In and out: Marae Cruce (left) takes over for Antonio Shelton (right) as Samohi principal. Courtesy photos

Marae Cruce may not be a household name — at least not yet — but the math teacher-turned-administrator has earned her place at the helm of Samohi beginning when classes resume next week, as she begins her 16th year working at the local high school.

Cruce began at Samohi in 2007 as a math teacher and in 2020 traded in her grade books to take on the job of a house principal, a role she described as similar to an assistant principal but with extra duties and projects. Then, at the close of the 2021-22 school year when the former Samohi principal, Antonio Shelton, accepted a new position with the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (as executive director of secondary education), Cruce was tapped to take on the head principal’s role.

Earlier this month, Cruce and Shelton sat down with the Daily Press to discuss their backgrounds, educational philosophies, lessons learned and goals for their new positions. The full conversation can be heard on The Dive, an Inside the Daily Press podcast available at smdp.com/pod.

Cruce, who spent two years teaching middle school in Kansas before making the move out West, said she was first attracted to secondary level education because she was better able to relate to her students — especially through sarcasm.

“The No. 1 draw when I was in teaching was sarcasm — high schoolers understood sarcasm and you could joke around with them a little bit more than the middle schoolers,” Cruce said, laughing. “However, it’s much more than that. High schoolers are defining themselves. They’re figuring out their role in life, and I really enjoy having that impact and having some of those conversations — ‘Where do you see yourself, and what can I do to help you get there?’ — also, I came from math, I love mathland, go math! And I always saw that students — some students — would struggle, and it was a barrier, almost. So I kind of viewed my role as a math teacher as always helping them realize that math isn’t all that bad that they can accomplish it, and kind of growing that confidence and removing that barrier so that they could move on and not have to repeat classes.”

Shelton, who came aboard as Samohi principal in 2016 and immediately befriended Cruce, said the incoming principal was always patient and supportive of her math students.

“She made it feel easy … sometimes, the kids didn’t finish their tests during class period. She would stay after school with them, or during lunch, or redo a problem,” Shelton said of Cruce. “And that’s what some kids lack, is the opportunity to redo something — process again — and that’s what she gave, and that’s why I think her being in this role as principal is going to be pretty awesome to see, because of the care and concern that she showed in the classroom.”

Shelton said his advice for Cruce as she begins the 2022-23 school year is to first seek to understand before seeking to make changes.

“You need to understand what is working — What traditions? What is this culture? Who are the people that I need to make sure that I connect with to ensure that our kids are getting everything that they need, and making sure that I continue the legacy of the school?” Shelton said. 

Reflecting on his own legacy, Shelton said it was important to give teachers a voice and listen to their perspective. That enabled him to make two major changes: moving into block schedules and embarking on Google classrooms (a semester before the onset of COVID-19).

“[As a teacher] your classroom is your classroom, and when you close that door it’s just your world and the 30 kids that are in that classroom,” Shelton said. “When you step outside of that classroom and you’re the principal, the whole campus — all 300-and-some employees and staff members and 2,800 kids and their additional 5,000 parents that an email goes out to — everybody sees what you’re doing. Whether they love it, like it or dislike it, you’ve got to answer to it. And the best part about answering to it is that you always stay focused on what kids’ needs are and their best interests. As long as you’re doing that, you’re good. You’re good when you know you’re doing right for kids, you know, everything’s gonna be fine.”

Cruce said her goal as Samohi principal would be to give her students the tools they need to be successful in adulthood — namely, collaboration, problem solving and communication, no matter what their career goals happen to be.

“I think that some of the big keys that they need to be able to do is: be collaborative, be problem solvers, to be able to communicate, and I think those are the big three ideas,” Cruce said. 

She described Santa Monica kids as passionate, talented and aware.

While Cruce will be taking over the title of Samohi principal, Shelton will still be accessible through his new role, where he’ll serve as a mentor, liaison, and problem solver helping principals at Santa Monica school sites coordinate their needs within the district.

“I want people to know that Santa Monica High School is one of the best places to get an education — a free education,” Shelton said. “And I believe in our school. I believe our school will provide the foundation that our students will need to be successful in the real world and that you can’t pay for that. You can’t pay for an experience like I believe our school community can provide for your children here in this community.”

emily@smdp.com