Our Plan in Action: Going Beyond Buzzwords to Make the Best Burke's

It’s tough for Sheika Luc not to choke up as she recounts her experiences as the first in her family, the daughter of immigrants to the United States, to go to an independent school and then on to college.

When she came to Burke’s as its new Director of Admissions in 2013, she was hopeful that no child would go through those same difficulties here.

“We have this phrase: There are 400 ways to be a Burke’s girl. I think about how we’re doing on that, if it’s actually living and breathing in our classrooms and on the playground,” she says. “We live in San Francisco, and there are millions of ways to tap into diverse ways of thinking and diverse ways of being in the world. We don’t need to search for it — it’s here.”

On the heels of a charged election season, the open embrace of “diversity” can seem like a politically motivated move. But at Burke’s, it’s part of educating our students for the 21st century, where the ability to fully navigate the world (and its broad representation of humanity) around you is essential. Developing those skills, also known as cultural competency, is so vital that it’s codified in Burke’s current Strategic Plan.

The pursuit of a more inclusive and diverse campus is also inspired by what’s best for all Burke’s girls, whether they’re granddaughters of alumnae or from a family that doesn’t speak English at home — or both. Experts say that different perspectives and backgrounds are essential to a vibrant, meaningful classroom environment, and through recent and upcoming work, Burke’s intends to prove that’s the case for all of its students.

“A genuinely diverse and inclusive community is an amazing experience for all 400 girls,” says Head of School Michele Williams. “We’re trying to help girls develop into who they are so they know themselves and, in turn, appreciate and understand the common humanity we share and the strength in our differences.”
 
Why Diversity Matters
 
About 40% of Burke’s current student body is comprised of students of color, though true diversity isn’t always accomplished by representation. Luc’s experiences at her New England boarding school underscore the importance of supporting students who may not come from a “traditional” independent school environment, but can thrive just the same. She entered as a freshman and quickly accumulated several negative progress reports in which she was called out for not taking advantage of the school’s resources to better her understanding of the material. “What I find fascinating is that these discussions weren’t being had with me. They were happening about me,” she told a Parents’ Association meeting in January 2015. “They didn’t dig deeper into why I was not empowered to talk to my teachers, advisors, and people at that school.”

Howard McCoy, Burke’s Director of Inclusivity & Community Building, had a similar experience when boarding at a school near Santa Barbara after growing up in Compton. He was the only black student in his class. “I was just supposed to fit in and leave my identity at the door,” he says. “I was always having to deal with becoming more of what they wanted me to be and being less of who I was. Having to navigate those two worlds was very hard.”

At Burke’s, the two bring those backgrounds to their work with the Diversity Task Force, a group of parents, alumnae, and board members that has been examining specific ways to break down those barriers. Both Luc and McCoy were previously classroom teachers — McCoy at Burke’s, and Luc on the East Coast — and saw students who struggled in similar ways. And when a school such at Burke’s pledges to educate girls from all arenas, that’s a real concern.

“Going beyond the obvious in racial diversity, we’re talking about socioeconomics, we’re talking about religion — but really, it’s the diversity of thought,” McCoy says. “We want our students, our families, our faculty and staff to be able to bring their full selves here, whatever that may be.”

These diversity efforts are also intended to create a better classroom environment for all. “Wherever our students are going, we want them to have the tools necessary to navigate the world outside of Burke’s and outside of San Francisco,” McCoy says.

Many studies have been done on the effects of a heterogeneous student body: In the October 2014 issue of Scientific American, author Katherine W. Phillips says this about working with a diverse group of people:

Decades of research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers show that socially diverse groups (that is, those with a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation) are more innovative than homogeneous groups.

It seems obvious that a group of people with diverse individual expertise would be better than a homogeneous group at solving complex, nonroutine problems. It is less obvious that social diversity should work in the same way — yet the science shows that it does.

This is not only because people with different backgrounds bring new information. Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort. 

Given the kinds of problems that our students will face after they graduate and move on, those that a 21st-century education is designed to solve, knowing how to work with diverse groups and their wide range of ideas could lead to great things.

Beyond that, diverse ways of thinking can be a matter of life and death: In 2011, the University of Virginia’s Center for Applied Biomechanics discovered that women wearing seatbelts had a 47% higher chance of a serious injury in a car accident compared to men wearing seatbelts. The reason why has been attributed to the fact that government crash tests only recently started using smaller-sized “female” dummies.

Or on a smaller scale, as fourth-grade teacher Nayo Brooks stated in her commencement address to the Class of 2016, stepping outside of her own comfort zone to interact with a teacher who didn’t look like her — specifically, the recently retired Laurel Trent — was key to enriching her own experience. “If I had not pushed past my own boundaries to connect with someone who, at first glance, seemed to have nothing in common with me, I would have missed out on one of the most cherished friendships I have ever had,” she said. “We are different in endless ways, but our common joys and pains bring us together.”
 
Burke’s Multifaceted Legacy
 
As a school that was specifically founded to educate women to go to college, and in 1908 no less, Burke’s has long been progressive in terms of education. But like many independent schools of its age, the school long had a homogenous student body.
In the early years, Katherine Delmar Burke received much support from Sigmund Stern after she tutored his daughter Elise, and many of the families that funded the construction of Burke’s first campus were similarly from Jewish backgrounds.

However, historical interviews with Burke’s alumnae from the 1920s through the 1940s have shown that there was at least a perception that a two-per-class quota system was in place for Jewish applicants. 

Many quotas throughout the city faded into obscurity as time marched on through the 1950s and 1960s, though Burke’s student body was still more a reflection of its then-Pacific Heights main campus than the city as a whole. Burke’s first African-American student, Patricia Coleman ’68, was the daughter of local doctor Arthur Coleman, though when she graduated, she was still one of just a handful of students of color.

The school’s relocation from Pacific Heights to its current, more remote Sea Cliff campus helped dispel the notion that Burke’s only catered to that tonier clientele, and the school administration began to make adjustments to welcome a more diverse student body. Budgets for scholarships grew, and more diverse teachers and trustees joined the school. In recognition that more and more families were dual-working households, Burke’s first extended the kindergarten day in the 1970s, and then became the first of the San Francisco independent schools to provide a full after-school program in 1982.

Enrollment increased among students of Asian heritage, though representation among African American and Latino students remained low through the ’80s and ’90s as a reflection of housing demographics in San Francisco — similar to what’s still happening today.

Diversity never faded from the minds of Burke’s administrators throughout those years, with a variety of groups attempting to tackle the problem. A board diversity committee in the 1999-2000 school year conducted a broad survey as part of strategic plan work at that point in time and found that parents generally approved of diversity efforts at Burke’s, though some expressed concern that they could detract from what they considered to be the school’s priorities. 

“I’m concerned about becoming ‘politically correct’ at the expense of academic rigor,” said one critic.

However, another said, “The benefit of a more multicultural school is my daughter receiving a wider, more realistic and humanistic world view. She’ll be better prepared for a changing future.” 

That’s the same philosophy that’s driving current diversity work: McCoy is in his second year as Burke’s first full-time Director of Inclusion and Community Building, and in that capacity, he supervises workshops for faculty and parents and helps teachers work on creating culturally competent curriculum. He also facilitates the development of affinity groups, which are gatherings of students in accordance with certain demographics with which they identify, including learning differences, blended families, a Gay-Straight Alliance, and race (including a White Ally Group).
Despite these actions, however, it became apparent through the most recent strategic-planning process in 2012 that more sustained work was necessary to get Burke’s where it needs to be to provide a cutting-edge education. 
 
The Diversity Task Force
 
Both Luc and McCoy are optimistic that the newest effort, the Diversity Task Force, will have the legs for long-term change. “This conversation is not necessarily new at Burke’s, but it’s my sense that this is the first time it’s been articulated in this way,” Luc says.

Originally convening in 2014, the Diversity Task Force solicited its members from the parent body through notices in Tuesday Notes, the weekly parent newsletter, and in Parents’ Association meetings. Members of the Board of Trustees, alumnae leaders, and Burke’s staff also participated, along with Alison Park, founder of the diversity thinktank Blink Consulting. However, the intent was not necessarily to stock the ranks of the task force with the most enthusiastic supporters. “We were intentionally not trying to have ‘the choir’ there, because our school is made up of all different people and all different perspectives,” Luc says. “We wanted to make sure that was represented when we’re talking about things that are going to shift and enhance our culture.”

Over the course of about 18 months, the 18-person-strong task force held in-depth meetings and conducted a massive amount of research. Members contacted other schools, companies, parents, and educational organizations to gather information on best practices. “We also clearly identified how we wanted these things to look at Burke’s and not repackage what some other school or group did,” Luc says. 

In the end, the task force landed on three solid recommendations, which are now in the process of being implemented (see page 31). Luc says that it’s a real testament to the work of the task force that a number of those originally involved are part of subcommittees that are seeing the recommendations through — what’s now called Diversity Task Force 2.0.

One of those participants is Dana Goldberg ’90, who was a member of the Board of Trustees when the task force was convened and is now a member of the Gender Inclusion Subcommittee. “As an educator, as a Burke’s alum, and —most important — as a human being, I feel it is crucial that our schools think critically and creatively about how to prepare students to live and thrive in this increasingly complex world,” she says. “Ideally, Burke’s should represent the larger community in which its students live — while that is a lofty aspiration, it should be the ultimate goal.”

Goldberg credits her time serving as the chair of the board’s Mission & Accountability Committee with driving home the importance of teaching cultural competency to Burke’s students, and she’s pleased to continue that work on the task force. “The Diversity Task Force has thoughtfully looked at what it means to be a Burke’s girl from a plethora of angles. Although the conversation is just beginning at Burke’s, our school has emerged as a national independent school leader in thinking about this topic,” she says.

Another returning committee member is Jennifer McClanahan-Flint, the current president of the Parents’ Association and former chair of the P.A. Inclusivity & Community Building Committee. “I started this work with Burke’s to ensure that my African-American daughter knew she had a place at the school. I knew that if I wanted her to be in an environment where her job is to concentrate on learning, then my responsibility is to be part of the solution that makes it easier for her to do so,” she says. “However, the work that I do regarding the task force is work on behalf of the school as much as it is my own personal education.”

Like many action items listed under the Strategic Plan, the work regarding diversity isn’t something that will just be checked off and marked as complete. The three recommendations represent just a portion of the discussions undertaken by the Diversity Task Force — after all, what happens if and when the Burke’s student body becomes more reflective of the greater San Francisco population and respectful of everything those students bring to campus? 

Luc’s time in a similar school indicates that the sky’s the limit. Instead of concentrating on how to fit in with classmates who are different, a student can concentrate on her work because those differences have already been taken into consideration. “We all go through challenges in adolescence, and we grow and change. Parts of that are just a normal part of a kid growing up, and other parts require support,” she says. “I want us to address and support children in their development so they can learn and all of that other stuff isn’t in the way.”

After all, can you imagine what a Burke’s girl could do if there was nothing in her way?


Three Recommendations
The Diversity Task Force formulated recommendations across three areas in its work to promote diversity and inclusion at Burke’s. They are: 
  1. Transportation: In order to make the campus more accessible and bring a wider swath of San Francisco and the Bay Area to Burke’s far-flung campus, the School is investigating how to implement a comprehensive transportation plan that will help both students and staff travel to school — most likely through buses, shuttles and ride-share.

  2. Gender Inclusion: While affirming that Burke’s is a single-gender school and serves girls, there’s also room to recognize that students express their gender identity in a variety of ways. Burke’s will find multiple ways to honor them, including through teacher training, student and parent education, and the avoidance of stereotypes and rigid gender expectations amongst all of Burke’s community members. 

  3. Tuition Models: Financial assistance is a necessity in ensuring socio-economic diversity among any student population, and Burke’s is reviewing its tuition model to ensure that the school is reaching and thoughtfully supporting a broad socio-economic range of families.
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Burke's mission is to educate, encourage and empower girls. Our school combines academic excellence with an appreciation for childhood so that students thrive as learners, develop a strong sense of self, contribute to community, and fulfill their potential, now and throughout life.

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