The hardest part of the job, Wilma Franco explains, is that some days you feel that you are one second away from bringing a child home with you—to ensure she has dinner to eat, or that he has a bed to sleep in.
Wilma’s own early childhood was marked with similar uncertainty.
When she was seven years old, her family emigrated from Guatemala. They had tried numerous times to get to the U.S. And when Wilma was seven, her family made it officially into the country. She became a citizen at the age of 18.
The hope that Wilma gripped for years—because you have to have hope when you’re a child and you’re apprehended and thrown back into the country you’re trying to leave, and when you’re thrown into a Mexican prison, and when you have to sleep in the woods, and when you don’t know what the night or the next day holds or when you’ll get something to eat—was education.
“I told myself that one day, I won’t be terrified of being deported,” she says. “When you have an education everything is possible. I ran with that idea because it was my ticket out. I focused on school as the way I wouldn’t be deported back to my country—at least as a child that’s what I believed.”
Reflecting on her experiences growing up, Wilma doesn’t know how, as a seven-year old, she decided education would be her lifeline.
Once in the U.S. officially, Wilma went straight into third grade in Los Angeles, where she was an ESL (English as a Second Language) student. The hope she’d placed in education for so long turned to frustration quickly.
“They’d keep pulling me out of classes for language intervention. And they were pulling me out to ask me to tell them the same story about a tomato. I asked if we could at least change the book,” she says and laughs.
Even as a young child, Wilma felt herself missing out on her regular class and falling behind.
But in sixth grade, things changed.
A burgeoning poet and writer, Wilma met a counselor who saw her potential. She worked with Wilma on her writing and helped her strengthen her English. When the counselor moved to a different school, she suggested to Wilma’s parents that they move her too.
At her new school, the counselor ensured that Wilma was placed into honors classes. It changed Wilma’s education path entirely.
“Recently, I had to write a leadership autobiography for my doctorate, and I had to go back that far,” she says. “[My counselor] was one of the most influential people in my life. She saw an immigrant child and told me, ‘you might be smarter than people think.’”
The experience also taught Wilma how to advocate for herself.
“My parents didn’t speak English fluently, so I’d have to help them. And I told my parents what to say, how to say it, and if someone said no, to say, ‘I have a right and I want my child in that class,’” she says.
Her parents were extremely supportive of her education and continue to support her. Her dad never hesitated to help her when she came to him and said, “Dad, I don’t feel like I’m learning.” And now, Wilma jokes with her mom that she doesn’t know how to cook because her mom never taught her. “She kept telling me to focus on school,” Wilma laughs.
Every school day, Wilma arrived at 7:00 in the morning, and would stay until 7 or 8:00 in the evening doing homework or helping teachers and principals. “I wanted to be in school at all times,” she says.
“‘There’s a student who doesn’t want to go home because there’s not much to eat at home. The student just wants a home-cooked meal. What do I do?’”
Sometimes the phone calls that Wilma gets from her team at “I Have a Dream” Foundation, Los Angeles (IHADLA), where she’s worked since she was placed there as an EP Fellow in 2010, are hard to hear. But Wilma always finds solutions.
In response to her team member who asks about the child who wants a home-cooked meal, Wilma tells her to go buy pizza for all of the children in the class. “Don’t make it shameful, don’t single someone out,” she says. “It’s not a home-cooked meal, but we’re making sure the student is having dinner tonight.”
Wilma once aspired to become a senator—the highest political office she could reach since she wasn’t born in the U.S. But she found herself continually pulled into education.
While pursuing her master’s degree, Wilma heard about Education Pioneers. Through the EP Fellowship, she was placed with IHADLA, an organization that works with underserved youth from third through 12th grade to get them through high school and provide them with college scholarships.
After 10 weeks as an EP Fellow with IHADLA, Wilma was hired on full time as a program director. Three months in, their CEO left, and with the guidance of two interim Board of Directors, Wilma and her colleagues continued to move the organization forward while the search for a new CEO continued.
“It was a huge learning experience because I didn’t have a leader, and I was new and I tried the best that I could in collaboration with our board,” she says. “It was sink or swim and I tried to swim. But I couldn’t have done without all the support of the Board.”
Now the Director of Programs and Operations, both Wilma and the organization are thriving. “IHADLA has offered me a lot of opportunities that have allowed me to grow tremendously—professionally and personally,” she says.
The best opportunity was finding her purpose—something she didn’t realize she’d found until she’d started the work.
“I see myself in these kids. I was these kids and I went through what they went through. And if I didn’t go through what they are, I can empathize because I’ve seen other kids go through it,” she says.
Wilma and her team know their students well because she works with them for years to ensure they succeed.
“It’s a ten to twelve year process, and we think about college from day one. From the time our students are in third grade, they want to go to college. They know what college looks like because they’ve been to a campus,” Wilma says.
IHADLA teaches their students about the process of getting to college and what grades they need. For some, even though the kids want to go to college, their grades don’t necessarily reflect that, nor do they yet understand the connection, Wilma explains. IHADLA advocates for them to ensure they succeed.
“We’re really like a family,” Wilma says. “The students often come to us first, so we communicate with families. We ensure that we communicate with parents and are transparent with students and parents.”
As a leader in education, Wilma has learned a lot about how to succeed—and sometimes that means getting out of the way.
“We each have our own ideas for how the world functions, influenced by our own experience,” she says. “I’ve had to check my own ideas and assumptions because in a team environment, it’s about what’s best for team and the organization. I’m not an authoritative leader, I genuinely enjoy getting out of the way and letting my team shine and ensuring they have what they need to do so. I work with an amazing team who bring their own skills and talents to the table.”
So that she doesn’t get in her team’s way, Wilma asks of herself and others, “How do you as a leader step out of the way to let your colleagues shine and grow as well?”
Wilma’s practices for leading include: creating a safe space for people to be honest; setting norms and reviewing them; assuming good intent; recognizing that everybody has something to contribute that’s valuable; and remembering that everyone is there for the kids and wants the best for them.
When I ask Wilma what she’d say to someone who’s thinking about working in education, she laughs and says, “Good or bad?”
It can be difficult to get things done, she says. And it can be overwhelming, she explains, those moments when you really do feel like you’re a step away from taking a child home to ensure their safety. But the most rewarding experiences are seeing the kids succeed and being in their lives long enough to witness those moments, she says.
“As little as your contribution may seem, it may be much bigger for the children. You may be the only person they see” who can make a difference for them, she says. After all, Wilma knows personally that sometimes all it takes is one person who’s willing to advocate for a child who needs it.
Wilma also sees what we’re missing in the education field—a lack of mental health support for the communities where IHADLA and other organizations work. Many of the children and families the organization serves are dealing with life stressors and traumatic events that have the ability to impact their quality of life detrimentally.
“If a child doesn’t know what they’ll eat or where they’ll sleep, that’s going to impact them academically. If we don’t recognize that, we’re doing a disservice to them,” Wilma says. “We need mental health support for our students and our parents. We are dealing with intergenerational trauma and there’s room for educators to come in and continue to empower families through mental health support and education.”
For Wilma, helping kids is exactly what she knows she’s meant to do—and to her, it’s far more than a job.
“It’s what I love to do and what brings me joy,” she says. “Seeing kids go from third grade to high school and have the opportunity to see them graduate is an overwhelming experience for me. How resilient these kids are.”
Kendra Racouillat is the Senior Writer for Education Pioneers. She works to tell powerful stories to help ensure that our nation's brightest leaders continue to choose high-impact career paths in education and reimagine public education for underserved students.