Coffee with Ethelda Burke: Tukwila schools chief embraces district's diversity
By STEVE HUNTER
Tukwila Reporter Reporter
March 17, 2011 · Updated 10:02 AM
Ethelda Burke embraces Tukwila's ethnic diversity every day she commutes to work as the Tukwila School District superintendent.
"I love to drive into the community and see all of the different dress, with everyone in their native attire," said Burke, who lives in Tacoma. "And you see them talk to each other. The ethnic communities here learn how to get along. They learn about each other's cultures. It is very inviting."
Burke oversees a district of more than 2,800 students that the New York Times described in a 2009 report as the most diverse school district in the nation.
The district has a nearly equal mix of whites, African Americans, Asians and Hispanics. Students speak more than 70 languages. The district consists of one high school (Foster), one middle school (Showalter) and three elementary schools (Cascade View, Thorndyke and Tukwila).
"For anyone who has not been to one of our schools and they walked in to one of classrooms, they would be in awe," Burke said. "Seventy-three percent of our students are students of color."
Many of the students are immigrants, which presents an array of complexities for Burke and her staff.
"The challenges are great," Burke said. "Many of the kids have not been in a formal education setting. They do not speak English. Their parents do not speak English. The parents often are not literate in their own language."
Interpreters help the children, but some languages have so many dialects the district faces an even tougher challenge.
"We can't always get an interpreter who speaks the dialect," Burke said.
Burke came to Tukwila from Tacoma as an interim superintendent in 2007. The Tukwila School Board hired Burke as the full-time superintendent in 2008.
"The board did a national search, and lo and behold they picked me," she said.
Burke worked more than 30 years in the Tacoma School District. She started as a high-school teacher and worked her way up to high-school principal jobs and eventually as the deputy superintendent.
When the opportunity came up to run the Tukwila School District, Burke decided she would prefer that position over her deputy spot in Tacoma after she did not get the Tacoma superintendent job.
But the changes were huge, as she moved from a district with 32,000 students, 70 percent of them white and 30 percent who qualified for the federal free- and reduced-lunch program to a district with 2,800 students, 30 percent of them white and 70 percent who qualified for the national reduced meal program.
"It was like a whole new learning curve," said Burke, who is married with two adult daughters and a 14-year-old granddaughter. "But it was very energizing for me. The community has embraced me, the parents and the staff. They had not had a woman as superintendent and they certainly had not had a black woman."
At first, Burke had doubts about the job change. Now she's glad she made the switch.
"I've grown to love the place," she said. "I love the energy of the different cultures and languages. I don't know another language, but I love to hear them."
Burke grew up in Portland. She earned a teaching degree from Portland State University and a master's from the University of Puget Sound. She attended the principals leadership academy at Harvard University, earned principal credentials at UPS and superintendent credentials at Seattle Pacific University.
Outside of work, Burke is an avid walker and participates three evenings a week in deep-water aerobics.
"I'm an avid believer in taking care of your physical health and mental health," Burke said.
Burke also makes sure she interacts with students each day and doesn't just attend meetings or stay in her office.
"I've always liked kids and I make that a big part of the day to get involvement with a kid every day," Burke said.
She even attended the Foster girls basketball playoff game last month in Olympia to show her support.
"That connection is really important," Burke said.Contact Tukwila Reporter Reporter Steve Hunter at email@example.com or 253-872-6600, ext. 5052.