Katherine Delmar Burke School, San Francisco, CA – November 3, 2017

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 mostly open space: a large grass athletic field, a sports court and two multipurpose courtyards with play structures. Its facilities include a large library, innovation labs, science labs, several art, music and drama studios, and a gymnasium/ auditorium.  The faculty-to-students ratio is 1:7, and the average tenure of faculty at Burke’s is 10 years.

Burke’s prides itself in having its students graduate with a strong academic foundation and also 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 have 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.

A unique program at Burke’s is the Makery, in which Burke’s decided to take a hard look at its outdated technology labs and replace these with space that emphasizes “make” and “creativity” and allows for innovative teaching and “tinkering.”  This 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.

This, my second talk at Burke’s, was attended by all the 8th grade students, organized by teacher Debbie Yoon, and arranged by Brian Fong of Facing History and Ourselves.  Also attending were Ian Van Wert, Upper School Science Teacher; Maria Shuman, Library and Innovation Support Assistant; Michelle Loomis, Upper School Library and Digital Media Specialist; Ron Malek, Upper School Learning Specialist; and Filomena Spero, Associate Director of Advancement.

Letters from Students

A week after visiting Burke’s I received a large envelope with 40+ letters from the 8th grade students and one from the teacher.  As has become our habit by now, after dinner my wife Mimi read each letter aloud as I listened and absorbed it mentally and emotionally. We were touched by the students’ sensitivity, insight and heartfelt honesty, and we felt very gratified by their responses to my story.  There was an unusually large number of statements in these letters that resonated with us, and these are excerpted below.

  • Your witness statement inspires me to continue to teach social justice to my students – it really makes a difference! The students are forever changed to be voices of change!
  • Thanks again for your courage and drive to share your message of love, tolerance, hope and resiliency in the face of hatred and evil.
  • Your story has inspired me to do better in school and to thank my parents for the life they have given me. You have opened up a passion in me that I didn’t know existed.
  • I was deeply affected by this story because it taught me to love life and not take anything for granted.
  • I was on the edge of my seat the entire time that you were talking.
  • One thing in your presentation that stood out for me was when you said how in life we have a choice: to succumb to the hate in the world, or to stand up for what is right. This impacted me because I realized that we can all make a difference in the world, but it is one’s decision whether to use that power for bad or good.
  • I learned more from your talk than just facts and details. I learned that everyone’s life should be valued the same, that there is always more than one side to a story, and the importance of educating students on topics such as the Holocaust.
  • The story of your life was told in such a way that you were able to transport the audience to a different place with the great detail provided in the small snippets of your life.
  • Your story was extremely humbling, and has inspired me to make a difference in the world, be it large or small, because I have learned the importance of helping and standing up for others.
  • I thank you for sharing a piece of your heart with us. We are all better for it.
  • From a genuine space in my heart I want to thank you for the inspiring and touching words we heard from you. You made me feel closer to my roots of Judaism, and closer to the millions of broken hearts, dreams, and most importantly lives snatched away from the innocent.
  • Because I am African-American, I feel like both of our cultures share similar past experiences, so it was really great to feel that connection.
  • Your story inspired me to be more thankful for the privileged life that I’m fortunate enough to live.
  • The part when you said that if your mother had not come in time to give the document to the Nazi so you could stay in the ghetto and not get shipped off to the concentration camp really made me realize that you were so close to death, but your mother came just in time. This really made me realize that a lot of people were not as lucky as you.
  • My friend and I think you should enter the lottery since you are so lucky!
  • I have been thinking a lot this week, since I am Jewish, my family and ancestors could have gone through that if they lived where you did.
  • The world is very ignorant, full of unreasonable hat and violence, and people like you can change much of that.
  • I am so lucky that I have had parents and teachers who have taught me not to discriminate. Even in today’s world, our own president is saying bad things about Muslims and how they are terrorists, which is not true.
  • Thank you for reminding me that I have a choice in who I become in this world and inspiring me to be the change in the world.
  • You have courage, true courage to speak to us. I hope you understand that you have become a role model for me and plenty of others who have heard your wise words.
  • No one young or old deserves the hatred that millions of Jews faced. I thank you for sharing your story, and not just with Burke’s but with the world!
  • It was very interesting how you consider yourself to live by the golden rule, “Treat people the way you want to be treated.” You have inspired me to live by this saying, and to always do the right thing even if it is the hard thing.
  • Your story will stay with me as long as I am alive, and I will keep it close to my heart.
  • Your story is a wonderful example of how people survive injustice and hate. Your story was also relevant to what is happening in the world today.
  • I have been thinking about the stories you have told us, and I have changed the way I look at the world and the way I think. You said to either live our lives with hate or with love, which has stuck with me.
  • Your presentation showed all of us what being fearless and brave looks like in an environment filled with hate.
  • I really appreciated how you didn’t dance around the truth. Often when teachers tell stories about the Holocaust they focus on only positive stories and try to diminish the suffering, but you spoke with such a clear voice and stated things so simply, I could understand them without feeling patronized.
  • The courage and strength of your mother has empowered me to learn more about the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and has driven me to find ways to help the refugees.
  • Even though I have read books and watched movies about World War 2, hearing your story gave me a whole new perspective of what families had to face.
  • I was truly moved and taught a valuable lesson about my actions and how they affect others.
  • After you spoke I could picture the fear and the worry of not knowing what will happen tomorrow.
  • Your speech opened my eyes to the cruelties that happened during the Holocaust, and how harsh mankind can be.
  • You asked us: “If we had the option to risk our lives to save people from death, would we do it?” When you first asked it, I was hones with myself, and no, I wouldn’t have.  After hearing your story and putting myself in their shoes, I changed my mind.  Now I would certainly risk my life to save others.  This is the impact that you had on my thoughts.
  • Thank you for showing us to never lose hope.
  • I don’t think that many kids today can relate to the amount of stress and tragedy you must have endured in your childhood.
  • I was really shocked how the one image on the cover of your book was able to make a lasting impact on your life, not only defining what your career would be in the future, but also portraying fear and your longing to be free and out of hiding during the war.
  • You helped me comprehend the horrific events of the Holocaust, and I feel the motivation to help prevent that hatred and some of our own examples of cruelty in the world today.
  • Even though I have been reading The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and learning about her experiences in World War II, I was still so shocked when you told us about the horror you lived through. It was very eye opening to hear about this terrible time in history from someone who survived it.
  • Though I have not endured anything near to what you did, I too hope to have a positive impact on the world someday.
  • I was really impacted when you told us how many San Franciscos would have been killed to match the number of people who were actually killed in the Holocaust.
  • Your story was so amazing, moving and interesting to hear and it really helped me to relate to Anne Frank and her diary more than I could before.
  • You were telling your story in a way that I felt like I could have been there with you the entire time, watching it happen.
  • I was so moved when you told us that for about 65 years you did not talk about your amazing story or the Holocaust, because I am beyond grateful that you do now.

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