Principal Saunders Debuts at Palisades Elementary School

By Sue Pascoe

Principal Gary Saunders II was at his desk at Palisades Charter Elementary the week before school started, working late hours and even into the weekend.

Ever flexible, Saunders agreed to an impromptu interview on Friday, August 11, at 5 p.m.

“I’m really excited to be here,” said Saunders, who was an assistant principal in South Bay elementary schools the past three years. The father of five children (four ranging in age from 5 to 13, with another in college) said he was impressed with his staff and the parents he had been meeting this summer.

Principal Gary Saunders II as he prepared for the first day.
Principal Gary Saunders II as he prepared for the first day.

When Joan Ingle surprised everyone by announcing her retirement in June after 10 years at the school, a selection committee started interviewing potential principals.

Saunders remembers coming before a large committee of teachers and parents for his first interview.

“They asked amazing questions,” he said. “The love of the school came across and that made a huge impression onme.”

Selected as one of the finalists for the position, Saunders faced a second interview that included LAUSD District Superintendent Cheryl Hildreth, and then was hired.

This year he will oversee about 25 teachers, including only one new teacher, and about 510 students. He said that Ingle left him a lot of good information “to make the transition smooth.”

His goal for this year will be develop the relationships between teachers, parents and the community and to understand the culture here.

“All schools are like a family,” Saunders said.

He grew up in Hampton, Virginia, where his mother taught high school history and his father was a high school English teacher and a coach.

With that background, Saunders participated in almost every sport growing up, including baseball, swimming, wrestling, football and volleyball.

“I really loved sports,” he said, noting that he’s interested to see what the coaches teach at Palisades Elementary. “I believe in a holistic approach to education, which includes sports.”

Saunders attended Virginia Commonwealth College, graduating in 1991 with a degree in theater arts. He was especially interested in classical theater, from Shakespeare to Chekhov. He moved to Los Angeles for theater, and started substituting in between auditions.

But, “I had education in my blood,” said Saunders, who soon started teaching second through fifth grade at a school in Studio City, from 1998 through 2005. Then he moved to secondary, teaching seventh- and eighth-grade math and science in Sylmar and at a USC magnet school.

Saunders became a math coach for LAUSD for the Central and Valley Districts. In 2009, he worked as a coordinator at Cowan, a magnet for the gifted in Westchester, and also at Wilton, an elementary school in Koreatown.

In 2011, he returned to school and received his master’s degree in administration from Cal State Northridge in 2011.

The past three school years he was an assistant principal at STEAM magnet schools in Lomita and Carson in the LAUSD. He saw the Pali Elementary job opening on a district website.

“A friend, Mr. John Heffron, had worked here and had told me about all these wonderful things,” Saunders said.(Heffron was a first-grade teacher in 2004-07.)

After seeing the opening, “I started to investigate and looked at the way the school approaches curriculum and instruction,” he said. “It was similar to what I believed in, the way I trained people and what I practiced myself.”

His wife, Gina, is trained as a Montessori teacher, but currently is in charge of the kids who attend Wonderland School (an LAUSD school, known for attracting gifted and high-ability children) and Foshay Learning Center (near USC).

Saunders, who does not live in the Palisades, was asked if thought about enrolling his own kids in Palisades charter schools.

“I didn’t want to make it more complicated this year,” he said, smiling. And then it was back to work.

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