The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District is used to fresh faces, welcoming new students into the district every August. For 2023-24, the fresh faces extend to the staff as well, with two new principals excited to make their mark on campus.

This year will be the first in the SMMUSD principal role for both Jose Cuevas and Dr. Amy Onyendu, taking the reins at Lincoln Middle School and Roosevelt Elementary School, respectively. Both enter their new offices with a wealth of educational experience, looking to shift their focus to their new co-workers and SMMUSD students.

Cuevas has been an educator for 17 years, beginning as a teacher in south Los Angeles before moving into administration in the area. He served as an assistant principal in the Baldwin Park Unified School District, eventually moving to SMMUSD last school year to serve as O-House Principal at Santa Monica High School. Cuevas’ dedication to education comes from his youth, as well as a chance to shape the pathway students take from Lincoln to Samohi and beyond.

“There were many educators who impacted my life, and I saw the fruits of their labor,” Cuevas said. “More importantly, I love working with children. I think empowering them, giving them a sense of belonging is important. (Education) gave me an identity, it allowed me to be successful in finding direction … to have that ability to do the same with our kids, that’s all I could ask for.”

Dr. Onyendu enters SMMUSD as a whole and her job at Roosevelt with more than 14 years of experience, most recently serving as the Director of Admissions and Attendance and Assistant Principal for Palisades Charter High School. She has held positions in both primary school and university education, working in various capacities for a district in Mesquite, Texas, and working as a Lecturer for the College of Education at Western State Colorado University.

Like Cuevas, her history serves as a blueprint for what she wants to bring at Roosevelt, particularly in the areas of equity and academically engaging learning experiences.

“I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to serve both the district of Santa Monica-Malibu Unified and the community of Roosevelt Elementary,” Dr. Onyendu said. “I look forward to immersing myself in the culture and collaboratively working with staff, parents, guardians, and the community to provide our students with an educational landscape that nurtures their talents, celebrates their boundless creativity, values their voices, and fosters their growth, all while instilling the power of education.”

Academic and extracurricular equity and inclusion is always on the mind of Cuevas, who will be part of the district’s first year of a middle school athletics pilot program. Lincoln recently held tryouts for programs in co-ed flag football, girls volleyball and co-ed cross country, with 160 Lincoln students signing up for the tryouts.

“We want to continue to provide opportunities for our students to connect with school, get them an identity and a sense of belonging,” Cuevas said. “This was developed to give them that identity, that sense of belonging. When students are connected to school, they’re more successful, it empowers them.”

Thomas Leffler has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Broadcast Journalism from Penn State University and has been in the industry since 2015. Prior to working at SMDP, he was a writer for AccuWeather and managed...