Even though Frank Garcia has spent the last 28 years in education as a teacher and administrator, the Thomas Elementary School principal originally went to college for accounting.
“I always felt called back to teaching,” Garcia said. “I had some phenomenal teachers when I was young.”
Garcia, who attended South Beaver School, Flagstaff Middle School and Flagstaff High School, is one of two winners in Flagstaff of the Rodel Exemplary Principal honor. The award honors principals in high-need schools. As a winner, Garcia will be required to mentor aspiring principals.
Garcia began his teaching career in the small town of Kearny, Ariz. He moved to the White Mountain Apache Reservation, then came to work in the Flagstaff Unified School District in 1993.
Over the course of his career, Garcia taught first, fourth and fifth grades and was also a school counselor. He became an administrator at South Beaver School in 2000.
“The time I enjoyed the most was the move to Thomas,” Garcia said. “I came here during a difficult time for FUSD -- schools were closing. But we came here to start something new and exciting.”
Garcia said there is not really a “typical” day as an elementary school principal, but said he likes to remain visible throughout the day, including being in the cafeteria while the students eat lunch.
“That’s my only opportunity to see each kid during the day,” he said.
He said much of his day is spent talking with students, including visiting with kids who need support or to correct behavior.
FUSD Superintendent Barbara Hickman, who nominated Garcia for the award, said Garcia is well-loved by the whole school community, including teachers, parents and students.
“He is calm, thoughtful and experienced. He is extremely skilled in listening to stakeholders and reaching decisions that take into account all sides and opinions,” Hickman said in an email. “He’s welcoming and patient, two qualities that are a must for an elementary school. Frank does not get discouraged, he gets fired up. He is a very special leader and I’m continually thankful that he chooses to stay with FUSD. “
Garcia said he is most proud of bringing the school community together under a common goal. Thomas is one of two FUSD schools that participate in the “No Excuses University” program, which focuses on teaching students to be goal-oriented about the future, including college and career options. The school earned the distinction two years ago.
“Each class adopts a university and the kids do college cheers,” Garcia said. “They get really into it. Sometimes the parents buy them gear or clothes from the school they’re in. It’s brought a really great spirit to our school.”
Garcia said despite recent cuts to education spending statewide, he strives to make the school a positive place for both the students and teachers.
“We take the negative things and make a positive environment for the 520 kids who show up every day,” he said. “We want to make a quality learning and work environment for everyone.”
Garcia said some of his first students are almost 40 now, and said some of his former students have sent their own children to his school.
“I love seeing former students come back to visit,” Garcia said. “Those connections are so important.”
Garcia said part of the job of a principal is making the right decisions, which is not always easy.
“Everything I do, I try to do the right thing,” he said. “It’s not always the popular thing, but that’s what you have to stand on. I try to make the right decision and tell them why.”
Garcia said providing children with a good education is the most important thing a community can do.
“There is no more valuable thing a society can do than help children become educated and support their hopes and dreams,” he said.