THROUGH A SUPERINTENDENT’S EYES:
White Co Schools’ Dr. Laurie Burkett applauds the work of School Nutrition Professionals
School nutrition professionals relish an opportunity to tell their story, because it is one they know inside and out, with all its well-swept corners and pristinely sanitized counters, but how often do we hear perspectives on this noble work from those allied professionals, alongside whom school meals serve as foundational to successful learning outcomes? Yes. Not very often.
Dr. Laurie Burkett, Superintendent of White County Schools,
in northeast Georgia, was unflinching as she traced successes in her school system to the critical work of her school nutrition team. An ever-supportive and demonstrably hands-on Superintendent, Dr. Burkett donned an apron and hairnet to join the cafeteria serving line at Tesnatee Gap Elementary School, having learned of a need for support from School Nutrition Director, Abby Rowland.
But long before experiencing this day in the life of a school nutrition professional, Dr. Burkett had an abiding faith in her school nutrition team.
“It is a pleasure to work with a team that sees opportunities instead of problems. We have dreamt big and accomplished some awesome things” she said in a virtual sit-down with representatives from the Georgia Department of Education’s School Nutrition Division.
When asked about the most impactful moments of her two-hour cafeteria shift, Dr. Burkett shared that it was the simple words, “thank you; have a great day!” Hearing and witnessing the gratitude of students as they were served nutritious meals prompted the Superintendent to return to the school the following day with a reward for one special 3rd grade class, whose students, one after the other, all effortlessly repeated the phrase. For Dr. Burkett, this class represented much of what was right in White County Schools and their teachers, who create lasting impressions and culture that follow students out of the classroom, into the school cafeteria and society.
“No one knew I was on the line that day. It felt like an episode of Undercover Boss” and just like the series, Dr. Burkett made copious observations which she has since shared with her principals and administrators, resulting in an immediate positive change in the levels of interaction between students and staff in their cafeterias.
For several years, students in White County elementary schools pre-ordered lunch through their classroom teachers and simply gesticulated ‘one’ or ‘two’ at the lunch line to indicate their entrée choices. That tradition has been replaced, following Dr. Burkett’s intervention, with students now owning both the process of making meal choices and their interactions with school nutrition staff. And in another positive turn of events, their elementary school students are appearing more relaxed and engaging along lunch lines, with reports that some are filling their trays with more fruits and vegetables.
The Superintendent says she is acutely aware that the school nutrition teams serving in White County are part of close family who care about their community and having served with them shoulder-to-shoulder, she wants them to know that the community and White County Schools are deeply grateful for all they do.
As School Nutrition Director, Abby Rowland says it means everything to know that their program has the kind of focus and support it enjoys from their Superintendent. “School Nutrition has a seat at the table, and it has been particularly impactful in this difficult year when we were going to have to pivot to keep our children fed.”
“Dr. Burkett asked me what I needed to ensure we could transition from open cafeterias on Friday, March 13  to curbside feeding on the coming Monday, and at the start she was with us, right there on the front lines delivering meals. She puts action to her words, and we wouldn’t have wanted to go through this past year without her support” she explained. “I would encourage other administrations across Georgia districts to pull their school nutrition directors into their leadership teams. School Nutrition Professionals are meeting real student needs and without our cafeterias our students’ ability to learn would be lacking.”
White County School Nutrition served 180,636 meals from March 16 through the end of the 2020-21 School Year. This exact number and aggregated numbers leading up to it were shared far and wide in the White County community, as a proud Superintendent Burkett addressed members of Rotary Clubs, Church Groups, the media, and others. Why? “Because I am so proud of the work of our school nutrition team and, as a former high school math teacher, I know the immensely powerful impact of numbers.”
“It is important for people to understand how hard we are working to make our community better and a large part of that is feeding our kids” she said as the pride of which she spoke echoed in her smile.
With a graduation rate of 94.7%, White County Schools have bested by more than 10%, the state’s graduation rate of 83.6%, reported as an all-time high last November.
“White county is a special place because we have truly special people. Our culture of teamwork and making things create is evident in the things we have been able to accomplish” Dr. Burkett shared.