About a year ago, Issaic Gates compared being hired as the new principal for San Marino High School to being given the keys to mom and dad’s car, specifically a Mercedes-Benz.
With a doctorate from USC and a wealth of experience in education, Gates had long prepared for such an opportunity. After a year on the job, he said he’s definitely made the adjustments to make driving that car comfortable.
“I think the idea about the Mercedes is that you respect the brand,” Gates said in a recent interview. “It’s not a Yugo. The difference between that is that, yeah, they’re both cars, but when someone goes out and buys this specific brand for all of its amenities, they see the work in that investment. You realize there is effort and support behind that.”
Gates’ office is atypical of a principal’s office. His desk is tucked in a corner, but it’s clear he conducts much of his business at a long table near the door. Meetings with parents, students or staff look more like board meetings, and that’s a deliberate way of establishing the playing field, Gates said.
“I know what I would want if I were going into my principal’s office,” he said. “The best part of the job is communicating with people, so I wonder, how does the environment break the ice?”
He’s had a busy year. Both of his assistant principals, whose seniority helped ease him into this job, accepted jobs outside the district. In collaboration with local first responders, SMHS hosted an active-shooter drill for its students this spring. This summer, Gates helped develop and present a comprehensive plan to implement a student wellness initiative to provide mental health education and counseling across the entire district.
“It’s still heavy today,” Gates said when asked about the shooter drill. “You don’t think about things like that. It’s not a part of the work. You think about graduations, prom, assemblies, maybe fire drills. I’m super excited to be working in a place where we’re willing to look down the road this far, not because we expect students to experience this on campus, but because we expect them to experience it at some point in their lives.”
The student wellness initiative, which has been fully funded and will include a center on the SMHS campus, was a well-received proposal. Gates said such an initiative reflected the San Marino Unified School District’s brand.
“It’s so big for the community to have that type of vision,” he said. “This is a worthwhile initiative. The goal was always to put something on our campuses that fit the community. I was excited to present it.”
Superintendent Alex Cherniss praised Gates’ first year on the job and looked toward his future work as he becomes more incorporated into the San Marino community.
“Dr. Gates did an excellent job leading SMHS last year,” Cherniss said. “A high school principal is one of the more challenging leadership positions in a school district, and Dr. Gates was up to the task. He spent a considerable amount of time listening to stakeholders, learning the culture and, most importantly, advocating for students.”
Asked about his favorite photo from his first year at SMHS, Gates immediately pointed to one showing him grinning at the podium as he was graduating his very first class at the school. Two members of the Board of Education are in the background and a sea of children and parents paint the rest of the picture.
“There’s so much work that goes into getting kids to this moment,” Gates said. “When I look at this picture — the details of it — there’s a lot going on in this picture. I’m proud to be in this moment.
“I’m still excited about them giving me the keys,” he added. “Dr. Cherniss and the board took a chance on me, and I’m still so grateful for that.”