The demise of privilege at La Jolla High

Competes with La Jolla County Day, the Bishops School, and the Francis Parker School,

There's a lot riding on Dana Shelburne's shoulders. He's principal of La Jolla High School, the only public high school in one of San Diego's most prestigious communities. Nestled in the shadows of the La Jolla Country Club and minutes from Windansea Beach, the high school's location smacks of privilege. But privilege has become a bad word at La Jolla High, and recent rancor over the subject has caused Shelburne to scrap the Volunteer Hours program, a PTA favorite.

Like many older areas in San Diego, La Jolla is an aging community with few school-aged children. La Jolla High vies for neighborhood students with private schools like La Jolla County Day, the Bishops School, and the Francis Parker School, which cater to La Jolla parents with promises of academic excellence. Parents know a private school's $10,000 to $12,000 annual tuition carries weight when it comes to decisions such as class selection or assignments.

La Jolla High counters the lure of private school with a sterling academic reputation of its own - 92 percent of its graduating seniors continue on to college, and its students' advanced placement scores are tops in San Diego County. As a public high school, however, La Jolla High can give no assurance that parents will have influence on school affairs. At least it can't give any overt assurance.

Many years ago the PTA, with approval from school officials, devised a program that enabled some parents to "earn" privileges for their children in the name of volunteerism. The Volunteer Hours program allowed parents who contributed 75 hours to the school during the year to earn class enrollment preference for their sons and daughters. The program has been a perk of PTA participation so long that neither Principal Shelburne (who started his career at La Jolla High as an English and German teacher) nor PTA president Tracy Nelson could remember when the program originated. Nelson hinted at the program's nebulous origins - and perhaps PTA concerns over its legitimacy - when she confessed that "until a year or so ago, the PTA had never put the program in writing." She explained that it was passed on by word of mouth, giving the impression that the program was maintained by a select circle of PTA insiders, often the nonworking spouses living in the neighborhood who were most active in PTA activities.

Everything would have stayed the same had La Jolla High continued to have the homogenous student body of years past, but shrinking student demographics forced the school to bolster enrollment by opening its doors to students outside the community. As a consequence, La Jolla High has become less and less a neighborhood school.

During the past school year, nearly 50 percent of the school's 1530-member student body came from outside La Jolla; with "outside" students came ethnic and class diversity. La Jolla High is now 25 percent Hispanic, and the majority of the Hispanic students are bused in - through the district's Voluntary Ethnicity Enrollment Program (veep) - from working-class neighborhoods like Golden Hill or Barrio Logan. The veep students number nearly 350, a sizable proportion of La Jolla High's student and parent constituency. It falls upon Principal Shelburne to balance the needs and concerns of the veep and La Jolla parents, even though they live in different social and economic worlds.

Shelburne pursues this balancing act by alternately schmoozing the silk-clad PTA ladies at the Scholarship Ball (the school's annual gala fundraiser) then traveling across town to Logan Heights (with a Spanish-speaking interpreter) to meet veep parents in Memorial High School's auditorium. The balance is sometimes precarious, as the recent controversy over the Volunteer Hours program reveals.

Detractors of the Volunteer Hours program have branded it unfair, saying it produced an advantage for neighborhood students whose parents have more time and resources than working-class parents to contribute 75 hours. Though Shelburne suggests that students use the program to take more challenging classes, the word from La Jolla's soccer moms is that parents and students used the program to "shop" for teachers, avoiding hard graders, those whose classes don't enhance advanced-placement exam scores, or those they just don't like.

Despite how the "hours" privilege was used, the final tally of parent participation supported the argument that the program was inequitable. None of the parents reaching the 75-hour mark this past school year came from veep neighborhoods.

PTA president Tracy Nelson downplays the issue. "The controversy comes up every school year," she says. "Parents new to the school hear about the Volunteer Hours program and initially say, 'You can't do that,' but after it's explained to them, the controversy dies down."

But Nelson's assessment of the controversy's insignificance is tempered by those parents who feel uncomfortable hobnobbing with affluent La Jollans. Many veep parents don't wish to appear disruptive and may be embarrassed by their lack of English fluency. One veep parent, Isabel Vega, speaking in halting English, summed it up with the words, "We're shy."

Caught in the middle, Principal Shelburne maintains the issue is much ado about nothing, that the Volunteer Hours program doesn't really benefit anyone. "No student experiences a lessening of quality of education at La Jolla High as a result of the parent volunteer program," he says, "and any perceived advantage has been diminished by the recent computerization of our class scheduling."

Until three years ago, class scheduling at La Jolla High was done by hand by counselors sitting at tables in the school's gymnasium. The school couldn't keep current information on class size and student needs, so those who met with counselors first got the classes and teachers they wanted. It's Shelburne's position that the school's present capacity to track "virtual" enrollment information has eliminated the benefits of class enrollment preference.

But Shelburne's statements raise questions about why parents still participate in the program and why the PTA still represents it as providing an incentive for parents to volunteer. Past PTA handouts referred to the program as an opportunity for parents to create a "dream schedule" for their child.

PTA president Nelson believes that despite any alleged inequities in the program, doing away with the Volunteer Hours program will do more harm than good. "Without the incentive, parents will volunteer less and all students will suffer. Volunteer hours don't just benefit resident students, they benefit all students and help maintain a high standard of excellence at the school."

Despite the Volunteer Hours program's legitimacy or lack thereof, Principal Shelburne acknowledges the appearance of inequity could have a detrimental impact on La Jolla High. "There is a chemistry here that works," says Shelburne, who believes the presence of veep students at La Jolla High adds to the whole student body's education. "Students going to school in a social vacuum will be less able to survive in our society," he says. "Without the veep students, La Jolla High School would not survive in the same way."

Two weeks after being interviewed, Principal Shelburne, citing "the bookkeeping burden on the PTA and lack of benefit," decided that La Jolla High School would continue without the Volunteers Hours program. The PTA's August newsletter suggests that the program was terminated "for good reasons," though those reasons are not specified.

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