Editor’s note: This is not an endorsement. CHPN does not do political endorsements. This is the second of three profiles on all school board candidates- check out Gary Broderick’s here and Bryce Robertson’s will be available November 5th.
Fourth Generation Educator Vies to Support RPS through Community Partnership
Ms. Cheryl Burke experienced events in our schools that a lot of us haven’t and to those who have, most prefer to forget or carry it with them as a badge or battle scar. Ms. Burke grew up during segregation, then transitioned to freedom of choice, and then to full integration. Those periods were a dark time in U.S. history where racial equality was not a right. How does this experience shape how she could lead Richmond Public Schools in the East End to greatness?
Cheryl comes from a family of educators. Her mother was a teacher and on the school board for over 40 years. Education, as it was then, and as it is now, is a key to freedom. Cheryl started as a pre-school teacher then moved to 4th grade. “I got my PhD in teaching from the students at Mosby Court”, she recounts. Her first experience with a rebellious young woman with her feet on her desk reading comic books led to a home visit and a realization of our kid’s experiences in public housing: many lacked basic survival needs.
There was a set of rules at school, set of rules in the community, another set of rules through her peers, then when she comes to school we want her to sit still and be attentive and respect the teacher.
This led to unconventional means of teaching that make you think about the movie “Lean on Me” with Morgan Freeman. Fill the classroom with music, show students possibilities outside of what was status quo like going to VCU dorms and meet with students. This new way of teaching her 4th graders was a success and that success led to a promotion at Ginter Park as a Teacher Specialist (building curriculum, professional development and building school partnerships). The work at Ginter Park laid the foundation for her eventual promotion as principal to Chimborazo Elementary.
We moved to Church Hill in 1991. I got the job two weeks before school started telling me I was going to Chimborazo Elementary. We live on Broad St., right here is Marshall St., upstairs in the backroom I can look over and see the top of the front of Chimborazo school in my house. I’d never been to Marshall St. You didn’t travel Marshall St. School was very dark with plastic curtains. Like an old fashion morgue. I went on the back steps of the school because I always would peruse the grounds. Syringes, forties. I had never seen a forty. Tires, condoms, and children were playing in that playground on 31st and Marshall.
The first item was to build relationships. Not one to stay in her office she spent time riding the school buses, seeing where her students lived, meeting parents who were working two or three jobs. By then Chimborazo had 800 children and the building was built for 500. The grass you see today was all asphalt. There were no school supplies. The solution was engagement: what can the community do to help? Many did, volunteers came to clean up, Costco provided backpacks and supplies for all students, Mama J’s (before she opened a restaurant) fed the school and the parents.
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** THROWBACK ** While Principal, Chimborazo Elementary School became an extension of my family. Together we beat the odds. After 4 years of extensive work, Chimborazo Elementary was awarded the distinction as an International Baccalaureate Primary Year Program, in 2014. The IB Primary Years Programme (PYP) for children aged 3 – 12 nurtures and develops young students as caring, active participants in a lifelong journey of learning. Learn more about the program. https://www.ibo.org/programmes/primary-years-programme/ More recently, Chimborazo won a grant from the Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries! Thank you teachers, parents, students and David T. Peck – Principal- Chimborazo Elementary. I loved Chimborazo then and I still love it now #TBT #WeAreRPS #EveryChild
To get an initial grant from Virginia’s Department of Education (which was first denied), Ms. Burke had to choose a reform model: Dr. James Comer’s school development program out of Yale University.
There were three principles that were being used. Number one, how to collaborate, collaboration. Number two, how to reach consensus, which means nobody leaves the table as a loser.
Number three, no fault. You can’t blame the teacher from last year that Johnny can’t read because of the teacher. You can’t blame the school board, you can’t blame the mother because she’s incarcerated. You supposed to do what you supposed to do while you have them. Because it was a whole school model, then everybody was in the role of being teacher.
This led to a systematic change: parent workshops on how and where to study. Teachers would see through home visits why it was so difficult for certain students to do their homework. The school partnered with the Richmond Jazz society to buy instruments and hire a band teacher. Chimborazo was the only elementary school in Richmond that had two tuba players. Parents now were aware that their children could go to college off a band scholarship. Eventually the school became fully accredited. For 19 years, as principal, she oversaw a period when the school was struggling. During her time, at its peak, Chimborazo Elementary prospered. It is unfortunate that after all that work, the school is under performing. How does Ms. Burke’s 38-year career with Richmond Public Schools, one year as interim School Board representative, translate to success?
Time for Q &A
Some of the most common feedback we get from the community whenever we talk about schools, and the school board, and all of that is a lot of people like to go to this talking point that Richmond public schools are incredibly inefficient. What is your response to those people? People that question how much money we spend per child?
Number one, you know the percentage has not changed since 2008. Same amount of money we received in 2008 is what we receive now. The audit you can go online and read that if you haven’t. It spells all that out perfectly. How can you survive on what you had then as opposed to now, okay? Number two, we have many more needs than Henrico, Chesterfield, Hanover, Powhattan. Our salaries are lower than theirs. Our children come with so many needs. So far as, I’ve met a lot of people walking from door-to-door who don’t have children in the system or whose children are grown or they’re empty-nesters. Why should I support a system that has failed? All right, that’s the question. Then I sit on their front porch with them and break down the situation. The 7th district has more pockets of poverty than any other part of the city or any area surrounding the city. These children are more likely to experience trauma and they have a lot more needs.
So why is more money spent? Because our students have a lot more needs.
What separates you from the other candidates? What makes you the best choice?
Number one, I have 38 years of experience by choice in the City of Richmond as a teacher, a specialist, and a principal in this district, and a resident for over 26 years. All right? I know the system. I know the communities. I’m very comfortable walking in any community there is to be. I already do it. Even when I retired I was volunteering in our schools.
Number two, I am very comfortable in knowing how to address every child as a board member, okay? As there is a difference. There is a difference between being at the table as opposed to being at the school. When I go into schools, I let the children know, I want the children to know, that I’m there for them.
Number three I’m a mother to two successful African American males who finished Richmond Public Schools.
Number four I understand what it takes to get these schools fully accredited. I did it. It’s really hard work. We can get there.
Lastly, is community engagement. I’ve done it and that’s how we’re going to be successful.
One last point, I know the job. I’m already trained.
When you were principal, how was your relationship with the school board person at the time and how does that affect the way that you do this job?
Delores McQuinn was the school board person when I got the job. She was Seventh District. She started there. Really her style was the model for me. Get on the phone 10 o’clock at night still at the school. “Cheryl Burke, why are you still at school? It’s 10 o’clock at night.” Or she would call my house as well and ask my husband, “Where is your wife, why is she still at school? The lights are on.” We were doing what we had to do. But her support, she did not come in and tell me what to do because that is not the role of a school board person, all right. She would come in and offer assistance or help, or also let me know what was going on in the community, but it was a wonderful, wonderful partnership.
How do you engage in discussion with all the current principals?
One of the first things I did while getting on the board as the interim was to invite all the principals out for dinner at Liberty Public House. And that was so good because when they would first see me only three of them knew me. The rest of us needed to connect and have connected. The principals didn’t know each other, and they’ve connected. I follow Delores McQuinn’s model not telling them how to run the school but offering advice and partnership.
This November 6th you have a challenge: you have the newcomer, Gary Broderick, who strongly believes in restorative-justice learning and a higher corporate tax to help fund the schools. You have the fourth-generation educator, Cheryl Burke, with the experience to show how building relationships with key partners can close the equity gaps. Then you have the student, Bryce Robertson, who went through elementary school in RPS, became a lawyer, and brings outside of the box solutions to the table with a call for transparency (Editor’s Note: his profile will be available tomorrow 11/5).
What’s incredible about this race is all the attention that our East End schools are receiving, which puts a magnifying glass on the issues with the hope that, as more people know the plight of these schools, that we as a community can all take ownership, hold our leaders accountable, and enact change and restoration.
Get to know Cheryl: