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Barbra Burke loves her students. It's mutual. That's why she's Teacher of the Year.

Teacher of the Year Barbra Burke with her 8th-grade literacy class at Austin Meehan Middle School in Northeast Philadelphia.
Teacher of the Year Barbra Burke with her 8th-grade literacy class at Austin Meehan Middle School in Northeast Philadelphia.Read more

GOOD TEACHERS go to great lengths to reach students.

A few years ago, literacy teacher Barbra Burke, who teaches at Austin Meehan Middle School in the Northeast, was handed responsibility for a student named Anthony.

He'd been kicked out of his old class for misbehaving.

She asked him to pick out a book to read.

"I don't read," the boy told her.

So she made him a deal.

She told him to take the book home for a week and, if he got a 100 on the test, she'd buy him McDonald's for lunch.

Three days later, Anthony announced he was done. And his attitude had changed.

" 'I want to take the test,' " she recalls Anthony saying. " 'I've never been so nervous. How about if I get a 90? Can I still get McDonald's?' "

She was nervous for him, too. But she stuck to the deal.

And when she scored his test, he made 100.

So Burke drove to the McDonald's at Cottman and the Boulevard for lunch. The problem was, it was 11 a.m., and the restaurant didn't serve lunch until 11:30.

After getting this far, there was no way Burke was going to be dissuaded. She grabbed the manager.

"I said, 'You don't understand. This is huge . . . He told me it's the first book he has read since third grade and it's the first 100 he ever got in his life.'

"The manager replied: " 'You tell Anthony, lunch is on McDonald's. ' "

Burke's tenacity, high standards and ability to motivate students have now paid off:

Burke, a literacy teacher with some 13 years' experience, won the school district's Dr. Ruth Wright Hayre Teacher of the Year Award at the annual Celebration of Excellence in Education program last night at the Franklin Institute.

Visited in Burke's 8th-grade classroom earlier this week, her current students said they'd give their teacher an A+.

"When I was little, I never liked reading," said Patrick Burger, 14.

"But I came to her, and she helped me, and I've got three books I'm reading now."

He picks up the three books on his desk: "Jungle Book," "Robin Hood" and "The Last of the Mohicans."

"She made my grades go up," Patrick added.

"She's very nice," said another student, Laprie Melton, 15.

"She's one of those teachers who can really help a student progress up in their [reading] grade level. She's very talented."

Nomination letters for the award praise Burke for her enthusiasm and energy in the classroom - and both are obvious in an interview.

"I love what I do," she said. "I love the kids. My own children say sometimes, 'You love those children more than you love us.' And I say, 'Now, don't be jealous.' "

The respect is mutual.

"She respects us and we respect her," said Norene Phillips, 14. "She's always positive."

The students talked in Burke's brightly-colored, homey basement classroom where even the pipes are painted fire-engine red. The sofa, chairs and bookcases in the independent-reading area came from Burke's mother-in-law. After she decided to move to the Jersey shore, Burke asked her husband to move the furniture in - calling the changes part of an "extreme makeover." She wanted to make the classroom more inviting.

"Let's face it," she said. "Don't you love going to places that are beautiful?"

Burke - who gives her age as "50s" - grew up in Frankford, and said she has wanted to be a teacher "as far back as I can remember."

In high school, she joined a future teachers' group.

But that career was interrupted by another:

Raising two children.

After getting her bachelor's degree in education at Penn State, Burke taught in Norristown in 1971 and moved to Kenderton Elementary, in North Philadelphia, in 1972.

She went on to get a master's degree with a focus on literacy from Arcadia University in 1975, and taught for almost six years before leaving the classroom.

Burke returned to teach in the Philadelphia schools in 2000, when her children were in college. Now, her son, Bill, is 30 and in his final year of residency at Hahnemann University Hospital. Her daughter, Kelly Elizabeth, is getting married later this year.

When she first came to Meehan - as a substitute teacher who taught economics in the expressive-arts curriculum - it didn't take long for Meehan's principal, Mary A. Jackson, to notice Burke.

In a nomination letter, she wrote:

"She made such an impression with the students by teaching them banking and basic economics (which included following stocks daily in the stock market), apparently the students insisted that their parents come to the first 'Back to School Night.' "

Another teacher at the school had told Burke she shouldn't expect many parents because most parents visited teachers in their children's major subjects: English, math, social studies and science.

But Jackson said she was "overwhelmed" when she saw the parent sign-in sheet that had 83 signatures on it.

"It was then that I recognized Barbra's superior abilities," Jackson wrote.

Burke - who never yells, according to her students - believes in "insisting on a safe and orderly school."

She has developed strategies as part of Meehan's anti-bullying program that are aimed at "reinforcing [students'] skills in empathy, impulse control, problem solving and anger management."

Even though there have been highly publicized assaults in some schools this year, Burke said "it's only a small minority" of students who are like the two teens who attacked Germantown High teacher Frank Burd and left him with a broken neck.

"If you demand respect, and you listen to your children, I don't think there's a teacher out there that would have a problem," Burke said.

"If they know when they come to you they're going to be in a safe, orderly environment, and you're organized and you're going to make them organized," teachers will be able to control their classrooms, she said.

In addition to being a literacy teacher who works with students who read below grade level, Burke is also a "literacy leader" - a team leader for other literacy teachers at the school.

Every Wednesday at 7:30 a.m., before school starts, Burke meets with most of the literacy teachers on her team and they go over ways to use test data to improve students' achievement.

She said she believes that testing can "help us fine-tune instructions. Today, everything is skills-specific and we are able to pinpoint problems and discuss solutions."

But testing isn't the only way Burke motivates her students.

She believes in giving prizes to her students. Most times, it's candy. And other times - as in Anthony's case - it's McDonald's.

Burke's reputation is such that even when some of the school's "bad boys" - and it's obvious the phrase is in quotation marks - get suspended, they come down to her room to pick out a book to read while on suspension.

"Part of being a good teacher," said Burke, "is just loving what you do and believing in the kids." *