Katherine Delmar Burke School, San Francisco, CA – November 30, 2016

by George J Elbaum

In 1908 Katherine Delmar Burke founded her school to fill an obvious need: young women who wanted to be educated enough to attend college faced often-insurmountable barriers.   More than 100 years later, her school (Burke’s) still has the same mission: “to educate, encourage and empower girls.  The 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.”  Burke’s now has approximately 400 students (K-8) and a unique 3.5-acre campus in a residential district of San Francisco with 65% open space, with a large grass athletic field, a sports court and two multipurpose courtyards with play structures. Its facilities include a 5,500 sq.ft. library, two innovation labs, three science labs, five art, music and drama studios, and a gymnasium/auditorium.  The ratio of faculty to students is 1:7, and its average tenure at Burke’s is 10 years.

Burke’s prides itself in having its students graduate not only with a strong academic foundation but also with a love of learning — not just for the sake of grades. This reflects Burke’s long-standing commitment to preserving the spirit of exploration while students master traditional skills and concepts.  Upper School students are challenged by a comprehensive program that includes core academic subjects, plus art, music, drama, and physical education while 7th and 8th graders also have classes in public speaking and service learning plus many electives. The teaching of computer skills is integrated into the curriculum and use of technology supports learning at all grade levels.

A unique program at Burke’s is the Makery, in which Burke’s decided to take a hard look at its outdated technology labs and replace these with space that would emphasize “make” and “creativity” and allow for truly innovative teaching and encourage “tinkering.”  The result is the Makery, a space that “encourages and empowers the girls to take risks and to use a variety of skills related to STEM to design, prototype, and even fail at their projects.”  The facility provides materials, tools (including a 3D printer), and talented faculty which allow students to model their work for each other in a collaborative, open environment.   The ultimate goal of the Makery is to create a joyful learning environment for the girls that promotes creativity, problem-solving and critical thinking.

My visit to Burke’s was organized by teacher Lisa Turner (7th & 8th grade English, 8th grade Lead Advisor) and arranged by Nikki Bambauer of the Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

Letters from students

A week after my visit to Burke’s the mail brought an envelope with notes and letters from Burke’s students and teacher Lisa Turner.  As is now our habit, after dinner my wife Mimi read each letter aloud while I listened and absorbed it, mentally and emotionally.  We were touched by the students’ heartfelt openness and sensitivity reflected in these letters, and we felt very gratified by their responses to my story.  Statements from these letters that particularly resonated with us are excerpted below.

  • I was really touched by the theme of hope in your story. Amid all the destruction and evil, there are still those who risk their lives to help others.
  • It is hard for me to wrap my head around how so many people could have let a mass genocide of innocent human beings go on for so long.
  • Your story has motivated me to make a change and stand up for what is right, and to have a positive impact on my community if not the world. Thank you so much.
  • I have come to appreciate the safe bubble of San Francisco that we live in even more after hearing you speak.
  • I wish we had more time to ask you questions, because hearing your perspective and your history can be very beneficial to us as young empowered women at such an impressionable age. I can’t express how grateful and lucky I feel to hear firsthand your experiences.
  • I felt very sad listening to you speak about moving from one family to another, but I feel very inspired how you overcame all the difficulties during the war and became a successful person.
  • I really liked the sugar cube part of your story. It made me so happy that you found this little piece of joy through the war.
  • You have truly moved me. YOU ARE TRULY AN INSPIRATION.  (I am the girl who gave you a hug.) J
  • I will remember this forever and take the lessons you taught us to heart.
  • My grandfather hid in the Philippines during the Holocaust in a cave. Listening to your story has opened me up to the other side of the war.  I think your story should be heard by everyone.
  • Your message is for sure worth spreading. Some people don’t fully understand the harsh reality of the Holocaust.  It is a subject some people are not educated about, but should be.  I intend to educate people about it, bringing awareness to them.
  • Your story inspired me to be kind to everyone, despite their differences. The harsh reality is that people are mean to each other, but I truly believe that with passion and determination we can teach love and kindness.  Your story has helped me realize that the world still needs lots and lots of fixing.  (I walked you down from the office.)
  • You have so much courage to face such a truly terrible experience and change others’ lives through talking about it. For this I sincerely thank you.
  • Hearing from you helped me feel more connected to my great-grandmother who was also a Holocaust survivor.
  • I think it was very brave of you to share your story and go back in time to a place full of sad memories.
  • I hope you enjoy the rest of your life and know that your words inspired me and so many others.
  • Your story was so empowering, and it showed me how hard life can be, and how you can still come out of it and rebuild your life.
  • Throughout your presentation I thought so much more about how everything happens for a reason, and I am so thankful that you were here today to tell our class about your experiences during the harshness and cruelty of the Holocaust.
  • I learned many valuable life lessons about empathy and morals.
  • I sometimes catch myself complaining about the most insubstantial things. Your presentation was very humbling, and I want to thank you for that.  What you are doing is amazing!
  • Meeting you and listening to you speak really made this awful occurrence real to me.
  • You have inspired me and many others by showing us that our decisions and actions impact the world around us and possibly change the direction of the future.
  • Your story has shown me how important it is to be for something rather than against something. This way, we are likely to make decisions with love and acceptance and not with hate.  Your story has truly made me a better person.

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