La Jolla school cluster gains momentum; real power may be elusive


By Marsha Sutton


Editor’s note: A condensed version of this story appears in the Light’s print edition.

A cluster in science or astrophysics is a small group of atoms or molecules, or groups of stars gravitationally bound. In the world of education, a cluster means something similar. Picture a high school as a gravitational center around which orbit the middle and the elementary schools that feed into it.

The restructuring of the San Diego Unified School District on July 1 into nine separate areas, each with its own area superintendent, places importance on the creation of these high school clusters, which have been compared to community planning groups that advise and make recommendations to the city council.

In Area 6, headed by Area Superintendent Mike Price, cluster groups are being formed for La Jolla and University City and are in varying stages of development. The La Jolla Cluster Association, which held its first official meeting in September and is hosting a candidate forum at 6 p.m. Oct. 27 at Torrey Pines Elementary School, began the process of formation about eight months ago. The group has submitted paperwork to become a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. The La Jolla cluster ( has made rapid progress, Price said.

The five La Jolla schools that make up the La Jolla cluster are La Jolla High, Muirlands Middle, and Bird Rock, La Jolla and Torrey Pines Elementary schools. Each school has five representatives on the governing board: two parents, two teachers and the principal, for a total of 25.

Parents and teachers have worked enthusiastically to create the structure for the La Jolla cluster, which founders believe can unite the community behind a common set of goals and priorities for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. They believe the cluster will also allow school communities to share ideas and resources, coordinate fundraising, determine spending priorities, create bridges between schools to ease transitions, and speak to the district with a unified voice, according to the cluster’s Web site.

“A voice together, all of us, is a lot stronger than just one parent,” said Missy Coleman, a parent representative from Torrey Pines Elementary School.

Coleman said the cluster effort was spearheaded by parents Lisa Bonebrake of Bird Rock Elementary, Fran Shimp of La Jolla Elementary and Alison Lee of Muirlands. The group now has bylaws, a mission statement and a nominating process for the governing board.

Committees have also been established, Coleman said, which include technology, special education, safety, public relations, curriculum, finance, incorporation and parent education.

Suzanne Serafin, a Muirlands Middle School physical education teacher who sits on the cluster board, said, “Committees are moving forward and hitting the ground running, and it’s been wonderful.”

The teachers familiar with the cluster and its mission are enthused, Serafin said, but noted that many teachers are still unaware of the cluster’s existence. “Slowly teachers are figuring out that this isn’t just another committee that’s going to talk forever and not get anything done,” she said.

One primary goal is better communication between the elementary schools and the middle school, and the middle school and the high school. “The communication goes both ways,” Serafin said.

La Jolla High School principal Dana Shelburne had early concerns that the La Jolla cluster would try to replicate the structure and mission of the already established Point Loma cluster, which he said “did not have applicability here because Point Loma had its own issues.”

“Initially, I wasn’t sure what we were talking about. Were we trying to make ourselves a mirror image of what Point Loma did?” he said. “But the way it’s settled out now, yes, I’m supportive of it.”

Shelburne said the cluster provides a mechanism for a united K-12 approach. This, he said, “is the best way to talk about education and allows us to identify issues, concerns, problems, successes… We’re talking systemic issues and larger issues that have a K-12 application.”

SDUSD superintendent Bill Kowba has indicated his support for the effort, endorsing the concept that communities united into clusters carry more weight by speaking collectively with one voice.

“The good news right now under this superintendent is that the cluster model has been adopted again,” Shelburne said. However, he said “the rotating door of the superintendency” is a concern.

“How long before we get a superintendent who says, ‘OK, enough of that nonsense.’”

Shelburne also questioned the need for nine highly paid area superintendents.

“For us to have clusters doesn’t require that we have area superintendents at this intensity,” he said. “Can we afford that?”

Although he still has some concerns, Shelburne said he is encouraged that Kowba, Price and John de Beck, SDUSD school board member whose sub-district includes La Jolla, all support the cluster concept.

Price said part of his job is to help his area form its two clusters, which would optimize the exchange of information between the district office and each community.

Coleman said Price has assisted the fledgling cluster with direction and focus. “He’s been a great help with that,” she said.

Each area superintendent has discretionary money to spend on their clusters. Price said his area budget for this year is $180,000, of which $110,000 is federal money dedicated to professional development. That leaves $70,000 to split between two communities on one-time expenses. Each cluster can develop proposals for spending their $35,000, but the final decision rests with him.

“Right now it’s my judgment,” he said. “If things come from the cluster, we have to weigh those … to make sure they’re going to fit in with the goals, and then we will fund whatever we can to make sure that the cluster work goes ahead.”

Questioning cluster power

Although a long-time supporter of clusters, de Beck questioned how much power clusters are actually being given. He said the administration appears reluctant to grant clusters any real authority beyond an advisory role.

“They don’t understand [that] in order to be a cluster, they have to have decision-making power,” he said.

De Beck offered a presentation, supported by school board president Richard Barrera, to Kowba and his cabinet in August that included a proposed design for cluster involvement in governance, but he said the administration chose not to adopt it.

“They’re basically saying we’re listening to you instead of saying you get to make decisions,” de Beck said. “So that model is totally top-down. What they’re doing is saying we’ll have clusters but we’re running them.”

He said the concept is being called “community-based schooling,” but this is lip service because there has been no substantial change other than a new organizational structure. There’s a major difference, he said, between verbal support and providing the resources to allow the clusters real freedom and power.

De Beck said governing cluster boards need to have some control over finances and policy decisions. Without that, “you’re basically just playing games,” he said. “And that’s what’s going on right now.”

“The answer I get from the superintendent … is (that) they’re fixin’ to do it,” he said. “Well, when? By the time we have the next budget crisis, or now? Or is the model being stalled? I think it’s being stalled.”

The clusters, de Beck said, “are churning because the district’s not enabling them at all.”

Price said the power issue is unclear.

“It’s so new. That’s one question that will have to be sorted out as we’re going forward,” he said. “What kind of decisions do they own? What kind of things can they bring to the board for recommendation? What’s the process for that going to be?”

Issues his area clusters are tackling currently include a partnership between Muirlands Middle and La Jolla High about the Latin sequence. “That’s kind of a cluster decision,” Price said. “That’s the only area of the city that’s teaching Latin.”

As part of its mission to provide a strong foundation in technology that is consistent at all three elementary schools, the La Jolla cluster is developing an internship program for La Jolla High School students to work with elementary school students.

In University City, coordinating school start times is another cluster decision. With UC schools starting and ending as much as 90 minutes apart, collaboration between middle and high school teachers is nearly impossible, Price said.

But the amount of leverage clusters will have in making decisions like these is still unknown.

“That’s a good question and we don’t have an answer for that right now,” Price said, “because we don’t have a major issue that has come yet to the board that has come out of a cluster.”

According to the La Jolla cluster’s website, “If our cluster priorities and goals are not achieved through conversation with the board, we could move forward in various ways including but not limited to: creating a cluster budgetary autonomy agreement (would need board approval), writing a petition for charter conversions, or hiring experts to assist in some sort of district split.”

Despite these uncertainties, parents and teachers like Missy Coleman and Suzanne Serafin are excited about the prospects the cluster can offer. There is momentum and enthusiasm, and a great deal of direct involvement by an active, knowledgeable parent community.

Both said they have high hopes and are looking forward to coordinated efforts among the schools to provide expanded educational opportunities and increased communication among members of the school communities.

Coleman called the cluster a way for parents to have a stronger voice for their children’s education. “Our whole idea is to support excellence in education in La Jolla public schools,” she said, “and advocating for the teachers, the students and administrators.”