Pioneering school hits 30-year mark


Curious children along with dedicated and committed teachers have been a big part of what’s made Del Mar Pines School thrive for the last 30 years.

The small school founded by then-Del Mar resident Judith Panton, is the longest standing private school in Carmel Valley.

“When you have a vision and dream, it always has to be carried out by people,” said Panton, who lives in Rancho Santa Fe. “I’ve been blessed to have phenomenal people carry out my dream.”

Panton, who has a background as a speech and language therapist and reading specialist, started Del Mar Pines after being frustrated that her children weren’t being challenged enough in school, she said.

She wanted a classroom experience that was more innovative, one that used high-level group discussions and one that taught students to think critically.

Teach the child

“Our goal here is to teach a child how to learn rather than just teaching curriculum,” Panton said. “I wanted it to be a place that is very joyful and where all learning styles are respected and valued.”

Farms and open space surrounded the school when it arrived at its first campus on Quarter Mile Drive in 1978. Del Mar Heights Road was just a two-lane road from Interstate 5 to Torrey Pines High School. The high school, the Shell gas station and telephone company were the only buildings on the road.

Teachers dealt with rattlesnakes on campus and classes met in what was essentially a one-room schoolhouse, Panton said. On cold mornings, they lit a fire in the fireplace, and, when it rained the roof would leak and students would fetch buckets to catch the raindrops.

The magic inside

“We really felt like pioneers,” said Panton. “It was a wonderful, wonderful time. The parents knew that the building meant nothing; it was the magic that went on inside that counted.”

The school moved to its current campus behind the Torrey Pines High School parking lot in 1989.

In the school, classroom buildings surround an artificial turf playfield. Over the summer the school completed an expansion project, improving on the administration offices and building a new teacher’s lounge.

While Panton’s children were not able to attend Del Mar Pines as they were in middle school when it was founded, her grandchildren are now students.

Additionally her daughter, Marci McCord, now runs the school as director of admissions alongside director of student development Dianne Austin-Wist. There is no principal.

Austin-Wist has been with the school six years and said she is happy to be a part of such a school.

“It’s not about just education,” said Austin-Wist. “Certainly that’s important, but there is a lot of care given to the social and emotional well-being of students, teachers, parents and administration.”

One hundred and fifty four students attend the school. About 50 percent are from the immediate area of Carmel Valley and Del Mar but they also have families from Escondido, Poway, Scripps Ranch and Carlsbad.

Each class has two teachers, except for kindergarten, which has three teachers for its 22 children. Having two teachers allows classes to break into small groups for instruction and discussion. “In a group of 20 children, you can hide- you don’t have to be actively engaged,” Panton said.

In a group of seven or less, students have to be involved, Panton said.

Last week, students sat in the small rooms off each main classroom having discussions about everything from what syllables are to what novels they next wanted to read in fifth grade.

Building on success

“They are engaged in the process,” said McCord. “They love coming to school. It’s a good positive place where they’re not bored or stressed out, just successful.”

Panton prides herself on the fact that her students are reading a lot, developing good study habits and writing a lot, going beyond the “five paragraph essay.”

Students start learning Spanish in kindergarten and regularly have art and music classes.

“We believed in art and music right away,” said Panton. “We never looked as those as enrichment courses, they were always integral parts of the curriculum.”

Panton said all the children who have come through the school for the last 30 years have left their footprints and have helped make the school what it is today.

“The footprints build and it just gets better and better and better,” Panton said.