Gillispie School celebrates 60 years on Girard Avenue

Gillispie timeline

■ 1931: Registered nurse Ada Gillispie and the Kiwanis Club of La Jolla open the Welfare Shop at 1139 Wall St. The shop raises money for the children of laborers, single parents and indigent families.

■ 1933: Ada’s husband and pediatrician, Dr. Samuel Gillispie, a founding member of the Kiwanis Club of La Jolla, passes away.

■ 1934: The Welfare Shop, which changed locations many times before closing in the early 1980s, adds an adjacent ‘Cottage’ to educate a small number of preschool age children and serve as an orphanage.

■ 1953: After several relocations, including sites on Girard, Herschel and Eads avenues, ‘Gillispie Cottage’ (school) moves to its current site at 7380 Girard Ave., with financial support from the Kiwanis Club, Las Patronas and the La Jolla Welfare League.

■ 1971: With continued support from the Kiwanis Club, Gillispie School opens a new building at 7379 Fay Ave. (contiguous with its Girard Avenue campus). The building is still used today for preschool age classes.

■ 2003: A $7 million, two-story building opens at Gillispie’s current location on upper Girard Avenue, including administrative offices and a gym. The new school expands the school’s scope to include children through sixth grade.

■ 2012: The Gillispie School purchases three adjacent residential units at 7430-7434 Girard Ave. for $1.23 million. Pending city approval, the school hopes to move the existing faculty parking lot off Girard to a portion of the new property, transforming the current lot into what administrators envision as a ‘high-end, turf-covered field of dreams’ for youth sports.

Gillispie tidbits

■ Students: 265

■ Average class size: 15

■ Annual tuition: About $18,000

■ Website:

By Pat Sherman

There is perhaps no better metaphor for what transpires within the halls and minds of La Jolla’s Gillispie School than the monarch butterfly.

For decades, swarms of the bril- liantly colored insects have lighted at the school to produce offspring.

“For some reason they’re drawn to this place,” Head of School Alison Fleming said during a recent campus tour, noting how students often place cones around their chrysalises to protect them.

The private school on upper Girard Avenue, which currently enrolls 265 students age 2 through grade six, has a low teacher turnover rate, with some having been at the school for more than two decades.

Like the butterflies, its educators have been returning to Gillispie for decades.

“We’re careful to grow on the foundations we had, the idea that it would be like a home away from home,” said music teacher Linda Jacobs, who started at Gillispie in 1990 with a modest budget and often handmade instruments.

Teachers are encouraged to forge enduring careers at Gillispie — most notably through the school’s $4.5 million Endowment for Excellence, which is used for the hiring and retention of teachers, as well as their own continuing education and pro- fessional metamorphosis.

“We grow teachers here,” said Fleming, who previously served as an administrator at The Bishop’s School for 19 years. “If you are going to say to your students, ‘I want you to be lifelong learners,’ you have to do it and be the example. ... Every year when the teachers come in for their evaluation I say, ‘How did you grow this year?’ ”

As Gillispie celebrates its 60th anniversary at its current location (it opened as a nursery school and orphanage in 1933), Fleming is keeping the school’s curriculum on the cutting edge of technology and sustainability, while remaining true to the ethos of founder and registered nurse Ada Gillispie.

“Parents will say to you, ‘It’s the campus that hugs you,’ ” Fleming said. “When you walk on this campus, you are known and you are loved — and I don’t think that that’s ever stopped.”

The school follows the Reggio Emilia Approach to learning for preschool and primary education. The philosophy was conceived by teacher Loris Malaguzzi and parents of the villages around Reggio Emilia, Italy in the aftermath World War II, during which their town was heavily bombed.

“The government asked the residents what was important to them,” Fleming said. “This particular town said, ‘What’s important to us is our children. They’re our future.’”

Parent Kelly Kjos, whose kindergartner, Finn, and third-grader, Ethan, attend the school, said she values Gillispie’s emphasis on science, Spanish language education and opportunities for parents to engage with the campus community through events such as International Day

Each year, parents are asked Each year, parents are asked to represent a specific country through its music, art, food and clothing. Students spend 20 minutes traveling between “countries,” having their passport stamped at each educational destination.

“It’s just a really neat community and really welcoming school,” Kjos said.

Gillispie will hold a 60th Anniversary ‘Let It Shine’ gala on Saturday, May 4, and a 60th anniversary celebration on Friday, May 31. Event organizers encourage alumni who have not been in communication with the school to contact them about the events by phoning Nancy Torns at (858) 459-3773, or email