Lisa Burke: A True Friend to Children and Families

June 22, 2022

“I’ve always loved working with children and families,” says Lisa Burke. “It makes them happy to grow and achieve more,” as she has seen. And it also makes her happy to help families surmount the challenges they face. So, she brings a keen sense of commitment to her work as executive director at Friends of Children and Families (FOCAF), a Head Start center that serves families in Boise, Idaho, and its environs. “It’s very rewarding to guide someone on their journey to success,” Lisa says.

And her journey to her current role began when she was in college working toward a business degree and holding a part-time job as an assistant teacher in a child care center. “I found ECE so interesting that I started taking some courses in the field,” Lisa recalls. Still, she didn’t intend at first to make it her profession. “When I graduated from college,” she says, “I tried several things in the business realm, but nothing really spoke to me.”

Then a chance encounter led Lisa to change course after she married and started a family. “I went to a center to look for child care for my son and happened to mention my background to one of the staff. She began asking me a lot of questions about my experience in the early childhood field. When I told her I had taught and taken college classes in ECE, she told me they were looking for a center director. I applied and got the job, so that’s how I got into child care administration.”

After working in a couple of other centers for over a decade, she came to FOCAF, where she’s served for the past seven years. Her rise from assistant teacher to center director is a result of both experience and education, as she explains. “To succeed in ECE, you need to have coursework. You also need to spend time in the classroom. It’s important to have both,” she says, “and that’s one of the reasons I like the Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™. It gives you a theoretical knowledge of ECE and a practical knowledge of what you should do with young children.”

So, Lisa encourages her staff to earn a CDA®, and her center pays for most of the costs of getting the credential. “It’s especially important if a staff member doesn’t have previous coursework in early childhood education,” she explains. “Earning a CDA helps you understand what is developmentally appropriate, how to talk to young learners and how to ask open-ended questions that light a spark in their minds.”

Lisa also wants to fire up the parents by getting them more engaged in their children’s education. “I am a firm believer that parents are their children’s first teachers,” she says. “And one of the ways, we help parents really see themselves as their children’s first teachers is by encouraging them to volunteer in the classroom. Having the parents right there with us benefits children by showing them that their parents think education is important. It also benefits our staff because we get added hands for our program. And that’s been especially important at the current time when early childhood programs face serious issues with staffing.”

And these parent volunteers have the skills to uphold Head Start’s high standards because they get a lot of training. “We start well before the parents step foot in the classroom by providing a volunteer orientation,” Lisa explains. “We talk about what is developmentally appropriate, how we work with children, our expectations for what should go on in the classroom. And we’re extremely specific. Each day, we’ll tell them that this is what we’re going to do with the children, what it’s going to look like and how you can assist us. Then we’ll follow up at the end of the day by asking them how the experience was and whether they have any added questions. So, it’s all very hands on and intentional,” Lisa says.

“We don’t want the parents to simply come in the classroom to spend time with us.” Instead, FOCAF is looking for tangible benefits from its parent volunteer program, Lisa explains. And it gets them, according to the data that Head Start routinely collects. “When we look at the data, we see that children with parents who volunteer in the classroom tend to have better outcomes. It also helps that we encourage parents, to do activities at home, like reading to their children for a certain amount of time. That, too, builds a solid foundation that helps the children become school ready.”

Lisa’s concerns also extend beyond learning to encompass the whole family, and their well-being is one of the topics that come up at FOCAF’s Policy Council meetings. “The Policy Council,” Lisa explains, “is a parent leadership group, where we look at the wide range of issues that affect families. We talk about the families’ health and financial needs. We do an assessment of their strengths. We discuss parenting skills and how the parents can advocate for their children once the kids are in public school. We also encourage the parents to volunteer and think about working for us one day. We even provide information about our open positions and invite parents to apply, especially for our assistant teacher jobs.”

And the parents respond eagerly to the chance, Lisa says. “In fact, I recently had a parent reach out to me at the Policy Council meeting and ask if we had any positions that were available. I said yes and arranged to have HR phone her the next day. She applied right away to work for us as an assistant teacher, “Lisa says. “She already has a job at another child care center, but the quality of the services her child receives from us inspired her to make a switch. Like many other parents, she said she absolutely loves what we do and wants to be part of our program.”

The parents who come work for FOCAF bring a wide range of experience to the classroom, Lisa explains. “Sometimes we have folks who have simply babysat and like kids. Others, like this mom who just applied for a job, have already worked at another child care center, and we value the experience they’ve gained. But we want to make sure they’re properly trained and know best practices in the field, so we require them to earn their CDA.”

The parents are always surprised to learn that FOCAF will pay for them to earn a CDA, Lisa explains. But she doesn’t think the parents question the value that her program puts on the credential. “They know that staff with a specific education in ECE are equipped to ensure the best outcomes for children,” Lisa says. And earning a CDA also helps build a better future for parents who are struggling to get a firmer footing in life, like a particular mom who far surpassed what Lisa expected.

“Sheila had two children with special needs and a husband with issues who wasn’t earning enough to provide for the family,” Lisa recalls. “They were barely scraping by, and Sheila was very stressed out. But she began to feel better after we got her the resources she needed for housing and food, counseling for her and her husband, as well as special ed services for her children. Seeing how much her family had gotten out of our program inspired Sheila to join the Policy Council and go on to earn her CDA. She’s now an assistant teacher for us, and she feels successful and secure.”

FOCAF changed her life because it lifts people up, Lisa explains. “But it’s not a handout. We can’t fix everything for you. You also need to work hard like Sheila did. We were only there to help; she did most of the work. And she’s not unique. We have other parents who have earned their CDAs with our program and gone on to earn their bachelor’s and master’s degrees. They now work for us as administrators or teachers,” Lisa says. And seeing the progress these parents have made also lifts Lisa up. She shares their sense of happiness since she’s a true friend to the children and families she serves. “It’s great to help people surmount challenges and succeed,” she says. “I feel like I’m part of something bigger than myself.”


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