Educator Antonio Burt does not shy away from challenges; he runs to them. “Making the impossible happen is what drives me,” said Burt, a recent graduate of Freed-Hardeman University’s Doctor of Education program. He was among FHU’s inaugural doctoral graduates.
Burt earned a master’s from FHU and returned to earn his doctorate. “I was already familiar with the staff and layout,” he said, “and I wanted to be a part of something great.”
His dissertation topic, “Anatomy of School Turnaround: Leadership Competencies that Raise Academic Achievement,” reflects his career mission.
“My entire educational career has been serving in impoverished areas and changing the academic trajectory for the neediest scholars,” he said. “My experience at FHU helped me in multiple areas. I was able to adjust to school law and facilities because of my training at FHU. As a school principal, I knew the legal ramifications for certain decisions around students, teachers and parents. I was able to excel in facility management because FHU exposed me to the daily operations of a school and districts in one of my courses,” he said.
Burt is a part of a growing cadre of educators known for turning around low performing schools where students struggle in the core subjects of math and reading. “In my hometown in Alabama, 40 percent of black males were dropping out of school. They didn’t have the best teachers and were not finishing school,” he said.
He has spent much of his career as a classroom teacher in Memphis City Schools, which merged with Shelby County Schools in 2013. He transitioned to administration, where he grew into one of the area’s leading turnaround principals. While Burt was principal of Ford Road Elementary, the school earned Reward status from the Tennessee Department of Education. A school with Reward status is ranked among the top five percent in the state for most academically improved. “A leader must be able to change culture, routines and expectations,” Burt said, adding that a successful turnaround principal is a problem solver with a strong drive to succeed.
Burt left his two positions as principal of Ford Road Elementary and as a turnaround leader for the iZone in March 2015 to coach turnaround principals across the nation for TNTP, formerly The New Teacher Project, a non-profit organization.
Throughout his career, Burt has leaned upon mentors to fine tune his leadership skills. FHU’s program provided him with thought partners, people he described as faculty members available for on-call advice.
“It was like having a mentor outside of your building,” he said. His experience at Freed-Hardeman led him to recommend two former Memphis colleagues to apply for the second educational doctorate cohort. “I’ve learned that a school’s leader must be able to examine the strengths and weaknesses of teachers and conduct constant check-ins. A principal has to be able to match a teachers’ skill set to a classroom instantaneously,” he said.
In late January, Burt began a new role as director of school leadership in Pinellas County, Florida. Burt will serve as a leadership coach and teacher recruiter for the five lowest performing schools in the district. His ultimate career goal is to serve as superintendent in an underserved, lower socioeconomic community.
“I try to be a beacon of hope and a voice for the voiceless,” Burt said.