The controversial Roanoke City School superintendent was on the cover in December 1983. He’s still shaking things up in education.
Dr. Frank Tota, the Roanoke City School superintendent during the turbulent 1980s and early 1990s, is 75 now and lives in Laguna Niguel, California,with his watercolors, his Parkinson’s Disease, his presidential commission assignment and some fond memories of his years here.
Tota was a controversial change agent at a time when the city’s education system was at a low point. He shook it up, made changes in personnel and programs, enraged some of the entrenched powers and inspired caricatures from The Roanoker. Physically, he was easy to draw with his Franciscan monk haircut, his Mexican bandito mustache, his tight suits and his regal bearing.
“The Roanoker had a lot of fun with me,” he says now. “And, frankly, I thought it was fun, too. I was younger then and found it interesting to get different perspectives. Some people had difficulty with the changes we made, but we proved the students in the city were better than anybody thought. They were as good as those in the county and at North Cross [School].”
Tota emphasized opportunities for poor and minority students, helping many get into college with programs his administration initiated. He is primarily responsible for Roanoke’s magnet schools and the highly controversial student pilot program that was run for a while out of Addison Aerospace Magnet School.
Tota continues that innovative emphasis these days as part of a national approach by the Obama Administration, he says.
“I put in a lot of hours with that,” he says. Initially, he had worked with nearby California University’s School of Education, he says, and “I’ve retired a few times. We like to travel a lot.”
Shortly after he left Roanoke in 1993, announcing his retirement then, he discovered he had Parkinson’s Disease, Tota says. These days, he works with the national foundation and “I sell some of my paintings to benefit them.” The watercolor came in retirement, as well. “One of the things I’ve always stressed,” he says, “is that you can’t just look at anybody and judge them. I had no idea I had a talent for painting, but I gave it a try and I do.”
Tota lives with his wife of 45 years, Eileen. They have two sons, Christopher, who lives two hours away in California and Frank Jr., who lives in Maine with his wife and the Totas’ only grandchild. None of the family remains in Roanoke.