The San Dieguito Union High School District board will vote on whether there should be a new name for Sunset High School at its next board meeting on Feb. 27.
A Sunset naming committee led by Principal Rick Ayala has recommended a new name with the opening of the alternative high school’s new campus on Requeza Drive this fall. With the new name, Ayala hopes to dispel negative perceptions surrounding the school—he said families do not take advantage of the school and all it offers for students due to the stigma attached to the Sunset name.
Options on the table include renaming the entire campus Sunset Educational Center with separate names for the two programs on site: the alternative high school and the new home of the district’s adult transition program (ATP).
For the high school, the board will select between Coastal Oaks High School, Pacific Oaks High School or leave the name as Sunset.
For ATP, the board will choose between the names COAST (Community Opportunities for Adult Students in Transition) and San Dieguito ATP.
If the board elects to keep the Sunset High School name, another name will be proposed for the complex as a whole.
“We need to make a decision and get on to celebrating that we are about to have an incredible new resource for our students,” SDUHSD Superintendent Robert Haley said of the new school which will feature a multi-purpose room, a state-of-the-art science classroom, space for art and culinary classes, a learning garden and outdoor gathering spaces.
Sunset alumni and some former staff members including its 21-year principal Roy Risner, have pushed back against the change since it was first proposed last June. An online petition “Save Sunset” has generated over 800 signatures.
SDUHSD Vice President Mo Muir said she would not be supporting a name change.
“Sunset is an amazing name and it’s an amazing place and if everyone doesn’t feel that way, that’s on us. We need to take care of that,” Muir said.
For both programs, the new facility represents a new permanent home. Both programs have existed out of portable classrooms for several years—the Sunset campus was entirely made up of portables for 40 years and ATP students were moved almost every year to different locations before landing at La Costa Canyon High School in 2017 following parent uproar over their placement in portables at Earl Warren Middle School.
The ATP program provides instructional and work-related activities for special education students ages 18-22 and prepares them for independent living and future jobs.
“They really want an identity in the new location,” said Tiffany Hazelwood, director of student services.
Hazelwood, who chaired the naming committee, added that students also want to select colors and a mascot—the students’ top choices are the Dolphins or Sea Turtles.
Ayala first floated the idea of a name change for Sunset in June last year.
“It’s a very different school than what it used to be. It’s been a transition in response to the changing dynamics of the students and the district over the last 10 years,” Ayala said.
Traditionally at a continuation high school, the bulk of the students are there for credit recovery or involuntary transfer which is no longer the student population at Sunset. With the creation of the district’s two academies which allowed students the opportunity to take more classes, fewer students are needing to recover credits. In the area of student discipline, Ayala said the district has made a stronger push toward restorative practices and social-emotional supports at schools rather than suspensions, meaning fewer students are sent to Sunset involuntarily. There were only two involuntary transfers this school year.
Ayala said while Sunset will always accommodate those populations of students, many now choose Sunset to accelerate credits to graduate early or to benefit from a smaller, more individualized learning environment.
“Unfortunately, there’s a negative perception with the Sunset name and that has prevented students from enrolling at our fine school,” Ayala said, noting enrollment has declined 6.5% in the last three years. “We’re very proud of the work we do and we know the negative perception doesn’t match the work we do. It’s an undeniable reality. We see it and hear it all the time.”
Ayala said he has surveyed 112 current Sunset students and 91.1 % support the change. He said the current staff overwhelmingly supports the change and several current staff and teachers provided comments about how much they love the school and the magic that goes on within its walls.
“To resist change at all costs simply due to nostalgia is irresponsible and is counterproductive to the change that’s needed to support the needs of existing and future students,” said April Llamas, an administrative assistant at Sunset.
Muir and several public comments in opposition to the name change referenced the school’s long history in the Encinitas community. It opened in 1965 as San Dieguito Continuation High School and in 1972 it moved to the Requeza Street location where it was given the name Sunset by that year’s graduating class.
During public comment, former Sunset teacher Angie Groseclose spoke about how there is so much passion and loyalty from former students because of what the school meant to them—it became a place for students who were once discouraged and disinterested, helping them grow and succeed.
“If there is a negative community outlook on Sunset, this is where we, as a district, have fallen short,” Groseclose said. “Changing a name is a superficial solution. Let’s use our efforts to help our community to understand the jewel that we have in Sunset High School.”
As they have previously at several board meetings, former students described their experiences at Sunset as life-changing and life-saving and they don’t want to erase that legacy.
One former student described arriving at Sunset after being asked to leave La Costa Canyon, addicted to drugs and having been physically and sexually abused. “I had nothing going for me,” he shared with the board. “I found so much hope in that place.”
The student has gone on to earn undergraduate and master’s degrees from Ivy League colleges—he credits Sunset for saving his life and and said he wants it to remain “a beacon for the hopeless.”
Sarah Trigg, the student board representative from Sunset, said she preferred the name Sunset Educational Center for the school.
“Sunset does have history…and (the name) shows we’ve become something more and we continue to do that all the time,” Sarah said.
Encinitas resident Wendy Woodard, who has led the petition effort, pointed out that community members were not given an opportunity to be a part of the naming committee. Both Woodard and Muir asked for the district to hold an additional community forum on the name change—“I want to make sure that everyone is being heard,” Muir said.
SDUHSD Superintendent Haley said the district has been following the procedures of the last name change process which did not include a forum. Ayala said he has made himself available to anyone who would like to speak to him on the topic—he said eight people have contacted him.
That night it was also announced that for the first time ever, Sunset will be included in the district’s high school selection process. The selection process opens Feb. 13 and closes March 2; Sunset will have an information night on Feb. 13 at 6 p.m.
“Sunset has been an alternative school of choice and like all the other high schools, it is an option for kids throughout the district,” said student representative Sarah. “I’m glad that more new people can become a part of it.”