New Oak Ridge principal sparked South Sac school’s turnaround
Oak Ridge High School’s next principal Paul Burke was on campus briefly last Thursday, and provided a taste of the enthusiasm and intensity that sparked an amazing turnaround at underperforming Samuel Jackman Middle School in South Sacramento and landed him the top job at the El Dorado Hills high school.
Two hours after the last bell, the effervescent 39-year-old found students to greet and later spent a full five minutes with George the janitor, all of whom were clearly impressed.
Between greetings he squeezed in a half hour with Village Life before joining outgoing Principal Steve Wehr for a formal public unveiling in front of the the Oak Ridge Foundation.
Wehr was named Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources in March. He hands Oak Ridge off to Burke on July 1.
The El Dorado Union High School District announced Burke’s hiring in an April 30 press release that also announced the promotion of Oak Ridge Assistant Principal Pamela Bartlett, who was named Director of Special Education, and will join Wehr at district headquarters in Placerville next year.
The Oak Ridge position is a homecoming for Burke, who lives in El Dorado Hills with his wife Pam and their three children, the eldest of which is Keith Walisa, a junior at Oak Ridge.
Burke radiates enthusiasm for education and conveys a clear vision of what it takes to make a school great. Recent accomplishments hint that he’s on to something.
He came up the ranks in the Elk Grove Unified School District, and spent the last three years as principal at Samuel Jackman Middle School in a working-class area of South Sacramento. The school has a 95 percent minority enrollment, and the entire student population is classified as a “student of poverty,” according to the school’s 2012-13 report card.
The school experienced an eye-popping 46-point API gain over the last two years, according to Elk Grove Unified School District Communications Director Beth Graswich, who also confirmed the school’s progress on the disciplinary front.
Expulsions dropped a whopping 85 percent between 2010, when Burke started, and 2012. Barring a spate of disciplinary problems in the next month, suspensions will be down nearly 50 percent from a state-high 1,224 in 2009 — the result of broad-based behavioral programs and policy changes that, for example, counsel students caught with marijuana or under the influence of alcohol rather than simply suspend them.
El Dorado Union High School District Superintendent Chris Hoffman sees those accomplishments as a direct result of Burke’s leadership and programs. He also cited the principal’s strong reputation and his profound desire to be at Oak Ridge as important factors in his hiring.
Asked to explain his recent success, Burke ticks off three guiding management practices without hesitation:
• Develop leaders
• Empower people to improve
• Create high-performing teams
Samuel Jackman achieved a “culture of success,” the result strong leadership the administration and faculty, he said.
He took the traditional faculty departments and turned them into teams, which he called Professional Learning Communities. Department chairs were no longer simply the administration’s supply sergeant and mouthpiece. “They had to become true team leaders,” he said.
Teams worked together on curriculum, pacing and assessments. They also reviewed student performance together, “dissecting the data,” sharing what worked and what didn’t, he said. “We had high quality professionals looking at data making professional decisions about how to improve.”
Teachers were always free to teach the material how they saw fit, he added. Different approaches “make for a richer discussion of instructional practices.”
The academic results speak for themselves.
On the disciplinary front, Burke implemented the Building Effective Schools Together program in combination with a Positive Behavior Intervention System, which teaches students a culture of cooperation using positive reinforcement.
He also set up a popular After School Education and Safety program, which became a model for the district.
A successful school must connect with its community, he said, a relationship that begins with faculty leadership and extends through student families.
Home suspensions were already down 40 percent over the prior two years when Burke appealed directly to parents in an August 2012 letter that asked parents to discuss school behavior and its consequences with their children. “A safe, orderly and respectful campus climate is absolutely essential,” he wrote, then listed a dozen specific behaviors that would result in suspension.
Suspensions subsequently dropped another 10 percent.
Burke earned a B.S. in business administration from California State, Sacramento, and an M.A. in teaching from Chapman University. Along the way he spent three years as an adjunct professor at National University’s School of Education teaching curriculum development, instructional strategies and education technology to future teachers. “We really dove into … ways to deliver instruction, best practices and how to develop rigorous curriculum.”
Burke smiles easily and said his family enjoys a good joke. His son Keith, a junior at Oak Ridge, staged a marathon two-day ruse when the family moved to El Dorado Hills.
The move dropped Keith into Rolling Hills Middle School during his seventh grade.
He could see that his parents were concerned about how he’d adjust, and decided to make the first few days rough on them. “He told us he hadn’t made any friends and wished he was back in his old school,” recalled Burke. “We were really worried.”
By the third day, Keith could no longer keep up the long face and admitted that he’d already made new friends and fit in fine.
Five years later, his father saw the Oak Ridge job as potential comeuppance, “a golden opportunity to drop a bombshell” said the new principal, flashing an infectious grin.
He kept his son in the dark about the possibility that his father might also become his principal, then sprung it on him at the last minute. “Oh yeah, he was surprised,” said Burke, nodding with satisfaction. “We had some fun with it.”
With Burke at the helm, Oak Ridge students might expect a lot of surprises, but he insists his immediate goals are simply “to listen and learn … about the school, the community, the programs and the culture.”
Oak Ridge is a “phenomenal school with a highly motivated staff,” he said. “I just hope to continue the great work that’s already been done here.”