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Ramirez/Burks Elementary replaces crowded 1953 campus
“You wanted something great for our children…”
Reminding her audience that “teamwork makes the dream work,” Cotulla ISD Board Vice President Jamie Whitwell described completion of the community’s new elementary school last week as the result of dedication by administrators and belief in the mission by the people of La Salle County.
The new Ramirez/Burks Elementary School has been built on several acres of previously undeveloped land between Main and North Baylor streets on the northwest side of Cotulla, is paid for with a bond approved by voters, and was designed with input from committees made up of school staff and community members.
Construction was necessitated by the lack of expansion space at the district’s oldest campus, a property in downtown Cotulla on which various school buildings have stood for over 100 years.
A growing population during the past ten years in which families have moved to the county for work in the energy industry over the Eagle Ford Shale resulted in the discovery only five years ago that the 1953-built Ramirez/Burks school had reached its maximum capacity. Principal Cynthia Perkins put voice to the district’s concerns over educational space when she clarified that it might only take two or three additional families enrolling their children in the elementary school for the buildings to become officially overcrowded.
Despite construction in the late 1990s of a classroom wing housing the first, second, and third grade students in Cotulla – the ‘land-bound’ nature of the Ramirez/Burks campus nestled in a residential neighborhood meant that there was no more room for the school to grow.
More than two years in design and building, with some delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, Cotulla’s new Ramirez/Burks Elementary School was formally declared open with a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday, December 17, that included current and former trustees and district superintendents, a Texas state representative, and members of the families for whom the campus is named.
Whitwell noted in her address that several of the district’s board members, administrators and teachers are products of the school district as former students who received their education in the former elementary school which, she said, had helped shape the lives of many community leaders.
“This arduous journey began several years ago,” the CISD Board vice president said, “with the vision of Superintendent Dr. Seals and hundreds of dedicated people. It was supported by our taxpayers who believed that our students deserve the best. We thank you for your unwavering belief in our school and in our mission. Our students will bring life to this school.”
The school was designed by Pfluger Architects and built by Leyendecker Construction at an estimated cost of $24 million.
Staff are moving their equipment into the building during the Christmas break; classes are set to begin at the new campus during the first week of January.
Retired Supt. Dr. Jack Seals, who left Cotulla ISD this summer, had spearheaded the drive for design, finance and construction of the new campus and said Friday that he believes it is due to the large amount of input provided by stakeholders – community members, staff and students – that the school will serve the district’s needs for decades to come.
“Thanks to the hard work of our teachers who helped pull together all the ideas for what would be in this campus,” the former superintendent said, adding that credit is also due to Principal Perkins for the planning and finance director Alfredo Vela for helping Cotulla ISD “get value for every dollar” through his extensive experience in facilities construction.
“This would not have been possible without you,” Dr. Seals told his audience in the school auditorium. “You wanted something great for our children.”
Dr. Seals also credited the work of the school district’s elected trustees, adding that the board members give their time without pay to serving the school and were charged with making decisions that were vital in the process of building an entirely new campus.
“A lot of times, board members hear complaints, and they need to know the concerns of the community,” the former superintendent said, “but they also need to hear the thanks of the community, and so we thank the school board, the community, the teachers and staff for the support.
“We have the best kids in the world here in Cotulla,” Dr. Seals said in an emotional closing remark. “God bless the children; that’s why we are here, and there will be generations of children able to walk this hall.”
State Rep. Ryan Guillen offered congratulations to the district on its achievement and pointed to leadership by trustees and administrators as having been critical to the project’s success. He also noted that taxpayer support of the district’s goals helped bring about “an enormous asset to the community.”
“A school is the foundation of a community,” the state legislator said. “There is no doubt that this school will benefit generations to come.”
Descendants of the school’s namesakes also spoke at Friday’s ceremony, outlining the contributions to La Salle County education made by Deonicio Ramirez (1925-87), Amanda Burks (1841-1931) and Clarisa Pena (1904-92). Portions of the school are dedicated to the former educators. School board members voted earlier this year to retain the elementary school’s name.
“My father did what he could to help Cotulla,” teacher and administrator Raymond Ramirez said of Deonicio Ramirez, who taught at the Welhausen and Burks campuses and served as principal at two successive high school campuses during a 32-year career as well as in migrant education. The early childhood, Kindergarten and first grade classrooms at Cotulla ISD were named for him in 1972.
“He would always be the last to leave,” Ramirez said of his father, adding that Deonicio Ramirez viewed education as more than a daytime job and gave many hours of his time outside school to students, staff and community members needing help.
Louisa Franklin, former teacher and elementary school principal at the Encinal and Ramirez/Burks campuses, great-great-niece of Amanda Burks, said today’s new school is the third to bear the name of one of La Salle County’s pioneer women. The 1909 and 1953 buildings, she said, had been dedicated to Burks for her reinforcement of education among the early settler families, employing a teacher to serve not only her own but all neighboring ranchers’ children as well.
Burks was born in the Republic of Texas, before the state joined the Union.
“There was no Cotulla, no La Salle County,” when Burks and her husband moved to the area in 1876 to establish La Mota Ranch, Franklin said. Burks would go on to manage the 40,000-acre ranch out of necessity and a sense of duty to family and business after her husband died only a few months after the couple settled in the Cotulla area. “She left a legacy of honesty and fairness and caring for the less fortunate. The importance she placed on education had a profound effect.”
Thomas Pena said his grandmother, Clarisa Garcia Pena, dedicated her life to education, served for thirty years teaching first grade students at the Welhausen School and was known as a strict disciplinarian who placed a strong value on a core education in reading, writing and math. She was also one of the first Bilingual Education teachers in Cotulla.
“My grandmother retired in 1970, but she stayed involved in education until the age of seventy-eight,” Pena said, adding that his family is grateful for the school district’s dedication of the first grade wing to Clarisa Pena, the third building in Cotulla ISD to bear her name.
Special mention was also made at the ceremony in memory of CISD Trustees Roel “Roy” Rodriguez Jr. and Juan “Coach” Dominguez, who were serving on the board when plans were laid for the new school but who died in office before construction was complete.
Members of the Cotulla High School Mariachi Band performed the national anthem to vocals by Jadrian Rodriguez. The welcome and introductions at the ceremony were given by Katherine Galindo-Garcia. Students from the second grade led the pledges of allegiance; the invocation was given by First Baptist Church Pastor Dr. Moises Rodriguez. Cotulla ISD Supt. Ruben Cervantes gave closing remarks, saying he believes students “will be excited to come back to school” at the new campus next month.
Cutting the ribbon at the entrance to the new school on Friday morning were Board President Deonicio Ramirez Jr., Vice President Whitwell, Board Secretary Kim Hoff, and Trustees Robert Ayala Jr., Thomas Childers, Robert Sanchez, and Raquel Nunez; superintendents Cervantes and Seals, district administrators, programs directors and counselors.