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More Educational Bang for the Buck in La Jolla? : Learning: Parents in this affluent seaside community keep a close eye on city schools. If dissatisfied with their childrens' education, they can afford to place their offspring in a private academy.

December 17, 1989|DAVID SMOLLAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

By next September, Dennis Doyle would like to lure back to Torrey Pines Elementary School at least 20 students whose parents have spurned public education for private academies in the La Jolla area.

The new principal has set that goal--5% of the school's enrollment of 372--as a key management objective on which he expects to be evaluated next year.

"It's healthy for schools to compete in the open, in the public arena, especially since (in La Jolla) many parents have knowledge of and access to 'choice' with private schools," said Doyle. He plans to distribute a slick brochure extolling the academic and multi-ethnic benefits of Torrey Pines and to proselytize at neighborhood service clubs and preschools.

In seaside La Jolla, among the county's most affluent areas with average family income of $77,000, parents demand high-powered public education and closely monitor the public schools for acceptable results. Many can and will turn to one of more than half a dozen private schools--even at tuition costs ranging upwards from $5,000 a year--if dissatisfied for any reason about the individual instruction being provided their offspring.

For example, at La Jolla High School several years ago, two parents angry at their childrens' history instructor took the extreme measure of writing alternative lesson plans themselves and giving them to the teacher. The teacher later resigned.

Other parents upset with the public system have simply gone private for one child and, after seeing good results, placed their other children privately as well. Some move their children back and forth between public and private.

In handling such pressures, teachers and principals at La Jolla's five public schools must grapple more intensely with key urban educational issues, unlike colleagues in typical well-to-do cities. Unlike most upscale, white suburban areas, their schools are part of a large urban district--San Diego Unified, the nation's eighth largest--and therefore share the challenges of integration and equity in a system where only 41% of the 119,000 students are white.

Several hundred low-income students from the San Diego barrio are bused to La Jolla schools each day under district voluntary integration programs, bringing together student populations with widely varying cultural and academic levels.

More than a quarter of the students in La Jolla public schools, ranging from 35% at Muirlands Junior High to 20% at Bird Rock Elementary, are Latino, many of them primary Spanish speakers. Without those students, more La Jolla public schools might be forced to close in the face of declining enrollments. Low student numbers already shut down two elementaries in 1983.

The mix requires educators to accomplish two seemingly incompatible goals: show apprehensive neighborhood parents that the multi-ethnic mix does not dilute academic rigor and satisfy the larger San Diego community--and the courts--that classes are integrated and that bused children receive just as good an education.

The pressures differ at each educational level, with the hardest battle fought by those at Muirlands, where teachers have to juggle not only parent perceptions concerning academic standards but also doubts about trusting the public school to cope with the perils of adolescence.

La Jolla High School, with its long tradition of strong principals and teachers, and an impressive track record of sending its graduates to top universities nationwide, has perhaps the best reputation among parents in matching the offerings at The Bishop's School, the highly respected private secondary school in La Jolla.

In an effort to improve the overall public school curriculum--especially at the junior high level--and to relieve some crowding at the small Bird Rock campus, all La Jolla sixth-graders will go to Muirlands next September, making it a 6-through-8 middle school with La Jolla High becoming a 9-12 school.

"It's trickiest to implement (district goals) in La Jolla, where academics is pushed so hard, and where parents, rightly or wrongly, look at academic progress more than student socialization or their handling of (cultural) diversity," said San Diego city schools trustee Kay Davis, who has closely watched changes in La Jolla during her almost eight years on the school board.

In particular, La Jolla parents value and track closely the GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) program, which offers special instruction and opportunities for exceptional students. Almost a third of La Jolla students are eligible for some aspect of GATE offerings and parents grumble when lack of space in the program or the requirements of ethnic balance limit GATE participation.

San Diego schools Supt. Tom Payzant said in an interview that what is played out daily in La Jolla educational circles reflects "the challenge of working simultaneously toward two goals--equity and excellence-- in an atmosphere where some people believe the two are incompatible.

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