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Sea Change Preparatory offers individualized academics, top physical education program and more

The story of how Sea Change Preparatory landed in Del Mar shouldn’t have been possible.

It was mid-August, and the Arch Academy’s lease in Kearney Mesa — the small private school’s home for 12 years — had lapsed. Two months of desperate searching by a trio of real estate agents had turned up no leads for the school’s two dozen students. With less than two weeks before the start of the school year, Cheryl Allcock was forced to contemplate dissolving the institution she grew from an afterschool program 20 years ago.

Then, “in what can only be described as a miracle,” said her husband John, their marketing director’s mother found a space few others would think school-worthy — a former pilates studio tucked into downtown Del Mar’s boutiques and eateries.

Signing the paperwork opened the door to another outlandish challenge: the ceiling was too low, and the 2,000-square-foot space was far from suited for a school. One of the parents — an internationally renowned architect — dropped everything, gathered up 20 of his workers, and set to work transforming the space in a blur of sledgehammers and hand-drawn schematics.

With its seven students and almost as many teachers, the space has become a busy hive of students and teachers flitting from computer station to bookshelf to aquarium to musical instrument — even a meditation room and a kitchen where students and staff prepare meals as part of Sea Change’s custom-made curriculum.

“And the Phys Ed room is 0.2 miles that way,” John Allcock, Cheryl’s husband and Sea Change’s director of mindfulness, said as he pointed toward the Pacific Ocean. “This really is a school without walls.”

Sea Change Prep embodies that mantra in more ways than one, from its seamless academics to its mission to unravel its students’ perceived limitations — an approach the Allcocks have built on three “pillars.” First is the academic curriculum Cheryl Allcock crafted over her two decades as an educator. Individuality, critical thinking and self-reliance are paramount. Seminars and project-based learning rule the day. Teachers don’t deliver lectures; they collaborate with students, who in turn collaborate with each other. Creative arts weave throughout the core subjects: a student working on their history lesson, for example, might create a graphic design project or write a song to give life to their analysis of ancient Rome. At semester’s end, students defend their work in a well-dressed presentation to teachers and three peer evaluators.

The school’s second pillar is a physical education program designed to inspire students — and frequently, their parents — to break through their perceived limitations. Three times a week, students and staff venture out into the ocean for a two-mile swim from 15th Street to La Jolla Cove.

Year after year, child after child, they see dramatic results from students who had been more accustomed to being the last person picked on the playground.

Since launching its swimming initiative in 2010, those open-ocean swims have included Alcatraz to San Francisco, 26 miles at Catalina Island and a 24-mile swim in August from Santa Rosa Island to Santa Barbara. In a few months, the school participants are heading to Italy, where they’ll take on a 22-mile swim. Perhaps their greatest waterborne accomplishment came in 2015, when they crossed the English Channel with neither wetsuits nor fins, a feat that drew accolades from former President Barack Obama and San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

“The whole thing is integrated to allow our kids to excel in their academics but also in their physical activities,” John said. “These kids are fit — they’re fitter than Torrey Pines football, honestly — and they’re emotionally and socially balanced because of the collaborative environment and the other things we do.”

The third pillar, developed in the past two years, is mindfulness. One of the school’s only closed spaces is its meditation room — a quiet nook where students learn mediation and other techniques proven to increase focus, self-care and socialization.

“No other school that I know of integrates mindfulness into its curriculum as much as we do,” John Allcock said.

The school’s arrival on the Del Mar coast marks a sea change in more than mere name. Over its 12 years as Arch Academy, the school specialized in children with autism, behavioral disorders, depression, addiction and learning disabilities. Moving to Del Mar gave rise to a wider focus as the school builds its student body toward the 20 or so students they see as ideal.

While children with special needs are still welcome, the focus is now on any child who isn’t reaching their full potential.

“We’re looking for students who for whatever reason — either a shortcoming of the school, or it’s just a mismatch —they’re not achieving at the highest levels,” John said. “We like to think that we take the kids who are not necessarily doing the greatest and we turn them into society leaders.”

Over the last several years, every graduate has gone to a four-year school — a list that includes Berkeley, UCSD, USC, the University of Michigan, Boston College, NYU’s Tisch School and many others.

Never content with merely getting students into prestigious schools, Sea Change takes pride in empowering its students to gain a better sense of who they are. Sometimes that leads to obscure colleges where students can pursue their passions. Cheryl rattles off examples like Columbia College, a performing arts school in Chicago, and Champlain College in Vermont. A recent standout is the now-junior at College of the Atlantic in Maine. Her parents were uneasy with their daughter going to such a small school on the other side of the country, but trusted the Allcocks enough to let them take her themselves. By her junior year, she had co-authored a ground-breaking paper on the relationship between a peculiar species of aphids and the ants that harvest their secretions.

That hands-on care is part and parcel of what they do, Cheryl explained, minutes removed from meeting with the parents of a current student who had just gotten her dream news: an acceptance letter from Colorado State University, which she had chosen for its highly-regarded veterinary school. Always the realist, Cheryl counseled the student and her parents on the wisdom of keeping options open and waiting to hear from the half-dozen other schools she applied to.

Were it not for Sea Change, the student doubts she would have applied to college in the first place, let alone be in a position to choose from several options.

“I wasn’t doing well in other schools,” she said. “I wasn’t challenged and it just wasn’t a positive experience for me. Coming here definitely helped me find my identity. I wouldn’t have done that at a public school.”

Sea Change Prep is located at 1412 Camino Del Mar, Del Mar, 92014,(858) 829-5366. Visit seachangeprep.com to learn more.

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