New Searcy principal expects smooth transition

Heather Franks was recently named the new principal at McRae Elementary School in Searcy. She replaces James Gurchiek, who left to be the superintendent at Harding Academy. Franks has been the assistant principal at McRae for the past year.
Heather Franks was recently named the new principal at McRae Elementary School in Searcy. She replaces James Gurchiek, who left to be the superintendent at Harding Academy. Franks has been the assistant principal at McRae for the past year.

SEARCY — Heather Franks was perfectly content to stay on as an assistant principal for a few more years.

“I don’t think it was supposed to happen this quickly,” she said, “but this building has been family since day 1, so the transition is going to be an easy one.

“I think it is going to be great.”

Franks, who has been the assistant principal at McRae Elementary School for the Searcy School District for the past year, was recently named the new principal for the school. She replaces James Gurchiek, who left to be the superintendent at Harding Academy in Searcy.

“When I started teaching, I had phenomenal administrators, including Terry Lawler at Hot Springs,” Franks said. “She showed me how administrators can change the culture of a school.

“As an administrator, we have the luxury of supporting teachers, students and their families beyond the classroom.”

Prior to coming to Searcy, Franks worked for the Lonoke School District from 2014-20, first as a teacher and eventually moving into an administrative role as the dean of students. She said the reason she moved to Searcy is because she wanted to broaden her horizons and see how other school districts were run.

“[I look forward to promoting] the great things we are doing at McRae and getting to know more families with less COVID restrictions,” she said. “We want to continue to promote the positive and family culture here.”

“The thing that impressed me about her was her initiative going into administration,” Gurchiek said. “She was serious about going into administration, and that made me feel she was a strong candidate going into this position.”

Gurchiek said Franks has shown herself to be a strong administrator in all aspects, including providing support for the students and teachers and making sure the needed resources are available.

“She works well with the parents and assisting with situations that may arise, and she has a strong working relationship with the central office,” he said.

Diane Barrett, superintendent for the Searcy School District, said that when the district hired Franks as an assistant principal at McRae Elementary School a year ago, “she hit the ground running.”

“She is an enthusiastic and energetic administrator who quickly became a part of the McRae family,” Barrett said. “She has already instilled trust with the faculty, parents and students, and I have no doubt that under her leadership, McRae will continue to thrive and provide an excellent, caring educational environment for the students.”

Franks is originally from Hot Springs, having graduated from Lake Hamilton High School in 2002. She earned an associate degree from National Park Community College in Hot Springs and a bachelor’s degree in early-childhood education in 2008 from Henderson State University in Arkadelphia. She also has a master’s degree in TESOL (Teaching English to Students of Other Languages) from Arkansas Tech University. In 2017, she earned a Master of Science in Education degree in educational leadership from Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.

“Straight out of high school, I started in nursing school, which I loved, but I didn’t get enough interaction with [kids],” she said. “I have a heart for kids, and I knew that’s where I wanted to be.

“I have loved [teaching] since I started. I think some people are just born to be teachers, and I think that is where I am meant to be.”

Franks is the first one in her family with a college degree. She said she has always loved going to school.

“I wasn’t pushed to go to college, but I had great grades in school, and I loved learning,” she said. “I knew that was the right fit for me.”

Franks said sometimes she misses being in the classroom, but she likes being an administrator as well.

“I like seeing my teachers doing great work,” she said. “The paperwork will get done, but I just love seeing kids learn.

“I like being an administrator, as well, and having that feeling of having a broader impact.”

Bethany Philpot has been the literacy coach at McRae Elementary School for four years.

“Mrs. Franks is just very joyful,” Philpot said. “She is a hard worker, and she is a follow-through-type person. She comes up with ideas, then executes them.

“She is really invested in kids and is great with all the kids. She is always finding ways to brighten their days.”

Philpot said that in a year’s time, Franks has learned every kid’s name on campus and has become truly invested with the staff, “getting to know who we are and our family.”

“She has taken the time to dive in and get to know us, more than just surface level,” Philpot said. “I think [her becoming principal] is going to be a very smooth transition.

“She already has the respect of the staff, and everybody wants to work hard for her. Plus, the students already love her.”

Franks said her goal as principal is to continue the positive culture set in place by Gurchiek.

“There is a love for learning that is already here in this building, and I am excited to continue that,” she said. “The teachers here are great and are excited to come to school.”

Franks said the biggest challenge she faced last year was incorporating the special classes, such as art and music, because “the students couldn’t go to those classes.”

“We had to stay safe in our areas, but the kids were great, and they all just kind of rolled with it,” she said. “I also think we missed some of the family interaction that we would have normally gotten, so we couldn’t be as involved as we would have liked.”

She said she plans to meet with all the teachers one on one and see what changes, if any, are needed.

“We definitely function well as a team,” she said. “Gurchiek built a great campus and a great staff. I know how this building runs, so I think it will be a pretty seamless transition.”

Philpot said this year was really hard for a lot of the staff, dealing with personal losses and COVID-19.

“What clicked with me or resonated with me the best was how well Mrs. Franks handled the human side of being a principal, as well as the educational side,” Philpot said.

Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or

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