The Boiling Point

Principal Tranchi taught, led, inspired students

Deanna Grunfeld

Leila Miller, Outside News Editor

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When General Studies Principal Phu Tranchi moves out of his well-organized office next month, he will leave behind deep bonds forged with students, faculty and families over 11 years at Shalhevet.

From the complexities of AP Chemistry and the world-broadening challenges of Model U.N. to the multi-faceted demands of leading a student-driven school through a time of upheaval, he’s been praised as an inspiring teacher, and a force of both creativity and stability.

“Oftentimes, students feel that their ideas and thoughts are overlooked by authoritative adults, but

this was never the case with Mr. Tranchi,” said Tziporah Thompson, who left Shalhevet after her junior year and now attends Brandeis University.

“He would always be attentive to and understanding of any issue brought before him. His faith in my abilities gave me the determination to succeed in AP Chem, the hardest class I have taken.”

As principal, Mr. Tranchi carried the school through changes in top leadership and the lower schools’ closing. But he was legendary in the classroom.

“We used to lose electricity once every two weeks, and Mr. Tranchi was one of the only teachers who would teach,” said alumna Alison Snyder ’06, who graduated from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women in 2010.  “He would gather his class into the parking lot, and he said ‘If I can teach in Kenya, I can teach through the blackout,’ and we would continue learning.”

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In fact, when Mr. Tranchi, who is Vietnamese-American, arrived to teach science in 2000, he had just come back from serving in the Peace Corps in Kenya. He shared his culture and past experiences, presenting lunchtime slide shows about the Peace Corps and announcing the Vietnamese New Year every winter at Town Hall.

Interviewed in his office on the last day of finals, a sampling of his eclectic interests adorned the walls – a debate team award and a certificate of a racecar lesson, photos of past graduating classes and his family, which includes his wife, English teacher Ms. Melanie Berkey, and their son Oliver.

Mr. Tranchi said that for him, the process of learning is about “energy, enthusiasm, and excitement,” which he said he tried to transmit to the students.  Most would agree that his teaching style was passionate.

Junior David Fletcher described how Mr. Tranchi supervised his AP Chemistry students making their own explosions by putting dry ice in bottles for their end-of-year project.

“It’s so amazing to see a teacher who’s so connected to the material and shows how things can connect to you, even though you might not have that big of an interest,” David said.

“It was awesome. Even though it wasn’t part of the curriculum, it was really nice to learn about and we learned a lot about pressure and everything like that that relates to chemistry.”

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Reflecting on his decade-plus tenure, Mr. Tranchi said that Shalhevet was more to him than what he taught others. Although admitting with a chuckle that his impressions of the school in the beginning might have consisted of “the day is very long” or “they pray a lot,” he eventually came to see it as a place with character, love and, he said, menchlikeit.

He grew to love the pervasive influence of the Just Community on school culture, along with the tradition of a Friday night family dinner – something he wants to practice when his one-year-old son grows up.

“I love the pride you guys have in your school,” Mr. Tranchi said. “It’s truly exceptional. There’s something about the way you guys fight for this place.”

But it was Mr. Tranchi who had to fight for the school once he transitioned into the position of General Studies principal during turmoil between administration and some of the faculty in 2007. School founder Dr. Jerry Friedman was still head of school, and Dr. Sam Gomberg was principal.

“I was sort of annointed as a leader to represent the faculty to the administration before becoming part of it,” Mr. Tranchi recalled.

Once becoming principal,  he saw four more heads of school (including interims), three heads of Judaic Studies, three admission directors and many changes in mid-level leadership.  The middle school and elementary school closed, the board leadership changed and the national economy collapsed too, shrinking the student body and straining financial aid.

After former Head of School Rabbi Weinbach left, Mr. Tranchi took on more responsibility as he and Rabbi Ari Leubitz, newly elevated to the position of Judaic Studies Principal, split the duties of head of school.

Mr. Tranchi created the schedule, handled budget, hiring and discipline issues and communicated with parents – to name just a few of the responsibilities that filled his time, even as he continued teaching AP Chem.

“Mr. Tranchi had a lot of the institutional memory,” Rabbi Leubitz said. “He was able to, when people came up with an idea, say we tried this before and here were the problems. When people came up with a good idea, he helped with the process of instituting it. He really understood Jerry’s mission and was able to keep us on point.”

Students noticed a tightening of discipline, starting with the dreaded but effective citation system and a tightening up of attendance.  Mr. Tranchi also raised the profile of community service, arranging schoolwide beach clean-ups, retirement home visits and other projects, and he instituted senior projects to make the second semester of 12th grade less about ditching and more about learning.

“He really changed the school around when he became principal,” said Meirav Cafri ’10, now a freshman at the University of Michigan. “The school was much more organized in studies and I feel education was taken more seriously.”

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“I miss the loose and informal relationship with my students,” Mr. Tranchi said, reflecting on his time as principal. “I still had that with my classes.”

Among students, indeed, it seems Mr. Tranchi’s greatest mark has been made as a teacher. Even as principal, he retained his responsibilities as the Science Department chair and the advisor for the Model U.N. debate team.

Graduating senior Jenny Newman remembers how in the middle of a Model U.N. research meeting, students suddenly took a break to watch videos of Mr. Tranchi diving off waterfalls in Fiji. She also recalls him saving the Mock Trial team when they were locked out of the school.

“I guess somebody called Mr. Tranchi, because eventually he roars up to the gate on a motorcycle and unlocks the door,” Jenny said. “I thought I had stepped into the twilight zone, where school principals had ponytails and drove motorcycles.”

Esther Feder, chair of the Shalhevet board, said dedication was his hallmark.

“He has put his heart and soul into the school and the students, and he’s been a true advocate for every student,” said Mrs. Feder, who has known Mr. Tranchi for five years. “When Model Congress experienced technical difficulties he stayed up all night with students in the airport.”

Mr. Tranchi said his proudest moment as a teacher came in 2006, when students threw an engagement party for him and English teacher Ms. Melanie Berkey at school. Since the administration viewed it as controversial – Ms. Berkey is Jewish, while Mr. Tranchi is not – the seniors moved the party to La Cienega Park.

“Berkey and Tranchi were two teachers we were all very close to and when we found out they got engaged we were obviously very excited,” said Alison Snyder, who planned the event.

Mr. Tranchi said his favorite moments as principal were “the things that gave teachers headaches” – when students spontaneously changed the daily schedule in order to express themselves, or joined a demonstration at the Jewish Federation building.

“Life is about interruption and the unexpected and responding to that,” he said.

He remembers responding to quite a few such interruptions. During a two-week, school-sponsored ecology camping trip program in Phoenix his first summer, a drunk driver ran into the carload of students that he and Rabbi Aaron Jaffe were driving, sending them all to a local emergency room.

“Those kids credited me for saving their lives,” Mr. Tranchi said. “I was regarded differently in the community – I showed what kind of person I am. It was a devastating experience, but I’m bonded to the 12 kids in my van.”

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When Mr. Tranchi announced he was leaving, he said, he had mixed feelings. He will become a science teacher at the Oakwood School in North Hollywood, while pursuing a doctorate in education at UCLA.

He says it’s a good step which took him a few years to make.

“I was sad but excited to be doing something new,” he said. “I will miss my friends and saying goodbye to the students and the families. It’s gonna be tough.”

Students echo that sentiment.

“It’s ridiculous to think of school without him, even though he says it’s going to be okay,” said David Fletcher. “He is one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met and had as a teacher.”

Mr. Tranchi views the products of that inspiration as the best thing he achieved.

“The best thing is seeing students do extraordinary things,” Mr. Tranchi said, looking down the empty hallway after students had left.

“It comes down to times students achieved beyond their expectations.”

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Meet the Writer
Leila Miller, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus
Currently a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, Leila has already had a distinguished career in journalism, writing ground-breaking reports for the Miami Herald, Moment Magazine and the Jewish Journal, particularly on the Jewish community in Argentina and its history through that country's "dirty war" and beyond.  She also has interned for KCRW News in Santa Monica.

A graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in New York,  she is Argentinian by birth and fluent in Spanish. She enjoyed her first dulce de leche ice cream at five months, became a Harry Potter fanatic at age eight, and got her second ear piercing at 14.  Leila joined The Boiling Point team as a freshman, and her story assignments led her to her first-ever rock concert at the Troubadour (Say Anything!), watch intense behind-the-scenes Drama rehearsals, and wake up early before school to interview Jewish community leaders in Chile after the earthquake there. She was also the Shalhevet choir’s piano accompanist and would go ice skating with you at a moment’s notice!

Leila was Editor-in-Chief of the Boiling Point for the 2011-12 school year, and graduated in 2016 from Oberlin College.
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Principal Tranchi taught, led, inspired students