After two decades of serving neighborhood families as teacher of their young children, Barbara Burk plans to leave her post at the end of this school year. In her final year as director, she is training in new staff at St. Anthony Park Co-op Preschool, including current teacher Kristin Tran, now in her third year, and new teacher Kerrin Flanagan. The preschool is housed in St. Anthony Park United Church of Christ, 2129 Commonwealth Ave.
Longtime co-teacher Elizabeth Lee said she has fond memories of her years sharing duties with Burk. “She always puts the children first and tries to do what is best for each child and family,” Lee said. “She appreciates each child for who they are and puts laughter into every day.”
Burk said her husband, Tom Burk, is retiring this spring from his post at the University of Minnesota, and they plan to enjoy the freedom to travel. The Burks have three children and four grandchildren and plan to visit a branch of the family in upstate New York, among other priorities.
The preschool has long been a Burk family affair. “Teacher Barbara,” as she is known to hundreds of people in and around St. Anthony Park, began teaching in 1996, when her own children were still in elementary school. In her early years of teaching, a nephew was enrolled in the program, followed a decade later by two grandnieces.
During her first four years of teaching, Burk said, she was trained in by then-director Sheila Richter, who herself had taught there since 1979. “I valued that experience very highly,” Burk said, noting that Richter came from a family of diplomats, “and it showed.” Richter died in 2011.
While Burk’s successor brings a master’s degree to the assignment, Burk said, “Our main criterion is that teachers have a good manner with children.”
She said she does not expect any alteration to the preschool’s longstanding core mission. “We provide a place for children to learn to be together,” Burk said. “We’ll continue to be about social skills and academic exposure, learning through play.”
St. Anthony Park Co-op Preschool enrolls 23 students at a time, balancing two classrooms with a mix of 3- and 4-year-olds meeting on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings, September through May. Parents (as well and grandparents and other caregivers) commit to volunteer work shifts and serve on the board of directors.
In recent years, Burk said, they’re seeing a few 4-year-olds continue on to public school instead of spending a second year in the preschool. The preschool has adjusted to earlier kindergarten and pre-k offerings in the area public schools by taking more children whose third birthdays just miss the Sept. 1 cutoff date. The school has also extended sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays for an optional lunch hour, with children eating lunches brought from home.
In spite of the diminishing numbers of full-time, stay-at-home parents, Burk said there still seems to be a demand for the co-op preschool model. “There’s a strong community feeling in this neighborhood,” she said, noting that many parents work part-time, work from home, or employ nannies who are also welcome to participate as preschool volunteers.
And some families just don’t want their kids at school all day quite so young, Burk said. “For people who aren’t ready to take the plunge to full-time preschool, it’s a baby step. I call our school a moderate-structure school,” she said. “There are times of the day we do certain things, but not too much.”
The school does some formal academic preparation but is more focused on social development. “We try to build community,” she explained. This extends to families and caregivers, as well, she said. Parents, grandparents and nannies are invited to participate in the classroom experience. “We invite them to just come and be an extra set of eyes and hands,” she said.
Some families volunteer to give presentations on their special traditions, Burk said, or offer their professional expertise in a way that’s accessible to young children. A family with a Chinese background recently taught about their New Year observance. Another family gave a Spanish lesson. And some preschool families remember a parent who made handprints for all the children and took them to a lab to analyze their microbe content, then came back to deliver a stern lesson on hand washing.
Alicia Sandy, who went from parent volunteer to paid teacher during her stretch at the preschool, offered her own take on Burk’s preschool years: “My three kids delighted in Teacher Barbara at SAPCP—her songs, her hugs, her art projects,” Sandy said. “I was fortunate enough to teach alongside her for a couple of lovely years there, too.
“Barbara is one of those rare gifts to the world,” Sandy continued. “She helps people become better, more thoughtful, more creative and more loving, just by being around them. She continues to bring joy and inspire conversation and action throughout her many communities.”
Anne Holzman is a freelance writer living in Bloomington. Her three children enjoyed a total of seven years at St. Anthony Park Co-op Preschool, and she served on the parent board as treasurer and as a classroom volunteer.