy into STEAM learning. Lisa Bonebrake, STEAM task force member and parent volunteer, said she has seen increased interest in science-based activities, including the revival of Muirlands’ participation in the Science Olympiad, a nationally recognized science competition for students, after many years; the hiring of Muirlands principal Harlan Klein, who said he hoped to add new elective courses in science, technology, engineering and math; and the Biological Science and Technology Center planned for La Jolla High School.

“We were astounded by the support and expertise in our school leadership and the parents in these fields,” she said. “So we decided we needed to form at task force at the Cluster level.”

With many schools nationwide increasing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) opportunities, LJCA is including art at the request of those in the science field who can attest to how being a “visual thinker,” helps in the field. “If kids want to become engineers, it’s helpful to have visual art experience and math skills,” Bonebrake said of research findings.

Starting small, she said the task force hopes to launch after-school programs in these areas, as well as student competitions, and internships for high school students. The first STEAM Career Day is planned for sometime in March at Muirlands, when various professionals will answer questions about their jobs and what educational background they found beneficial.