Top of the World Elementary turns 50

Al Haven had helped open a school in the San Francisco Bay Area so the prospect of overseeing a school opening in Laguna Beach was not a daunting task.

In the spring of 1967, Haven, principal of Portola Elementary School in San Bruno, was in Los Angeles for a conference and phoned Laguna Beach Unified School District Supt. William Ullum.

Ullum had made a prior trip to visit Haven, hoping to recruit him to open Top of the World Elementary.

Ullum invited Haven and Laguna Beach Unified board members to lunch with him, Haven said in a phone conversation earlier this week from his current home in Alpine, a town in the Cuyamaca Mountains of San Diego County.

“One of the school board members asked, ‘Why do you want to come to Laguna Beach?’ Haven said in retelling part of the conversation. “ ‘Is it the fine beaches, our artistic community, our school philosophy?’ ”

“I’m not sure I do,” Haven said in sharing his initial response. “I’ve got a really good job. We’re doing some cutting-edge things. I had never been south of Bakersfield.”

Haven recalled Ullum telling him that one of Laguna Beach Unified’s goals was to be an innovative district.

Haven, who was married with three elementary school-aged children, told Ullum and the board he would think about it.

The La Cañada Unified School District also was recruiting Haven.

A couple months had passed when Haven received a call from Ullum asking if he wanted the job.

The attraction of a new school and proximity to USC swayed Haven to select Laguna Beach. Haven said that USC offered night classes so he could pursue a doctoral degree and still work. He would work at Top of the World for nine years.

Laguna Beach Unified forecasted enrollment growth in the ensuing years, and so Top of the World and Thurston Middle School were built to handle the anticipated influx of students, according to the district’s 1967-68 annual report.

Top of the World Elementary, at 21601 Treetop Lane, opened to the Laguna Beach community 50 years ago this fall with 540 students and 19 teachers, according to a copy of the school handbook provided by Haven.

Back then, Top of the World was a kindergarten through sixth grade school whereas now it goes up through fifth grade.

Even before the first day, Haven said they were scrambling to get the school ready for students, teachers and staff.

Rooms were void of furniture less than a week before school opened.

“Five-hundred desks arrived with adjustable legs that had to be inserted," Haven said, adding that Ullum, teachers and parents spent part of a weekend assembling desks and placing them into rooms.

The school was still under construction on opening day, Haven said. They had two classrooms, the multipurpose room and kindergarten wing available.

“All the kids were in the multi-purpose room, so we had to tell them where to go,” Haven said. “We had to make do.”

As the first weeks progressed, more classrooms opened, along with the playground.

Haven said Top of the World “broke the mold" of a format in which one teacher instructs 30 students.

At Top of the World, Haven instituted a system of team teaching, in which students rotated among instructors depending on the type of activity, instead of staying with the same teacher throughout the entire day. The program was based on a model developed by education leader J. Lloyd Trump.

There were large-group sessions for lectures, seminars for discussions and small-group instruction, lab time for projects such as building dioramas and study sessions in which students worked on assignments with no adult assistance.

In seminar sessions, groups of 5 to 10 students were created so teachers could provide individualized attention, expanding on topics discussed in the large-group session, according to a district newsletter.

Classrooms were clustered in two main buildings, one for primary grades and one for upper grades, the newsletter said. Movable walls inside the buildings allowed teachers to alter room sizes to fit the activity and size of the class.

Teachers shared notes and strategies and created a cohesive system that attempted to reach all students.

The school attracted professors and education officials from the U.S. and abroad, including visitors from Japan and Australia seeking to learn more about the program at Top of the World, Haven said.

Terry Hustwick, one of the school’s 19 teachers on staff for opening day, said team teaching required a lot of planning and coordination, but the effort paid off.

“We met every day,” Hustwick said. “Everyone knew all the kids, even if they did not have [the students] in their homeroom.

“We learned about consensus by working in teams. That was for almost every decision.”

If one teacher noticed a student who needed help, he or she alerted colleagues so they could be aware and assist the student.

“It was a dream job and a dream school,” said Hustwick, who moved with her husband, John, to Laguna in 1965 and still lives in the same house. She had taught in the Santa Ana Unified School District before Laguna Beach Unified came calling.

Hustwick stayed at the school until she retired in 2003.

After retiring, Hustwick managed the school’s garden and, in 2014, earned the state PTA Council’s Golden Oak Service Award for her significant contributions to the welfare of the community’s children, Stu News Laguna reported.

Hustwick recalled some of the school’s defining features through the years such as the Dolphin Wall, a tile mosaic of dolphins near the playground, a piece of playground equipment called “the structure,” and the yellow line, where students who misbehaved sat during recess while their classmates played.

Hustwick said 25 kids could climb on the structure at one time.

Sarah Wolsey, who currently teaches third grade and is a Top of the World alum, wrote in an email that the Dolphin Wall remains while the jungle gym and yellow line no longer exist.

The school holds special meaning for Wolsey, who played soccer games on the field and met with her Girl Scout troop in the teachers’ room during non-school hours.

Growing up, Wolsey said, she walked to school with her brothers. Now she walks with her two sons who attend the school.

“This is my third school at which I've taught and I never want to go anywhere else,” Wolsey said. “Teaching at TOW is like a daily flashback to my own childhood.

“My time at TOW always makes me smile.”

The school’s PTA will host an anniversary celebration from 3 to 6 p.m. Oct. 6 on the campus. Principal Mike Conlon will speak at 5 p.m. and there will be cake and a silent auction.

Haven and Hustwick both said they will attend.

“It was the highlight of my career,” Haven said.

To RSVP, go to For more information, contact event chairwoman Claudia Redfern at or by phone at (949) 813-1341.

Twitter: @AldertonBryce

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