Grand Central Station.
That is exactly what the front office of Locke High seemed to be during my recent visit. With its bustling activity, the office appeared to rival even the famed New York city transportation hub.
Parents and students shuffled in and out of Locke’s doors that morning. Beyond the steady flow of foot traffic was a recurrent sound of ringing phones where callers waited on the line to be rerouted to desired school staff.
The incoming flow of phone calls and visitors required a keen source of attention and finesse from one employee who oversaw office transactions like a switchboard virtuoso.
No one in that office would claim the job of an office manager of this or any school is an easy one, but someone must do it. And Locke High has someone who does this job very well.
Her name is Virendia Burnett, or Ms. B, as the Locke students and staff affectionately call her.
As a veteran member of Locke’s staff, with more than twenty years of service under her belt, she has seen the school through some tough transitions and hurdles.
Although she began working at the school with humble beginnings, Ms. Burnett has risen through the ranks of the school’s hierarchy to hold influential positions that have solidified her mark not only on the school’s administration, but also in the hearts of its most prized treasure – its students.
Today, it seems natural that Ms. Burnett spent much of her professional career serving this school community. But twenty-five years ago, a career at Locke was not necessarily on her radar. In fact, her initial involvement with the school was as a parent, not as an employee.
Her story began when she enrolled her children at Locke in the mid-1990s. Quickly, she became an active mother who showed up to more than just parent-teacher conferences. Ms. Burnett became a volunteer who would sit-in on her son’s classes, assist the teacher with the instruction, and help keep order in the class.
Her generosity inside the school extended beyond its four walls. For some of her son’s classmates that grew up in rough households, she became the strong mother figure they never had. She hosted sleepovers at her home on Saturdays and treated her son’s friends to a large breakfast at a local restaurant on Sunday mornings before church – giving them the biggest meal that they would eat all week. “If they went with me, they knew they would eat for free,” she said. She also engaged in community policing when she confronted young men who were street gambling and engaging illegal activity near her home by asking them to move elsewhere so her block would be safe.
Although soft spoken, Ms. Burnett is a fierce champion of youth. When her daughter was placed in a classroom that did not provide any textbooks, she wrote letters to school officials to request the problem be remedied. When she heard a school counselor had denied a foster youth living in her neighborhood access to an Algebra class for which he met the academic requirements, she brought this case to the school’s attention and petitioned that he be placed in Algebra.
Her transition from parent volunteer to Locke employee came when she was hired as a school security guard. After assuming this role, she took on a succession of positions that gave her increasing responsibility within the school. First as an instructional aide, then as a budget manger – where she lifted the school out of an era of financial crisis.
Despite her work, Ms. Burnet still found time for extracurricular activities. She revived the school’s pride in its girl’s Drill Team as head coach from 2006-2016 and led the girl’s Track and Field team to victory.
With her humble demeanor, Ms. Burnett has remained a hidden jewel in the local education system and her deeds have not gone unnoticed. In March, Locke’s Alumni Association will honor Ms. Burnett’s legacy by giving her a distinguished award for her decades-long service.
She remains a life-long learner by taking professional development classes from LAUSD’s teaching institute whenever she can. She also visits local schools occasionally to stay informed about how classes are being instructed. She is a big proponent of teachers meeting kids’ needs where they are. She asserted, “just because your job says teacher, if you’re not teaching nobody, you’re not a teacher. A teacher means to teach. I don’t care how many degrees you’ve got.”
To best describe what Ms. B means to her community, look no further than the words of movie star, Will Smith, about his mentor, James Avery, who played Uncle Phil on the hit sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
In 2013, when Avery passed away, Smith posted on Facebook that “Everybody needs an Uncle Phil” to honor Avery’s legacy. Smith’s sentiment can easily apply to Ms. Burnett and her contribution to education. Every school needs an employee and champion of children like Ms. Burnett.
If we had more of her spirit and skill in our schools, they would be better equipped to help every youth succeed.