New Solana Vista principal decided early to pursue education career

Joel Tapia is having an eventful year, which includes his appointment as principal of Solana Vista School.
(Kristina Houck)

It’s been an exciting year for Joel Tapia.

He started a doctorate program, got married and recently learned he and his wife are expecting their first child.

Tapia was also appointed as the new principal of Solana Vista School.

“It’s an exciting change, but at the same time, it’s not a drastic change,” Tapia said about his new position. “There’s already so much good happening here.”

Tapia replaced Lisa Platt, who retired at the end of the 2014-15 school year. She worked for the Solana Beach School District for 10 years.

“Principal Platt was a great leader,” Tapia said. “She really established a strong sense of community.”

Tapia didn’t officially join the district until the start of July, but he wasted no time becoming a part of the community.

With more than 12 years of education experience, Tapia comes to Solana Beach from Chula Vista Elementary School District, where he served as an elementary school principal since 2011.

To prepare for his new position at Solana Vista, Tapia reached out to leaders of Solana Beach’s Eden Gardens community, also known as La Colonia. La Colonia is a small but historical neighborhood that’s largely Latino.

“I bring a very important expertise that is needed here,” he said.

Although born in San Jose, Tapia grew up speaking Spanish. He didn’t learn English until he started elementary school.

Tapia’s parents are from Mexico. His father, who studied industrial engineering in his native country, landed a job in San Jose after he married Tapia’s mother. The family relocated to Chula Vista when Tapia was 8 years old.

“I only spoke Spanish. I didn’t have friends,” Tapia recalled. “When I started school, it was like a new world to me. I didn’t speak any English, and I totally experienced the shock of coming to school as an English learner. That was formative. It was a learning experience for me.”

About 20-25 percent of the students at Solana Vista are English learners, Tapia said.

Since starting his new role as principal, Tapia has met with Manny Aguilar, president and board chairman of the La Colonia de Eden Gardens Foundation, to talk about how the school and greater community can ensure that all students excel. He’s also since talked with other representatives of the foundation and other local organizations, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Dieguito and Casa de Amistad.

“So many people are helping our needy families and students,” Tapia said. “We’re trying to ensure we’re synchronizing our services and the communication is really clear. Systemically, we’re all connected.”

Tapia decided he wanted to pursue a career in education early on.

“It just kind of fit for me,” he said.

After graduating from high school, Tapia earned his associate degree at Southwestern College. Two years later, he received a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from San Diego State University. With a goal to become a bilingual teacher, Tapia, who studied in Spain, also completed the bilingual cross-cultural language and academic development credential at SDSU.

Tapia started teaching in Chula Vista soon after, landing his first job at a charter school. After two years, he continued his education at SDSU, earning a master’s degree in elementary curriculum and instruction, followed by a credential in administrative services and another master’s in educational leadership.

While continuing his education, Tapia began his 12-year stint with the Chula Vista Elementary School District, starting as a teacher of Karl H. Kellogg Elementary School for about five years. He later became project coordinator of Otay Elementary School, associate principal of Heritage Elementary School, and finally, principal of Burton C. Tiffany Elementary School.

“Any success I can claim to is because of the people who helped me along the way,” said Tapia, who thanked his mentors, including Gloria Ciriza, former principal of Heritage and now executive director of curriculum and instruction at Chula Vista Elementary School District.

Appreciative of his past, Tapia is also excited about his future.

“I’m bringing some experience,” he said, noting that Burton C. Tiffany Elementary School was tied for second in academics of the district’s 46 schools. “The teachers really worked hard.

“Here in the Solana Beach School District, the leaders and the changes are coming from the bottom up,” he added. “The model here is teacher-driven. Teachers are empowered.”

Continuing the tradition, Tapia reached out to Solana Vista teachers from the start, encouraging them to share their ideas.

With just over 460 students, the transitional kindergarten through third-grade school has about 60 staff members, including roughly 30 teachers. To welcome the teachers back to school, he bought them reusable Starbucks cups filled with candy, pencils and a gift card.

“The teachers are so gracious,” Tapia said in an interview before the first day of school. “I know that change is not easy, and transition is not easy. From the beginning, I sent out a message to all the teachers and I said that I’m available. My office doors are always open.”

In addition to starting a new job, Tapia, 34, is working on his doctorate in education at USC. He married his wife, Priscilla, 10 months ago. They are expecting their first child.

“It’s a special time in my life,” Tapia said. “I’m in a good place.”

His goal is to support the vision of Solana Vista’s teachers. The quote, “Leadership is about empowering the people doing the work” is written on the white board in his office.

“I really believe that education is the way to change the world,” Tapia said. “Education is a tool for shaping minds. It’s a big responsibility.”


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