Sunset High School in Encinitas scraped to the ground
  • Sunset High School in Encinitas scraped to the ground
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As the campus of Sunset High School in Encinitas was scraped to the ground over the summer, the school board of the San Dieguito Union High School District is considering a name change when the new campus reopens in 2020.

“What could possibly be wrong with the name Sunset High School?,” asked former student Jeff Burleson, to my request on an Encinitas Facebook page for comments from alumni. Of the over 100 comments received, only two were in favor of a name change. Many vowed to fight the change with e-mails to school board members and showing up at board meetings.

Last graduating class on old campus

Last graduating class on old campus

Some posters suggested the reason for a proposed name change is Sunset has an incorrect stigma as a continuation school for losers, druggies, and students that ditch all the time.

Tina Douglas, assistant school district superintendent, wrote me in an e-mail, “The school has evolved over the years and now functions very differently than in the past. Increasingly it is more of an alternative school. For many students it is a school of choice that supports what they are looking for in a high school experience.”

Sunset High new campus design

Sunset High new campus design

One of my own sons fell way behind due to a prolonged illness in his senior year. By transferring to Sunset for one quarter, he was able to get caught up in credits and return to his school to graduate with his class.

Dispelling the myth of Sunset being a last-chance school, class of 1990's Joy Johnson posted, “I participated in Sunset's accreditation to certify for direct entry to State University and University CA schools So many of us became very successful adults after our awesome experiences. The name needs to stay the same.”

Douglas says the idea of a name change is coming from school site staff. Over the summer, at two different school board meetings, Sunset staff first spoke of the idea during an information-only portion of the meetings. The board couldn’t take action as the issue wasn’t on the agenda. Two former Sunset students spoke against the idea.

“The school’s principal, Rich Ayala, is surveying current students and families. There is not a rush to do this out of respect for the history of the school,” Douglas advised.

But former student Janet Brown Harmon believe the reason for the name change is, “An ego-driven move by one specific administrator wanting some kind of legacy.”

Currently, according to Douglas, there is no suggested new name. Sunset students now attend classes in portable classrooms on the campus of San Dieguito High School Academy.

A mom of a current student, June Owens, along with several other Facebook posters, blamed the proposed name change on what’s perceived as the over-gentrification of Encinitas by the city council, school boards, and newbies that don’t know the town’s history. “Sunset as a whole has helped so many kids and saved lives,” she added.

Former student David Gallacher posted that Dr. Roy Riesner, the former longtime and popular principal of Sunset High “would roll over in his grave” if he knew what was going on. Fortunately, Dr. Riesner is still around, and turned 80 years old last week. Former students are hoping Dr. Riesner will weigh in on the issue.

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Bonnie Wren Sept. 10, 2019 @ 2:45 p.m.

Informative article, Ken!

As the acting Alumni Coordinator at San Dieguito High School Academy, I would tell every school in the world just one thing: NEVER CHANGE YOUR NAME.

Doing so always alienates alumni. If the school was operating in a vacuum, perhaps it wouldn't matter. But our public high schools operate in communities containing the very individuals they once held as students. Communities support these high schools with donations, internships, etc., so why sever your relationship with them?

Dear Sunset High School Staff: Learn from the difficulties San Dieguito had after 1996 when it opened as a school of choice. It's taken over 20 years to rebuild the relationship with our alumni, and there are still alumni out there who feel that the school district "killed" their alma mater.

Far better that Sunset embrace and celebrate its background as a continuation high school! It's a history of which this community is very proud.


J_Henderson Sept. 10, 2019 @ 10:29 p.m.

Names of places form an important part of our history as a community.  As a 1987 graduate of Sunset High School and former employee, the name Sunset High School stands as a memorial to this incredible school where student's lives were turned around and where the system did not fail us but gave us an opportunity to achieve our goals. I would not be where I am today as a successful business owner if it were not for Sunset High School. The name is iconic and beloved and should not be forgotten. Keep the name! Aloha!


AlexClarke Sept. 11, 2019 @ 7:56 a.m.

I am sure that the name change push is by arrogant board members who want to exert their power over the wishes of the community. I agree with J-Henderson & Bonnie Wren. I can look back over all the schools I attended and the name of that school is important to everyone who ever attended.


Visduh Sept. 12, 2019 @ 5:31 p.m.

I have to quibble that it isn't Encinitas, as in the city by that name, that wants to make the change. It is the San Dieguito Union High School District, which covers an area as far south as Del Mar and as far north as Leucadia, including Rancho Santa Fe. Sunset was located in Encinitas. That said, it seems as if there's a desire to change names of schools that have developed reputations that aren't the greatest. Escondido renamed Grant Middle School as Mission Middle School for the street it is on. Vista dropped Lincoln Middle School in favor of Vista Magnet Middle, and more recently scuttled Washington Middle School in favor of some other fancy-sounding name. When San Dieguito UHSD was building its new comprehensive high school in the 90's, folks questioned why, if it was a replacement for the old San Dieguito High on Santa Fe Drive, it wasn't going to just keep the name. As it turned out, by the time it opened, due to rapid enrollment growth, they also had to keep the old campus, too. Hence the new high school is named La Costa Canyon High, and the old campus is now San Dieguito Academy High, and it is not "comprehensive." But why did it go that way? Part of the reason was that the old, original campus, dating from WPA work in the 1930's didn't look the part of the 'hood, and didn't fit the mold of Encinitas. It was rustic and even ramshackle, with a load of tradition, but didn't look at all affluent.

I digress. I met Reisner about thirty years ago when our wives were teaching at the same Vista elementary school. He was genial, and had quite a story to tell about Sunset. His story was that he had something different from the usual continuation high school in many ways. He talked about the adolescent and post-adolescent girls from Rancho Santa Fe who were "into" horses big time. (Think "National Velvet.") They were so busy with horse care and riding that they couldn't attend a typical high school, yet they were bright, motivated, and wanting to achieve. Oh, and they were usually very well-off; fancy horses aren't cheap. Reisner told about how the school handled that, giving students a strong education while allowing the outside activity to thrive. Quite a story.

This name changing is just an exercise in ego for certain people in positions of authority. Too often when a name should be changed it isn't. And when a name is just fine as it is, someone wants to change it.


Ken Harrison Nov. 5, 2019 @ 7:56 a.m.

STORY UPDATE - Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019 @ 6:00 - 8:00 pm, School Board Meeting (710 Encinitas Blvd) seems to be the meeting that alumni and community are showing up to protest the name change.


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