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Focusing on the Learner & Fighting for Underserved Populations: An Interview with Sarah Burk

September 7, 2022 | Tracie Hummel
Focusing on the Learner & Fighting for Underserved Populations: An Interview with Sarah Burk Hero Image

With an unwavering commitment to flexibility and equipping our Graduation Candidates (GCs) for success beyond graduation, Acceleration Academies is setting a new standard in education. Sarah Burk, Executive Director of Assessment in Academic Design, plays an integral role in bringing this mission to life for our GCs nationwide. Sarah has extensive experience and leadership in flexible education. Prior to joining Acceleration Academies, she was the Director of Alternative Education for two juvenile justice center programs, a behavior day school and a mental health hospital. Today, we tap into her expertise to learn more about why it is important to focus on the learner and fight for underserved populations.

Why is flexible education important?

Flexible education, in my purview, should become normalized. We know that “one size fits all” is not the best approach to education and does not work for all learners. Yet, we only apply this methodology to certain populations. Flexible education is more inviting, more learner-centered and takes into account the learner’s entire life circumstances. We must work to make education more flexible for all students.

How do you think education will be different in 5 years? 

My hope is that in five years, education will focus more on each student’s unique circumstances. I believe education will be more flexible across the country. Technology will continue to be a critical catalyst for asynchronous and synchronous learning, as well as enabling tailored and more flexible experiences for each learner.

We know that enrollment in postsecondary education continues to decline, so it’s important to ensure that young adults have a plan for their next phase in life. To that end, I anticipate a continued and growing emphasis on career and technical education pathways.

Which student story lives rent free in your mind? 

I had a student who identified as a transgender female and came into our program from being homeless, then incarcerated. She was interested in learning more about her legal rights to education, so each day after school we studied various legislation together. She had some different learning abilities, so this included rights about special education access, in addition to homelessness and rights for youth who identify as transgender. She became passionate about the McKinney-Vento Act, which protects rights and provides services for children and youth experiencing homelessness. She took her knowledge of the McKinney-Vento Act to the streets to help her peers re-engage in getting a high school diploma.

After leaving our program two credits shy of graduating, she called me on several occasions. The first time she called, unbeknownst to me, she was in a meeting with over 20 school authorities. She was reciting various federal laws from memory, stating why she had a right to be enrolled in this school. She used grit, determination and perseverance to show that entire room that she had a right to be there. She was accepted into that school as a result! I was so proud of her!

What does “Beyond the Cap” mean to you? How do you feel Acceleration Academies promotes this? 

“Beyond the Cap” means that the journey just begins with your diploma. Preparing our GCs for life beyond graduation is just as important as receiving their diploma. Working with GCs to find their spark and align it to attainable career goals is essential. Reminding GCs that various careers have differing pathways is also key. For example, career and technical education has endless opportunities for GCs, depending upon their areas of interest. As a nation, we have begun reimagining what career pathways look like. Preparing GCs for training, certification and/or the next steps to further their education in pursuit of careers is pivotal in our mission!