Long before Ricardo Franklin Sr. became principal of Cleveland’s Breakthrough Charter Schools’ Citizens
Leadership Academy East, he was just another kid growing up on the East side of the city.
“Young guys in the city of Cleveland had a couple of very limited options,” Franklin says. “You can either hang out with guys in gangs and sell drugs, because that's what everybody did in the neighborhoods that we lived in, or you could find an outlet and avenue.”
For Franklin, that outlet was the National Youth Sports Program, and his avenue was ultimately education. But that wasn’t always the plan. “At that time, I didn't think about school,” he explains. “I wasn't considering school..the people that I hung out with just hung out in the street. So that's what I wanted to do.”
Everything changed after his first summer at the NYSP camp. Franklin smiles as he remembers the weekly ‘Moneyball’ contest held by Dennis “Coach” Harris, for campers who displayed good behavior and great sportsmanship. Each week, these campers would try to sink a half-court shot - whoever did would win $50.
“The thing that stood out most was that as a kid, you always get adults that...will put incentives in front of you, but not really follow through…” muses Franklin, on the relationship that most campers had with the adults in their lives. “...well, one day a kid hit that shot, and the whole joint went crazy.”
Franklin recalls that nobody expected Coach Harris to follow through and give the kid the money, because “that’s what adults do.” But to everyone’s surprise, Coach went into his wallet and pulled out a $50 bill. “I knew right then and there,” Franklin pauses and he smiles at the memory, “...that I wanted to be somebody that inspired people to do better.”
Coach Harris wasn’t Franklin’s only role model at camp. Vernon Finley, an NYSP dance and aerobic instructor, pushed Franklin to go to St. Peter-Chanel High School, which was an hour-and-a-half-long bus ride away from Franklin’s home in East Cleveland. Deciding to attend St. Peter-Chanel ended up changing the future of Franklin’s athletic and academic careers - after becoming an all-state high school football player and winning the state track title in the 110m hurdles for St. Peter Chanel, he continued on to be a four-year starter on the Thiel College football team. At Thiel, Franklin not only lettered in both football and track but also received All-American honors; in 2018, he was inducted into Thiel College’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
After college, it wasn’t long before Franklin found himself immersed again in the NYSP community. At Coach Harris’s invitation, Franklin made his way back to Cleveland to teach football for the NYSP camp, and to coach wide receivers at Case Western Reserve University. “It was exciting,” Franklin says, of the offer to coach. “It was something I had never experienced and never done before in my life. I would be in charge of all these other young people, and that’s what really got me into coaching.” Because NYSP had given him an outlet and an avenue to succeed in academics and athletics, Franklin relished the chance to give back.
Franklin was especially drawn to work with youth and football because it allowed him to teach good character. “It was about teaching sportsmanship, teaching kindness, and teaching respect,” he explains. “So that experience taught me a lot about myself and the abilities that I had to coach on a very basic level, and I truly enjoyed it.”
Today, as principal of Citizen East Leadership Academy, Franklin strives to embody the lessons he learned from Coach Harris, Vernon Finley, and the rest of his mentors from NYSP, in his everyday leadership style. Most importantly, Franklin stresses the value of personal relationships:
“I try to hire the best people when I'm working with students. I try to gain the respect of all of my students, and then I have an individual relationship with every one of them because I want them to know how special they are to me, and that they matter to me, and that if we can build this rapport, they'll respect me enough to look at my walk and my actions and be inspired by those things.”
Ricardo Franklin Sr. was once just another young guy growing up in East Cleveland, a young guy who didn’t think much about school and didn’t have much faith in adults. Serendipitously, the NYSP community he became a part of provided the outlet and paved the avenue for him to succeed academically, personally, and athletically. Today, he is the kind of role model he looked up to as an NYSP camper.
“The program saved my life. There's no doubt about that,” says Franklin. “The program saved my life at an early age, and it gave me a foundation for who I am today.”