Sam LaCara – a good man, a great principal
On Wednesday principal Sam LaCara was shot to death in his office at Louisiana Schnell School in Placerville. That’s the reason Sam LaCara, 50, is in the news today, but there are other reasons he could have made the front page.
One reason might have been the heartfelt interest LaCara took in the 411 students at the K-5 elementary school. LaCara became an educator in 1988 after graduating from California State University, Sacramento. He worked in the Placerville Union School District for 21 years, as a teacher and coach, an assistant principal and as principal.
Jim Coate, retired educator from Edwin Markham Middle School, first met Sam LaCara in 1989 when LaCara was hired at Markham as a PE teacher. The two became fast friends, talking about sports, politics, family, education and playing basketball together.
“Sam competed fiercely, but fairly,” Coate wrote in an e-mail to the Mountain Democrat. ” He instilled in his players … that learning (how to get better and deal with failure) and playing hard — really hard — are ends as important as winning.” LaCara, according to Coate, had been a top-flight high school football player in his native Louisiana, but later focused more on basketball and running.
Coate noted that LaCara’s interest in children strengthened as he moved from teaching to administration as an assistant principal in 1995. “A large part of an assistant principal’s job is handling kids who are not succeeding,” said Coate. “He didn’t think they were failures, though. They just hadn’t succeeded — yet. Maybe they needed to be away from Markham School and in another environment to succeed, but they still remained ‘Not Yet,’ not failures.”
Kelli Wessman, who runs the Garden of Learning program at Louisiana Schnell School, has known LaCara for many years, since he was a vice principal at Markham. She was on her way to Schnell after picking up supplies for the garden program when she received a call from her sister about the shooting.
A visibly shaken Wessman said, “He was a wonderful man, a great boss and he genuinely cared about kids — not just their academics, but their emotional well-being as well.”
Sam LaCara might have been on the front page for his support of programs benefiting his students, especially after he became principal of Schnell School in 2003.
One parent, anxiously waiting to pick up her sixth-grade son on the day of LaCara’s shooting, was appreciative of the class that the principal created at the K-5 school for students who weren’t yet ready for a middle school experience. “He understood and started the class this year so that kids like my son could stay.”
In 2008, under LaCara’s leadership, Schnell School received distinction as a Title I Academic Achievement Award School as well as an Honorable Mention California Distinguished School. In 2009, it was named a California Business Honor Roll School for educational excellence, and won the California School Garden Network’s California School Garden of the Year.
An innovative pre-kindergarten class begun in 2006, one of two such programs on the Western Slope, was supported and encouraged by LaCara.
In a 2009 Mountain Democrat article about the program, LaCara said, “It gives them a chance to transition from home to a different type of preschool and then on to traditional school.” He added, “The parents and teachers work together here … when the parents and teachers work together, the kids are more successful.”
“Sam had a lot of integrity,” said Wessman. “He would bring his junk clothes and change out of his suit to do anything around the school that needed to be done, like repairing the sprinklers in the garden.”
A comment submitted by a parent on the Great Schools Website on April 23, 2009, stated: “Schnell School is a wonderful place for both my kindergarten and fourth-grade students. The principal Sam LaCara is a thoughtful experienced leader and most of the teachers are creative and energetic. The garden on campus is a fully loaded teaching aid and we feel very thankful to be at this school.”
Another reason to publicize Sam LaCara might have been the way he treated the people around him, both students and adults.
“Sam was famous around the schools for standing a bit closer to others than most do when he was in a conversation,” said Coate. “… he was genuinely interested in what the other conversant had to say.”
He knew each of his students by name and often greeted them in the morning with a handshake, asking them if they were ready for school today. Friends and colleagues affectionately called him “the mayor” for the way he could get things done to benefit the students he served.
Former Mountain Democrat reporter Charlotte Sanchez-Kosa worked with LaCara on school related articles. “He was always helpful and never held anything back, not even when the story could be negative about the school or the district … I could see how much he cared for his students and wanted them to be the best they could be.”
As assistant principal at Markham, when LaCara needed to speak with a student or have a student go to the office, Jim Coate appreciated the way he came to the classroom door himself to ask for the student. “The intrusion was less than imagined … and the humanity demonstrated was incredibly valuable.”
He was a valued member of numerous statewide associations and served as regional treasurer for the Association of California School Administrators.
LaCara was husband to wife Lisa, and father to three daughters.
“He was always with his girls, playing basketball with them,” said Wessman.”They are a beautiful family and one of the girls just started college. I know what it’s like to lose a husband and a father. Their lives will change completely.”
“I can’t imagine how we’re going to move forward in the next few weeks. To lose someone whose heart is really in education at a time when we really need superior people — this will rock our community.”
A statement from the El Dorado County Office of Education received the day after La Cara’s tragic death, reads, in part: “We cannot begin to express how deeply he will be missed.”