Here for the Interim: Cathy Gach sees spring semester principal role as ‘cheerleader’ for school

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Audrey Seo

Sunny Hills High School interim principal Cathy Gach works in her office on Jan. 21 in Room 4. Gach, who replaces Allen Whitten upon his promotion to the district office last month, was hired January 2014 for the same position after former SH principal Judy Fancher left mid-school year. The retired administrator officially started her first day on Jan. 5 after the Fullerton Joint Union High School District school board approved the hire during an emergency meeting.

Nevya Patel

Eight.

That’s the number of years Sunny Hills last had a vacancy for the top position on campus – principal.

Similar to how former principal Allen Whitten was promoted last month to Student Support Services director in the Fullerton Joint Union High School District [FJUHSD], Judy Fancher accepted an assistant superintendent’s job at the Hacienda-La Puente Unified School District, leaving the start of the spring 2014 semester without any top administrator at the helm.

To find an interim principal nearly a decade ago, the FJUHSD called upon Cathy Gach, asking if she was willing to come out of retirement from being the campus leader at Fullerton Union High School, where she had served as the top administrator from 2002-2013.

After more than a month of being on the job back then, Gach recalled how much the diversity on campus made an impactful impression of her new work environment.

“I remember the first time we went through the [International Week and Food Fair], and I saw the assembly, and I was watching all the dances and the different groups that were represented,” she said. “It was at that time I realized there was a ton of diversity here.”

This time around in 2022, district officials didn’t hesitate to call upon Gach’s services again since the circumstances are so familiar.

“I got a call from the district [last month], and they were looking for an interim principal, [but] at the time they couldn’t tell me for which school,” she said. “So I had lots of time to think about it. 

“We kind of went back and forth, and eventually, I found out it was Sunny Hills, and that sealed it.”

Her decision was finalized because of her positive experience with Sunny Hills from the last time she was here, recalling the diversity and the faculty members — making it easier for her to come out of retirement again.

GACH’S ROLE STILL THE SAME AS LAST TIME: “CHEERLEADER”

Based on Gach’s experiences the last time around, the interim principal said she’s well aware of what her role is for this semester while the FJUHSD works toward putting a search committee together to find a replacement for Whitten.

“As an interim principal, I’m not building for the future,” she said. “What I’m doing is maintaining what has been done, and there are a lot of day-to-day things that come up where decisions have to be made, [and] problems have to be solved.”

Gach, who enjoys reading mystery novels during her free time outside the school, said she also believes that one of her roles is to encourage the SH community, including students, parents and faculty.

“I feel that it’s my job to be a part of that positive culture and to do what I can to help people when they need help,” she said. “And [I am going] to cheer them on with what they are doing. So that’s it — I’m the cheerleader.”

One way to demonstrate that approach is to continue Whitten’s administrative philosophy in finding opportunities to interact with students and finding the positives in them.

“I am a firm believer about being out and about during break times,” Gach said. “I think it’s important when you know somebody wants assistance or just wants to say hi [because] it’s nice for them to know that there’s somebody nearby.”

I feel that it’s my job to be a part of that positive culture and to do what I can to help people when they need help … And [I am going] to cheer them on with what they are doing. So that’s it — I’m the cheerleader.”

— Cathy Gach

The conversations with the students from nearly a decade ago to current SH students remain the same; however, the difference lies in how face masks make communication more difficult.

“Especially with masks on, where they have to be looking at you, otherwise there’s just no interaction,” Gach said. “And even sometimes, if they’re not paying attention at all, and you say hello, they don’t think you’re talking to them and they just keep right on going. So that’s more challenging this time.”

SUPPORT FOR HER ADMIN TEAM AND SH CAMPUS CULTURE

Like her approach the first time around, Gach said it is her duty to check on her administrative team to ensure the assistant principals are not overwhelmed with extra responsibilities, such as stepping up to monitor athletic events on the weekends.

“This is why we would all like to get back to some kind of normal because there’s only so long that people can give their 100% before it catches up to them,” the interim principal said. “I’m trying to be mindful of those extra stressors that are on the [admin] staff and see what I can do to help them.”

From her first day as interim principal this semester on Jan. 6, Gach said she immediately noticed the differences Whitten had made on campus compared to when she was last here. 

“I think that Mr. Whitten must have been a wonderful principal because he created a positive culture,” she said. “There are so many things that I see physically on the campus, like all of the benches and eating area as well as the jumbotron, that weren’t here before. And so, he had to be instrumental in getting those things here.”

The beautification of the campus has also made a positive impact on those working in it, Gach said.

This is why we would all like to get back to some kind of normal because there’s only so long that people can give their 100% before it catches up to them.”

— Cathy Gach

“The whole team — they’re very giving individuals,” she said. “When you see an assistant principal serving in the lunch line when someone’s absent there, see a custodian chipping in and doing something that is outside [his] usual duties [or] see the teachers jumping in and helping when we need coverage in classrooms, you know that you have a very good staff.”

EARLY IMPRESSIONS ABOUT GACH’S RETURN

Senior Krishna Thaker and junior Tazia Mohammad are among those who had a chance to interact with Gach.

Mohammad said she and Thaker made an appointment for Jan. 11 to meet the interim principal and introduce themselves as the co-presidents of Junior Statesmen of America [JSA] and to explain to the administrator about an upcoming Saturday off-campus JSA event. 

“I was a little bit hesitant because I didn’t think she would be helpful, but when I talked to her, I was surprised,” the junior said. “She’s very energetic, and she directed us to [assistant principal] Dr. [Melissa] Stinson for more information, which was helpful. 

“She has a lot of energy, and she reminded me of our younger teachers.”

Associated Student Body [ASB] co-adviser David Fenstermaker said he expects the semester to run smoothly, especially with Gach’s SH familiarity.

“We certainly know how the other one works, and so we’re able to have conversations about what we want to happen and what we hope to happen,” said Fenstermaker, who Gach had originally offered the ASB co-adviser position to along with social science teacher Mike Paris back in 2014. “She would be doing that from a position of familiarity, so we can have those conversations much easier.”

REUNITED 

Patty Johnson, the principal’s secretary in the main office, said she first interacted with Gach during her time as the principal at Fullerton Union High School and is looking forward to seeing her effectiveness as an interim principal here again.

She has a lot of energy, and she reminded me of our younger teachers.”

— junior Tazia Mohammad

“You think to yourself, ‘[When] someone’s going to come and be an interim, they’re just here watching [and] helping us supervise at breaks,’ [but] she’s not like that,” Johnson said. “She’s going out to classrooms; she’s meeting parents; she’s meeting with teachers; she’s navigating all kinds of circumstances in these crazy times.

“She is amazing.”

Gach had the same compliment for Johnson, who has helped the interim principal adjust to the campus again.

“She is just fantastic because she has the institutional knowledge,” the administrator said. “She’s very efficient, she’s very pleasant and she takes care of me, and I really appreciate her.”

Picking up from where they left off nearly a decade ago hasn’t been that difficult, either.

“I always felt like I had a rapport with her  —  that I always knew her,” Johnson said. “So I don’t really remember ever not.

“Even the first time when she was coming, I remember thinking ‘Oh, we’re going to be in great hands.’”

With so many benefits for Gach to work here again, she reiterated that her main role is to preserve the environment that Whitten created while he was principal. 

“People always expect you to solve the problem, and they expect that you’re going to respond,” she said. “And so that’s what you do. You try to make sure that you are touching base with everyone, seeing how everyone’s doing and making sure they have what they need.”