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My thinking on the paradoxical elements of this amazing high school and community:
A few years ago SBHS hosted two separate evenings for families considering SBHS for their child’s high school. During my welcome remarks I expressed how, as a then parent of an 8th grader, I knew a bit about what they were feeling.
I have spent my entire career working to design and support a school that can best meet the parallel demands and needs of our students, parents, employers and colleges. Really, I should know not only what the parents want but also what their children need.
The same week we hosted the open house I participated in the PACT/Big Picture sponsored dialogue built around the documentary “Race to Nowhere,” a film the NY Times described as “a look at the downside of childhoods spent on resume building.” As the movie credits rolled I could not help but feel a bit deflated. I suspect, like many parents, I have some internal conflict between what I want my children to “get out of high school” and at what expense all of this “getting” would come. There must be answers to this “race to nowhere” situation. I’m a school administrator, a systems thinker; clearly there can be a system or policy level response to this problem.
Over a week later, taking a step back, I’m not so sure. I can’t lower graduation requirements. We have the lowest graduation requirements in our region and yet all graduates far and away exceed them. Many of our students choose to engage in an academic and extracurricular schedule that would make some of my adult friends’ heads spin. If I accept that the operative word in the prior sentence is choose I can justify this “race” as the result of the combination of our students’ free will and ambition. What about course limits? I have been committed as principal to assuring that opportunities to choose a rigorous academic path and engage in deep out-of-classroom experiences are available to as many students as possible; would we (as a school) really consider limiting students’ classes or activities? It just didn’t feel right.
My thoughts wandered back to the parents of the 8th graders. I wonder what they want for their child. While some appropriate boundaries may be on the list, school imposed limits to engagement were probably not.
So, what do (we) parents want? Over our recent February break I found a letter written by Abraham Lincoln to his son’s headmaster as he enrolled in high school. After I read his letter I thought, “Maybe that’s it.” I have reprinted a copy of the letter below. Of note is that his letter makes no mention of what Lincoln wants to happen for his son after high school (admission to a top college, a great job), instead it assumes that if all Lincoln’s paternal expectations are met, his son will be a successful young man. There are no courses suggested, no implicit “right way” to get from start to finish.
Making sure high school is not a “race” and assuring that it does not (seem to or actually) lead to “nowhere” is our job together as parents and educators. Listening to our youth regarding stress and trusting our parental instincts about setting limits, including setting limits on ambitious schedules, is not easy. SBHS must continue to keep this conversation going, and I’m thankful that PACT has committed to help us with this effort.
Very truly yours,
Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to his Son’s Headmaster
He will have to learn, I know, that all men are not just, all men are not true, but teach him also that for every scoundrel there is a hero; that for every selfish politician, there is a dedicated leader... Teach him that for every enemy there is a friend.
It will take time, I know, but teach him, if you can, that a dollar earned is of far more value than five found...Teach him to learn to lose...and also to enjoy winning. Steer him away from envy, if you can, teach him the secret of quiet laughter. Let him learn early that the bullies are the easiest to lick...Teach him, if you can, the wonder of a book...but also give him quiet time to ponder the eternal mystery of birds in the sky, bees in the sun, and flowers on a green hillside.
In school, teach him it is far more honorable to fail than to cheat...Teach him to have faith in his own ideas, even if everyone tells him they are wrong...Teach him to be gentle with gentle people, and tough with the tough. Try to give my son the strength not to follow the crowd when everyone is getting on the bandwagon...Teach him to listen to all men...but teach him also to filter all he hears on a screen of truth, and take only the good that comes through.
Teach him, if you can, how to laugh when he is sad...Teach him there is no shame in tears. Teach him to scoff at cynics and to beware of too much sweetness...Teach him to sell his brawn and brain to the highest bidders, but never to put a price tag on his heart and soul. Teach him to close his ears to a howling mob...and to stand and fight if he thinks he is right.
Treat him gently, but do not coddle him, because only the test of fire makes fine steel. Let him have the courage to be impatient...let him have the patience to be brave. Teach him always to have sublime faith in himself, because then he will always have sublime faith in mankind.
This is a big order, but see what you can do...He is such a fine little fellow, my son!