A new man is at the helm of the Monroe County School District, Dr. Joseph Burke. He’s the former superintendent of Springfield, Massachusetts where he managed up to 40,000 students and 60-plus schools. Most recently, he worked with the Florida Department of Education to improve the lowest performing schools in Miami-Dade.
As school board member Steve Pribramsky described to the Weekly Newspapers, “we’re kind of small potatoes for this guy.”The appointment, by Governor Charlie Crist, is notably a figure in the education community with a firm grasp on the task ahead.
“School is the business of educating children and he seems to have the knowledge and experience to do this,” said Sandy Varela, who is also a new edition to the Monroe County School District. She brings 12 years of classroom experience to Glenn Archer Elementary where she teaches special ed. “He’s approachable, and I like the fact he isn’t making huge changes.”
Outfitted in a crimson Conch polo shirt for our interview, Burke admits with a chuckle, “I’m working on switching my wardrobe over. I’m getting weaned off my coat and tie.”
Burke’s face tells the story of a man driven by noble work and that is to reach for a higher standard education.
“I have a pretty good sense of the challenges teachers are facing. That’s trying to get all of the students to meet state standards and year after year, the students have bigger and bigger challenges.”
Today there are more students with disabilities, from single-parent homes, and homes where domestic violence is a factor.
Regardless, the teachers are being asked to amp up success.
“The teachers are already working really hard. We need to help them work smarter,” he inspires.
“He’s a highly regarded guy,” Pribramsky offers, “even tempered, and very deliberate in his thinking. Governor Crist knows a lot about the district and the Governor handpicked him. He’s worked in Miami-Dade, and is very self-assured without being cocky.”
Chief Academic Officer Mike Henriquez notes, “He has experience in the position and a proven educational background. He listens to what everyone has to say.”
Burke has already visited many of the district’s schools and will continue to do so. A former college baseball player for Holy Cross College in Massachusetts, Burke says the dedication continues to prevail.
“My knees survived fine! Perseverance is a big thing. Baseball taught me you have to be willing to stick things out and stay with it.”
In college, Burke didn’t just stick to the ball diamond. He proposed to his college sweetheart, Judy, who’s been by his side for 37 years.
“She’s such a great partner, and has helped me with everything. She’s a career woman and all through college she helped me and has just been great,” the sup raves about his bride, an employee of Florida Light and Power.
“I think if a leader can put children first before anything else we’ll be fine,” Sandy offers.
“I think is we care about children more than politics, we have nothing to lose.”
• Undergrad: Holy Cross College
Majors: Philosophy and History
• Masters: Florida International University
Major: Education Supervision
• Doctorate: Nova Southeastern University
• Superintendent of Springfield, MA
• Assistant Principal, Thomas Jefferson Middle School, Homestead
• Director of Personnel and Labor Relations, Miami-Dade
• Director of Special Ed, Miami-Dade
• Executive Director Florida Dept. of Education, Region 3
• Wife of 37 Years, Judy
• Loves sports, music, and theatre
“I’m pumped. I’m ready to lead the system and make improvements. I will do what is best for the kids.”