SMHS Principal Settles Into Fast Lane

Issaic Gates greets students at San Marino High School during lunch last week. Gates is settling into his role as principal of the school after being hired this year.
Issaic Gates greets students at San Marino High School during lunch last week. Gates is settling into his role as principal of the school after being hired this year.

At eight weeks into the school year, Issaic Gates looks — and said he feels — more relaxed as the new principal of San Marino High School.
“It’s a different feeling than ‘Before Week 1,’” he said, mentally revisiting his first ‘first day’ at SMHS. “Before Week 1, you get the job and you’re just excited. I imagine it’s the mature version of ‘getting the car,’ but you’re getting your mom or dad’s car. Not a Yaris or a Corolla. A Mercedes or something. And the one thing you don’t want to do is wreck it. Then you start driving it and you get comfortable. You’ve touched the leather before.”
Gates was “given the keys to the car,” so to speak, on May 23, when the San Marino Unified School District Board of Education unanimously approved his hire, which came at the recommendation of Superintendent Alex Cherniss. He took the reins from Mary Johnson, who retired after serving three years as principal.
Gates was an assistant principal at Los Alamitos High School when he applied for this job at the only high school in the district, which has been ranked No. 1 in the state for the past 18 years.
“Ha! If that’s not a lot of weight,” Gates said. “Everyone knows San Marino Unified. Everyone respects San Marino Unified as the gold standard, so when I hit ‘Submit’ on that application … the idea of getting an interview is one thing. The idea of getting a second one is more exciting.”
That second interview turned into a hire, and Gates admitted he fell into the same pattern of making sure everything he needed was ready when he woke up for that first day.
“Whether you’ve been a teacher for one year or 30 years, it’s still the first day of school,” he said.
In his short time here, Gates has been busy, thanks in no small part to the sheer number of volunteer groups associated with the schools. He said one of the most difficult aspects of leaving one organization for another is learning the new culture and that the SMHS family and “invaluable staff” has gone above and beyond to help him out with that.
“You can’t force family,” he said. “It has to be authentic. It can’t be fabricated and the idea that folks here are working together for a common purpose, a common good … everyone puts in their extra like a family would … it’s quite special. Everybody picks up. It really is a community.”
Superintendent Alex Cherniss said he thinks Gates is going above and beyond to understand the city’s and school district’s culture, and drew comparisons to when Cherniss himself was first on the job in 2004.
“I know just from my experience coming in and being new to the community, it takes time,” Cherniss said. “He’s putting in the extra time to know the San Marino way.”
Compared to Los Alamitos, that community in San Marino is a bit smaller (the high school has three times the SMHS enrollment), which, to Gates, means he can have more conversations with the same people and learn “who they are and why they are.” He said he’s already establishing a good connection with those students, often giving a simple hand wave or salute if he can’t stop and say hi.
“It’s just our way of saying, ‘I see you,’ or ‘Hey, what’s up?’” Gates explained. “That’s our nonverbal, ‘I hope you’re having a great day.’ Those are the moments you remember.”
Almost poetically, at this point of the interview, there was a break from classes and students flooded outside for a few precious minutes of socializing. Gates, whose office effectively serves as a fishbowl to this routine phenomenon, looked out and smiled.
“I would much rather be out there,” he admitted. “Look at their faces. They’re excited. They’re having conversations. They’re alive. Everything is possible with these students. The future is waiting for them and there’s so much to have. If that’s not blessed, man, I don’t know. I can’t tell you.”

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