Principal retiring after 20 years at Moraga school
By Lou Fancher
Laughter and lyricism will echo long after Elaine Frank closes the door on 30 years in the Moraga School District.
Retiring after seven years teaching at Camino Pablo Elementary, three years as core teacher, then assistant principal at Joaquin Moraga Middle School, and 20 years leading Rheem Elementary as principal, Frank remains eager, energized — full of mischief and music.
“What will I do next? I want to play piano, quilt, bake, sew, cook, read, write,” she says. “Or, I’d love to change the world. I’m horrified at what the current presidential administration is doing. Do I go into women’s rights, environment, education? There’s a lot of work to be done.”
This is typical Frank: fast and funny, a lot like Rheem’s roadrunner mascot.
Except that the 57-year-old Martinez resident is a problem-solver, not problem causer. Her favorite memories involve applying a laserlike focus to each student or teacher. She was in part inspired by her high school band teacher, who helped the small-town kids from an agricultural community — Porterville — ride on team pride and become a force to be reckoned with.
“Kids and teachers want to do their best; they want to be seen and valued. I put my heart and soul into this work, so I have no regrets. I’ve worked really hard.”
Indeed, Frank worked hard even before landing in Moraga schools. Growing up with parents who were schoolteachers meant summer vacations began and ended assisting in classroom takedown and setup.
“And you better not get in trouble in school,” she says.
It took eight years for Frank to graduate from San Francisco State, having started as a piano performance major. Taking time off here and there, working at night, she eventually cobbled together enough credits to graduate with a humanities degree and earned a teaching certificate at UC Berkeley.
During the course of her tenure, she says technological advancements have caused the most change. “My first class didn’t have air conditioning. Parents communicated with handwritten notes because there weren’t phones in the classrooms.”
What hasn’t changed is the community. “They’re willing to tax themselves to make sure these kids get well-rounded educations that include the arts and a more caring staff who’ll connect to a kid and see each one as an individual.”
Nor has Frank’s primary burden lessened. “There are over 400 little people and about 50 big people who look to me to keep them safe. That’s always at the back of my head.”
Everything, she says, has been fun. “The kids, the way they surprise you with their kindness and insight. I get to laugh everyday.” And to surround herself with music as a mainstay. Frank rewrites Broadway songs and says, “Altered lyrics are my specialty.” Spirit assemblies at Rheem often have students belting out tunes with lyrics Frank has written.
At the annual Halloween parade, Frank appears costumed as Queen Bee, circus ringmaster, mustached Gru or other character and leads the students singing school songs “loud and proud.”
In the 1990s, Casey Sproul was in Frank’s second-grade class at Camino Pablo, and in sixth grade for core at Joaquin Moraga.
“Her energy is in sync with kids. That’s why she’s so memorable. I was shy. She was a teacher who could break into that. She knew me so well, I came out of my shell.”
Sproul’s son, Patrick, is now Frank’s “grandstudent” at Rheem. “She’s influenced my son too. Last year the kids made a poster. He wrote on it that he likes reading to Ms. Frank. It’s the full circle,” says Sproul.
Teacher Jen Strohmeyer started her career at Rheem the same year Frank began as principal. Her first impressions were of a highly organized leader who had vision about school culture.
“She had very high standards for professionalism and also trusted us to do our very best in the classroom — always loyal to her teachers and her students.”
The message to teachers was to be 100 percent present, and if a safe and nurturing environment was sustained, academic excellence would follow.
“She put so much energy into writing songs and building a garden that a casual observer may not realize that Rheem consistently tests at the very top of the district and county,” says Strohmeyer.
Kindergarten teacher Elizabeth Inzeo asks, “How many piano-playing principals are there in the world?” At Rheem for 17 years, Inzeo will miss water fights at staff retreats, Frank’s homemade banana bread, and walking into the principal’s office to say, “Hello, bossy boss.”
Frank admits she’ll miss the routine and the chaos. “The sameness of the calendar, but everyday brings something unexpected, something I have to solve.”
She pulls out three files labeled, “Wack-O,” “Fun” and “Praises” and says, “They’re filled with crazy stories, impossible things where you want to tear your hair out or things like these coloring books students made for me to do in my spare time. These files represent my life as an educator.”