Cheryl Lewis Burke: Born to teach. Destined to lead.
Cheryl Burke is a fourth-generation educator who believes that “teachers are born, not made.” She earned her Master’s of Education in Educational Leadership with a Concentration in Administration and Supervision from the VCU School of Education in 1981. Promoted to principal of Chimborazo Elementary School in 1996, she retired in 2014 after 38 years of service to Richmond Public Schools. Today, she is the 7th District representative on the Richmond School Board.
What drew you to the field of education?
I come from a family of educators. My mother was a teacher in Powhatan County for 40 years and served on the school board following retirement for 12 years. My father was a graduate of Tuskegee Institute (now University) and studied under Dr. George Washington Carver.
All of my aunts were teachers. Whenever we had family gatherings, the conversation was always about school. When I sat in my mom’s class before school each day, I watched everything she did. Then in the evenings, I would gather my sister and doll babies in our basement and teach them, mimicking my mom.
The climate of the times that I grew up in also drew me to the field of education. When I grew up in Powhatan County, it was a time of racial segregation. Education was, and still is, the key to advancement for African Americans.
What were you doing prior to applying to the VCU School of Education?
I was teaching in Richmond Public Schools at Clark Springs Elementary. During that period, houses were being demolished in other parts of the city, and students in the Gilpin Court and Mosby Court neighborhoods were being rezoned to assignments at Clark Springs. The students challenged me to teach to meet their needs and learning styles. Lessons were taught using rhythm, field trips and lots of love. Those years were so rewarding. I share often that Mosby and Gilpin students afforded me a Ph.D. experience!!!
Dr. Murphy, the principal at Clark Springs, told me that she wanted me to attend a cohort meeting in administration and supervision that was being co-presented by VCU and Richmond Public Schools (RPS). I didn’t want to be an administrator or a supervisor; I wanted to teach. She convinced me to go anyway.
The meeting included an opportunity for members of the cohort to get a master’s degree to include classes on and off campus at an affordable rate. At my dad’s urging, I decided to apply.
After completing the program, what opportunities opened up for you?
I always enjoyed thinking about what RPS could achieve, not just that it was achieving something. After I got my master’s degree, I was tapped to be part of just about every leadership opportunity that arose. This eventually led to me being promoted to principal of Chimborazo Elementary School in 1996, two weeks before the school year began.
I went to the school after being promoted and met everyone. Then I walked out to the grounds of which trash, old tires, bottles, syringes and prophylactics were on the playgrounds. I stood there facing the blighted neighborhood and cried.
Inside the building was poor lighting, poorly equipped furnishings and pungent odors. After I gathered my thoughts, I walked home and picked up my husband’s red pickup truck. I parked at the front door and loaded papers and items for trips to the city dump. My husband, family members, friends, staff and neighbors were so supportive.
We only had one business partner at the time – Central Fidelity Bank. I called on my cohort friends – we still keep in touch – as well as parents, faculty, staff and members of the community, and we formed over 300 different partnerships. These partnerships helped us do everything from having an outside classroom to buying musical instruments for our band.
Once Chimborazo Elementary attained full state accreditation and made adequate yearly progress on the SOLs, we raised donations from the community to arrange for 57 members of our faculty, staff and some parents to travel to the Bahamas for the weekend, which included a teamwork retreat.
Our last project before my retirement was completing the process for accreditation as an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program. More than four years of commitment. Chimborazo is the only IB public school in the Metro Richmond area. It was a wonderful experience.