Franco reflects on Tracy Unified’s past, future
by Michael Langley
Aug 08, 2014 | 4514 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
After retiring as superintendent in late June, Dr. James Franco now has the opportunity to look back on the 27 years he spent in Tracy Unified School District.

He said he has a few regrets, a lot of joyful memories and some thoughts on the future of education and what may be in store for the Tracy community.

Franco still remembers what brought him to Tracy in 1987.

“I was in Alaska. They have a newsletter like the administrators do here in California that list(s) professional articles and openings,” he said, recalling the recession of the late 1980s. “After every management team meeting when the superintendent would say ‘You better get it together or we’re going to have to cut your job!’ everyone would run back and pick up the EdCal (magazine) — I’m applying for a job in California, I’m getting out of town. So I did.”

He started as principal of Monte Vista Middle School, and from the very beginning, Franco said he knew how he wanted to lead.

“My theory was that students want to be treated with respect,” the former superintendent said. “We don’t want to think of things to do to them just to do it or punish them just to punish them. We wanted to establish a working, friendly, positive, productive atmosphere. That was my idea. We had done that at Monte Vista with student of the week, honoring kids at assemblies, (taking) pictures of them and (sending) them home.”

Franco said something else also changed very little over the years: the impact of the achievement gap on local kids. A gap in student performance is sometimes attributed to economics — districts in more affluent communities can afford better learning materials than those in poor communities — or to the challenges of teaching children who are not native English speakers.

“The gap is created under several different circumstances. One is not having equal expectations of your kids,” Franco said.

Those expectations, he said, are achievable.

“Closing the achievement gap in the past hasn’t been a priority,” he said. “You can become multilingual. So we can’t let that hold back those kids whose secondary language is English. We have to give them a boost to close that achievement gap between the average ninth-graders and ELL (English language learner) ninth-grader.”

The educator added that the solution to the problem must come from everyone in the child’s life.

“When you talk to some students, they will tell you about wanting to do the same curriculum as the rest of the class or wanting to excel with the rest of the class and not lagging back,” Franco said. “A caring parent or a caring teacher can make a difference. The whole group has to believe that the student can do it.”

Franco believes we should expect high standards from all kids, including college prep courses for everyone.

“There is an initiative to reform public education at the high school level with more career orientation,” Franco said. “Some people say, ‘You can’t expect kids to take all college prep. Some kids have to go right into the workforce.’ That’s true, but have you been in the workforce lately and read a technical manual?”

In a competitive, high-tech job market, Franco said, high educational achievement is a must for every child, whether they go to college or not.

“The career pathways haven’t had the impact yet that we’d like to see,” he said. “We know they’re going to need those advanced grade-level skills no matter what job they go into as a minimum. With technology, you need to be able to read, interpret and apply. There’s a relationship between schoolwork and post-secondary success.”

But when it comes to applying those standards across the board, Franco still worries that he didn’t do enough.

“My biggest regret is a lot of great ideas — and we got a lot of them through the pipelines — and my regret is not getting a few more initiatives implemented.”

Within the past decade, Franco and the school district went to voters to ask for more than $150 million in bonds to upgrade and update campuses across Tracy; were forced to make more than $6.6 million in budget cuts in 2009; and went through sometimes-contentious contract negotiations with the teachers and classified employees unions.

He said he tried to manage difficult times and directives from the TUSD Board of Education by involving as many people as possible in the decision-making process.

“Every decision you make is going to impact some group in some way. So you want to make sure you understand the facts of what’s going on. Identifying some solutions and then collecting some input,” Franco said of his management style.

“I hated the budget cuts,” he said. “I asked the management team for a salary freeze and they did. The example was hopefully understood by all: this was something that if we implemented across the board, we could accrue major savings, which would allow us to defer making more cuts. You have to have a competent business department, because you don’t want to have to ask for more of a deduction than you have to.”

Franco said he tried to share with the community and district employees the rationale for the actions district administrators had to take.

“Transparency should be there,” he said. “The idea of involving people, collecting input, then sharing back your evaluation of that input. You don’t need to be dictatorial to get the right things done. In fact, it may be important that you are not, because you may miss a good idea.”

Franco acknowledged that his decisions were not always popular but believes they fit the larger picture of keeping the district healthy for years to come.

“Otherwise, it would be a rudderless boat if you couldn’t make the call.”

The future, Franco said, will require more strong management.

“I think Tracy has a great future in front of us. I think the challenge is going to be with charter schools, new schools breaking away to form their own district. You could have a lot of that going on, and it’s going to be the true test of your program.”

Franco said all public schools will compete for students with private, online and charter schools that will offer parents an alternative education.

“There is a right model, but it could go awry if you don’t treat it with passion. You have to take the model and really do it. You just can’t take the model and do half of it and hope it will work,” he said. “We want a school district with no regrets that implemented their program with fidelity. We have the potential to do that. We have an outstanding staff and well-trained group of educators.”

Franco said he did offer the new superintendent, Dr. Brian Stephens, some words of advice:

“I told him he’s inheriting a school district that runs very smoothly and has a great group of staff members all wanting the same things as far as moving ahead and making a great atmosphere for our kids. To build upon the successes and offer rationale for changes, because changes will be necessary.”

As for Franco’s future, he is not going to relax in his retirement. He visited Guatemala during the spring break last school year to find out more about serving in the Peace Corps. He also met two young men on a recent airline flight who were members of AmeriCorps — a group dedicated to public service in America — and is exploring joining that group as well.

• Contact Michael Ellis Langley at or 830-4231.
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