Today, Burton is driven by thoughts of kids like him: kids who grow up poor and without the appropriate guidance, then get lost in the system, never to meet their full potential. “We need real equity in the classroom,” he says. “We need [all] kids to walk away believing they can do anything.”
While growing up in Rialto, Calif., with his father, education wasn’t heavily stressed. By the time he was a teenager, Burton had figured out what he needed to do to get by in high school – receiving three A’s and three F’s on his report card would kept him on the football field. Then, like millions of teens with little direction, it came to a halting stop. He flunked out.
It was only when his mother – a professor living on the East Coast – moved to California and enrolled him in a new school for what he calls a “super duper” senior year, that he began to change. His mother put an emphasis on his education and took time to help motivate, tutor, and push him daily. The difference in the school environments also helped. Going from being stuck all day in a school with 10 to 20 security guards to a school with only one guard and the freedom to leave the premises for lunch was eye-opening for Burton. His grades improved dramatically.
“[The new school] was a place where achievement was expected,” he says. “So, I got into Penn State and never looked back.”
At Penn State, Burton began reflecting on his own education and became eager to help “minority kids get into college and stay there.” He also continued to play football. So, when the National Football League (NFL) called offering an internship, Burton jumped at the opportunity, working at the NFL while completing his master’s studies in higher education at New York University. In the years following, he worked in various capacities for the NFL with promise of a strong future at the organization.
But, for Burton, it wasn’t quite enough. He experienced what he calls his “Jerry Maguire moment” when a random email on the purpose of life (“survive, be successful, be significant”) made him feel that he could make more of a difference in the world if he pursued a career path outside the NFL. Seeing Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) CEO Geoffrey Canada, Ed.M.’75, on the Oprah Winfrey Show clinched it: It was time to leave the NFL.
“I looked up the Harlem Children’s Zone and they had an opening,” he says. “It was a huge pay cut but I wanted to do it.”
Burton began at HCZ in the College Success Office, where he discovered that children, despite the school’s efforts to enroll children as young as possible, were still starting underprepared and without having had the same access as other children in the city.
“These kids have CEO potential and are not realizing it,” Burton says. “We have to start as early as possible. … We can’t afford to get it right four to five years down the road. We got to get it right now. We are losing kids every day.”
Eager for new opportunities, Burton headed to work for Education Pioneers, and later went to Stand For Children, gaining more responsibility with each position he took. He also gained experience working in various sectors of education, always thinking about what he could do to change the course of action in the present for kids.
While Burton considered going for a business degree, he discovered the Ed.L.D. Program and knew it was exactly what he was looking for. “If I want to change the system, I thought, where do I go to get what I need,” he says, noting that he wanted to learn about policy, business, leadership, and teaching and learning, all focuses of the Ed.L.D. Program.
Even in the early stages of the program, Burton sees his perspective already changing. Calling the first few weeks like “therapy,” he remarks that it’s amazing to be in a diverse room full of “24 other teachers” every day.
“The work is in first transforming yourself and building a network,” he says. “But it goes back to that Jerry Maguire moment. The cohort individually is successful but together you can be significant.”