La Jolla often gets charged with elitism.

The latest salvo has been directed at La Jolla public schools’ plan to give the community more control over decision-making at their schools.

The La Jolla cluster’s partnership agreement (San Diego Unified groups its schools in geographical groups called clusters) has been in the works for four years. Parents and teachers were tired of top-down decisions coming from district headquarters that didn’t fit their community.

The partnership agreement allows schools in the La Jolla cluster – Bird Rock, Torrey Pines and La Jolla elementary schools, Muirlands Middle and La Jolla High – greater freedom in choosing curriculum, testing schedules, bell times, staffing configurations and course offerings. They will also have more potential choice in making purchases and hiring decisions.

A partnership agreement isn’t new: Mira Mesa High has one, modeled on an earlier agreement created by La Jolla High. The La Jolla cluster’s partnership agreement can be replicated by any other cluster of schools.

Superintendent Cindy Marten said the district has already taken some of the ideas in the agreement and begun the process to implement them more broadly. She praised La Jolla’s collaborative process as “an example of how one group coming together about something that makes sense” can help influence policy across the whole district.

But leading up to Tuesday’s board meeting, there were charges by Sally Smith, a district watchdog, and some other parents that La Jolla schools were being given special privileges. In other words: Money buys influence.

What I’ve seen in my one year as a parent in the La Jolla cluster is not elitism. Many La Jolla families could send their children to private schools, but instead work within the public school system to make improvements that will benefit all children, a third of whom come to La Jolla High from other neighborhoods. Parents turn out in large numbers not just to attend their children’s sporting events, but to organize fall registration, hold CPR trainings and assist with AP teacher training workshops. And yes, La Jolla parents donate money to their school foundations, which makes it possible for all children to participate in school events and programs that could not otherwise be offered.

I enrolled my daughter at La Jolla High – which is not our family’s neighborhood school – because it offers Latin, a language that she had already begun to study in middle school. I also liked the multiple levels of differentiation that the school offers for its GATE students. La Jolla’s course offerings seemed like the best fit for my child.

By approving a partnership agreement with the La Jolla cluster, the school district has acknowledged that it doesn’t always know best.

If parents get together and decide they’d like to have a new course offered or they want to alter the time school gets out, they will now have the process in place to do it. They still have to go through the usual channels, but the partnership agreement gives the district a timeline so that decisions can be made more quickly. Local control and less bureaucracy – that’s also a goal California has embraced in education recently, too.

The road that resulted in the La Jolla cluster partnership could have headed in another direction. In 2009, school board member John de Beck floated an idea for La Jolla and other coastal areas to break away from San Diego Unified. Another option was to convert some schools into charters. But beginning in 2010, parents and teachers began meeting to come up with a way to work within the system.

Efforts began to prioritize the needs of local schools. Not everything on the wish list was ultimately approved. But the La Jolla cluster partnership agreement gives the schools freedom to make common-sense decisions, something the multi-layered bureaucracy of the San Diego Unified School District is often lacking.

For example, the partnership agreement will allow schools more freedom in choosing  curriculum.

Case in point: La Jolla Elementary buys its own math textbooks using private donations. “The math books are a good example of the instructional flexibility we would have through the agreement,” said principal Donna Tripi in an email. “The district is saving money in that we are not taking the resources they provide – they use them in other district schools.”

With the partnership agreement in place, La Jolla schools could make their own decisions about purchasing new technology and athletic equipment too. The lack of ability to do so frustrated former La Jolla High football coach Rey Hernandez, now a Spanish teacher at Muirlands. Parents had come to him asking to try a new football helmet design they thought was safer, but San Diego Unified had an exclusivity agreement with a football helmet manufacturer, so he was not permitted to purchase other helmets with district funds.

Although the partnership agreement includes a provision that would allow La Jolla cluster school employees to enroll their children in La Jolla schools, it is currently a moot point at the elementary schools, which in recent years have had zero or close to zero choice applicants enroll. As the terms of the partnership agreement state, employees’ children would not be allowed to enroll in a school that is at capacity and their children could not displace resident students.

Last year, no choice applicants got into Torrey Pines or La Jolla Elementary schools and only 4 percent got into Bird Rock. The chances are better at Muirlands, where 64 percent were offered a spot and at La Jolla High, which enrolled 47 percent of those who picked it as their first choice in the enrollment options process. As part of the partnership agreement, staff members would get permanent choice status for their children after three years of employment in one of the La Jolla cluster schools.

La Jolla High School teacher Kerry Dill, a mother of two, told the board that she would love to have her children attend the cluster in which she teaches.

“Community schools are stronger when parents are fully invested and when teachers are fully invested and when we’re working hand in hand for our home cluster. It’s not just about geography always, it’s about where we call home.”

Christie Ritter is a freelance writer for Voice of San Diego, author of four books and a former newspaper reporter. She is a graduate of Clairemont High,...

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