Principal, hotel GM swap jobs

El Verano Elementary School and the Sonoma Mission Inn may not seem similar until you take an inside peek and learn they’re extraordinarily symbiotic. For 10 years, the hotel has lent the school a shoulder to lean on while the school shares the joy of helping children thrive.

“We have the same issues, with a different demographic. We both take care of people,” said Rick Corcoran, general manager of the hotel, after being principal-for-a-day at El Verano, while Principal Maite Iturri left her campus to take on Corcoran’s duties as the visiting general manager. It was an eye-opening job swap that the two leaders found invigorating, and was just the latest example of coordination and cooperation between the hotel and the school.

Corcoran began his day greeting arriving students with high fives and words of encouragement, followed by classroom visits where he read aloud to kindergarteners, joined in on guitar playing and gave an interview to inquisitive fifth graders who asked him questions about his job. He met with parents, participated in a fire drill and watched over the kids while on recess duty.

Meanwhile, Iturri attended operations and executive meetings, went on room inspections and learned the proper way to fold sheets and towels. She was treated with respect and honesty as she learned how room rates are determined, and chatted in the kitchen with Sante’s Michelin-starred Chef Andrew Cain about how he plans menus. Cain explained that veal stock, “the work horse of the kitchen,” takes three days to make.

The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn has “adopted” El Verano and this year will host the 10th annual fundraising golf tournament, which through the years has provided the school with $200,000 to support its library, music and sports programs. The hotel sponsors an annual teacher appreciation event, takes fourth and fifth graders for hikes on the Overlook Trail, and gives holiday gifts to students. And hotel employees are encouraged to serve as El Verano mentors through the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance.

Corcoran had lunch with his mentee, Eduardo, in the El Verano cafeteria after he was finished serving chicken fingers and pasta salad to more than 100 students. “And it was baked, not fried,” he said, impressed with the menu devised from a very low budget. He joked that Iturri got a better deal, revealing that “Maite is having a spa treatment at lunch!”

During his stay there was an incident of a student marking school property with crayons who was sent to the principal’s office, and Corcoran learned that, rather than being disciplined, the child was given supplies and sent out to clean it up. “We call that ‘logical consequences’,” Iturri explained to Corcoran when they discussed their learning experiences at the end of the day at the hotel.

“I need a nap and a drink,” Corcoran laughed when he arrived back on his own territory. “I had no idea how hard that would be, but I loved it.” For the father of 5-year-old Benjamin, who is still in preschool, it was his first close up look at elementary school. “It is such a good school. You see it in the kids, they are very well behaved. And there is so much passion from the teachers,” he said. “There’s more to it than I thought. There’s a lot of parenting involved.”

“This has been a tremendous learning experience for me,” Iturri said, noting that she was most impressed by the constant communication between all levels of managers and employees at the hotel. Cain, for example, said he sometimes looks to the line chefs for menu ideas, and there is almost constant communication about room prices. “There’s so much teambuilding and sharing of appreciation. I might look into opening up more lines of communication.”

“I have given speeches to 700 people, and that was easy for me, but I was really nervous about reading in front of the kids,” Corcoran said about reading “The Cat in the Hat.” The kindergarteners had to remind him to show them the pictures, but he did a great job engaging them, asking them if Fish has a name, and gently answering no, it’s not Nemo. It’s just Fish.

“I feel I can call the hotel if I need something,” Iturri said, whether it’s the use of a meeting room or an occasional gift certificate. “Being here made me really appreciate the organization. It is like a little city unto itself, and people here enjoy what they do, and find it gratifying.”

El Verano has almost 500 students, and the hotel can accommodate 500 guests. They are both striving for excellence, safety and strong community relations. They share goals and exchange ideas. “Their commitment to us is amazing,” Iturri said about the hotel. It’s beyond any other relationship in the Valley.”

No doubt other schools would welcome a business partner as well.