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Long-serving administrator turns in her chalk…
Cotulla ISD is losing one of its most ardent advocates this summer, an administrator whose service to education stretches over 40 years and who decided in June that she is going to retire for the second time.
Louisa Franklin was born and raised in La Salle County, the daughter of the late Roy Alonzo Sturges, after whom the county’s law enforcement center and jail in downtown Cotulla is named. She has spent her career dedicated to the school district, both in the classroom and as a principal, as well as behind the scenes in the administrative offices whose staff help the district operate successfully.
She is perhaps best known for her tenure as an elementary school principal, heading the Ramirez/Burks and Encinal schools, and for her pursuit of student success in rapidly changing times.
Franklin began her career at Freer ISD in 1978, teaching social studies, history, government and economics at the high school, and came home to Cotulla ISD in 1981 to teach Texas history at the middle school. After six years, she became assistant principal for the fifth and sixth grades. A year later, she took the top job as principal of the entire Ramirez/Burks Elementary School. At the time, the school included the Frank Newman Middle School, a campus named after Franklin’s uncle and former La Salle County sheriff. In another familial connection, Franklin was now principal of the Amanda Burks School, which is named after her great-great aunt.
“I told them I’m not Superwoman,” she laughs at the thought of having to oversee the sprawling elementary school campuses alone, without an assistant principal. “The school district switched its campus organization, and I was given charge of the Ramirez/Burks school until 1998.”
That year, Franklin recognized that a large number of Cotulla students were leaving the district without finishing their education, and that there was an urgent need for an alternative program with credit recovery.
“I would see all these names of children at the elementary and middle schools, hundreds of them… and then at the end of the high school stage, they were gone,” she says. “Where did they go? What happened to them? Well, they were dropping out. They weren’t being served.
“We set about reaching them, giving them the help they needed, putting them back on course,” she says. “We gave them a new chance.”
At the time, the La Salle County Jail was closed and had been converted into a boot camp for wayward adolescents. Franklin saw a need for more corrective action, and answered the call to run the facility’s education program at the end of the 1990s.
“We had to help the kids who had been left behind,” she says.
Franklin was at the helm when the elementary school in Cotulla underwent its transition from chalkboard to computer education, and she returned from a brief retirement five years ago to take charge at Encinal as it, too, was modernized, upgraded and raised its standards and performance.
“Encinal had a vacancy,” she says. “I had known the staff there for years, so I decided to turn in my application. It wasn’t up to me. They were an ‘improvement required’ school.”
Franklin brought new directives to Encinal, pushed the campus to become the highest ranking in the district, academically, and established her trademark order, respect for authority, and dedication to learning among the student population.
“I’m a facilitator,” she says of her task as principal. “I make it to where the teachers can do the job they need to do.”
A campus at which Franklin is principal can be distinguished by its colorful displays of student art, its posters with firm reminders about good behavior and expectations, and the reverent hush that she commands in an auditorium filled with children. It is also a campus at which parents are welcome, where everyone knows everyone, and where children genuinely look forward to learning.
“It’s a small campus, but no less important than anyone else,” she says of Encinal, which is situated thirty miles south of Cotulla. “They have to keep their averages up. If you only have a dozen kids in one grade level – which can happen – and one or two have failing grades, the average score plummets. If that happened at a much larger school, you could say that it wouldn’t be noticed.
“Well, I noticed.”
The retiring principal looks fondly on Encinal and views the campus as a little gem with potential to shine.
“It was rewarding,” she says of her tenure. “That community is very supportive of that school.”
Years before community involvement in education became a standard feature of school policy, Franklin spearheaded efforts at Cotulla ISD to bring families into the fold, to engage parents in the children’s curriculum and after-school activities, and to help spread a greater understanding of the significance of a good education to those who came from a small rural community.
She is also responsible for writing the grant that helped Cotulla ISD secure its childcare program, serving the children of current students and providing early childhood care and instruction. The Cotulla PEP Center is now situated adjacent to the Ramirez/Burks campus.
“This is one of the things I am proud of,” she says. “At the alternative school in 1998, we had a desperate need for childcare for the children of teenagers. There was no reliable childcare in Cotulla at the time. Now the school district is the only licensed one.”
For most of the years in which Franklin served Cotulla schools, the district was labeled as economically disadvantaged by the state of Texas and depended heavily on outside funding – taxpayer money from other districts – and a heavy percentage of Cotulla ISD’s children qualified for free lunches. Meanwhile, the school needed state funds to pay teacher salaries and to keep its doors open.
That changed in 2008, when hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas reserves in the Eagle Ford Shale brought new industry, new people and new property values to La Salle County. The families who had been served by the district were now more likely to have job prospects, and the school district was no longer dependent on state funds.
“The need is to serve the children, all of them,” she says, “to get them out beyond Cotulla, to help them do something with their lives. I used to joke that when I’m old, these will be the leaders of our community. They needed to have an education, and it was our job to make them see that they could be better, to bring out their best. It takes someone telling you that you can do it.”
Franklin left the district for a short period beginning in 2013. Within weeks, she had been hired as the new administrator for the La Salle County Jail, which was in the process of reopening after years of disuse. Franklin’s reputation for calm efficiency, understanding of all the aspects of the job, and her effective authority had preceded her. She directed the physical updating of the jail as well as the myriad of personnel and documentary requirements that the facility demanded.
In July 2015, Franklin was lured back to Cotulla ISD, and over the next five years she would take charge of the many projects that were required to bring Encinal Elementary School up to par, to improve student performance, to better prepare the community for what was to lie ahead in an age of massive economic development, and to ensure that the small school would benefit from district-wide construction projects and campus upgrades.
It was again a time of change for the people of La Salle County and for the schools, and Franklin held the helm steady through the growth of the energy industry, through rapidly changing technology in education, and with a view to preparing her young charges for the vastly different world that lay ahead for them.
At the same time, and for decades as a respected community leader, Franklin has taken an active role in a number of community-based and charitable projects, among them child advocacy and awareness programs against domestic violence, but not least the continually popular St. Timothy’s Christmas Cheer for Children, a ‘toys for tots’ effort that brought light to the darkness of thousands of local youngsters over the years, distributing gifts to the needy and disadvantaged. For Franklin and her fellow volunteers, the service projects have been labors of love, and for a veteran school administrator all the more significant because she has known the children, their parents and grandparents for so many years.
Franklin is a member of the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of South Texas, whose volunteer members speak up for children’s interests and immediate as well as long-term needs in foster and adoption hearings; and is a charter board member of the Children’s Alliance of South Texas, which addresses childcare issues and intervention in cases of abuse, neglect or domestic violence.
She views all of the challenges she has undertaken as part of a whole.
“Education is a service,” she says of the many aspects of her career. “If you’re not ready to do that, then you’re probably in the wrong business.”
Louisa Franklin may be turning in her chalk this summer and bidding farewell to the classrooms and hallways, auditoriums and cafeterias she has known so well for generations, and which she has patrolled with her gently firm brand of leadership, but she won’t turn away from her service to the community.
“When you have a kid who is successful, who everyone said wasn’t going to be successful,” she says, “then you know you’ve done the right thing.”
A good teacher keeps soldiering on, long after the dismissal bell has rung.