SAMOHI — New Santa Monica High School principal Eva Mayoral doesn’t want the students to spend one second of their time hiding from their teachers what they don’t know.
“Because then, it’s just about trying to preserve an image and it’s not really about being open and vulnerable,” she said.
That’s what Mayoral told roughly 3,000 Samohi students over the loud speaker on their first day of school this semester.
Mayoral replaces Laurel Fretz, who resigned after two years on the job. Fretz clashed with different groups on campus and was criticized for having an aggressive, some would say abusive, management style. However, she did lead the school during some challenging times and oversaw an increase in test scores.
Mayoral, who was previously principal at John Adams Middle School, hopes to create a sense of family with the administrators, teachers and students, and put forward a unified team that supports the educational endeavors of students.
She said she wants nothing more than a “collaborative model” at the high school, and to focus on the ball, which is “how do we all help kids thrive?” Her plan is to not to let students down, but also not let them off the hook.
“[It’s] not look at kids as little deficits but say, ‘look you have some great strengths how do we build on these?’ and ‘how do we care about you like we care about our own biological kids?’” she said.
Calling herself a “teacher” at heart, Mayoral said she’s a coach.
“I’m not looking to come in and body slam. I’m looking to come in and say ‘what can I do from a coaching standpoint to help you better serve kids?’” Mayoral said.
The new principal has also come back full circle to the school where she spent time teaching as an AP chemistry and biology teacher, a house teacher leader and eventually serving as a house principal for six years. For the first six years of her career, she taught at Fairfax High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Mayoral had all the elements to support staff and provide the right kind of educational environment for the students, said Sandra Lyon, Superintendent of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.
“I think she’s an exceptional leader and I think she’s going to be a huge asset at Samohi and I’m excited she’s there,” she said.
One of her strengths is building a strong community, Lyon said, adding Mayoral understands instruction and motivates school staff.
Lyon said she and the principals districtwide are focused on the five goals laid out for the entire school district that range from response to instruction and intervention to common core, or a set of expectations adopted by states across the country that emphasize a new style of learning that values critical thinking over rote memorization and application of concepts to real-world situations.
“It’s really working with staff to always be looking at what they want students to know and do,” Lyon said. “What are they going to do for students who have come in knowing it or don’t know it?”
Mayoral said if she is going to be the best principal she can be, she has to be vulnerable to the superintendent and share concerns or struggles with Lyon.
One of the biggest indicators on how far the school district has come is when a few years ago, there was a decision to eliminate a house because of lower enrollment at Samohi, Mayoral said. The school eliminated one administrator because the house didn’t have a principal anymore, but the first year, two advisors for the house stayed on to continue working with the kids. Eventually, Mayoral said two administrators were decreased as well.
She said in the beginning there was concern over changing the structure of Samohi. Now, Mayoral said people have recognized the school can communicate more effectively and serve the needs of individual students in smaller groups.
“From a parent’s standpoint, it’s very comforting,” Mayoral said. At Samohi, students are placed in house classes for their core subjects like English, math and social studies in the same hallway for the first two years. That gives students the opportunity to be in the hallway where the house principal and two advisors are situated, Mayoral said. There are about 600 students in each house, she said.
Before coming to Samohi this year, Mayoral served as principal of JAMS for the past three years.
“I think all of it really helped me to hit the ground running and have a sense of exactly what it’s like to teach this age group,” Mayoral said of her experience at JAMS.
At Samohi, Mayoral said she works as principal among colleagues of hers who are teachers. She also said she brings a validity with what she says because she’s had experience as a teacher.
“They [teachers] know I care,” Mayoral said.
Mayoral was extremely supportive of teachers, said Claudia Bautista-Nicholas, a Spanish teacher who teaches ninth through 12th grades at Samohi. Mayoral was Bautista-Nicholas’ mentor teacher when she started teaching at Samohi more than a decade ago.
Bautista-Nicholas had a student in her Spanish class who couldn’t put together two sentences, but said Mayoral got the student to write elaborate observations.
“She was able to get out so much from students as a teacher,” Bautista-Nicholas said. “She adores them. She’s one of those teachers students ran to give a hug in the hallway because she cared so much about them.”
Bautista-Nicholas said she remembers the announcement Mayoral made on the first day of school and because Mayoral is so “authentic,” students, who are usually trying so hard to be “cool,” respond to her.
“Kids really turn around and pick up their trash and be kind to each other,” Bautista-Nicholas said. “It’s little things, but I think they feel loved and cared for.”
Lisa Balfus, Samohi’s PTA president, said she sees Mayoral as a “returning principal” since she left Samohi as a house principal. She said Mayoral’s philosophy is “first, we love our children and then we teach them.”
She doesn’t think enough people are coming from that perspective in public education.
“I think some of them are, but people get so bogged down in curriculum and in racing to the top and test scores and high achievement at any cost,” Balfus said. “I think Eva really understands children are whole people, and that they need to grow in multiple ways.”