For years, David Burleson had hoped he would be able to finish up his career at the elementary school level.
After a nearly 35-year career as a teacher and principal at the high school level and then as an administrator at the district level, elementary education was the one challenge Burleson had yet to take on. The challenge came to him in 2017 when New Dimension Charter School contacted him about an opening for a school director.
On Saturday, after leading the school to take on bold new challenges in the face of an historic pandemic, Burleson’s retirement will put the finishing touches on a career spanning five decades and seeing him excel at every level from Freedom High School football coach, math teacher and principal to superintendent and charter school director.
Under Burleson’s leadership as superintendent, Burke County Schools blazed new trails and rose to new heights in the opening years of the 21st Century.
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“I had an outstanding board to work with and a great staff,” Burleson told The News Herald. “We did a lot of great things. We reduced class sizes and brought the (Buster, Betsy and Beebee) buses in.”
Those pre-K buses won the district a National Magna Award of Excellence. Burleson also won North Carolina Principal of the Year during his time at Freedom High School and BCPS made significant progress in reducing dropout rates and raising standardized test scores.
When the Board of Education bought out his contract in 2009, Burleson bounced back. Looking back, he now says it gave him opportunities to learn and grow that he never would have finished with his career in Burke County.
“At the time it was very traumatic,” he said. “But in the long run, it really helped me as a school leader, and it helped me as a person.”
Burleson spent the next two years working in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools as a principal and then assistant superintendent under Donald Martin.
“(Martin was) one of the brightest men I’ve ever met,” Burleson said. “I really learned a lot about being a superintendent, even though I had been one in Burke County for 10 years … I guess, hindsight being 20/20, I wish I had that opportunity before I was superintendent the first time.”
In 2011, Burleson returned to his childhood home of Avery County, the place where he was first inspired to go into education by his seventh-grade math teacher at Minneapolis Elementary School.
Burleson said becoming the superintendent of Avery County Schools was a special moment he never would have experienced had it not been for his ouster in 2009.
As for those behind the controversial decision to remove him, Burleson said he doesn’t harbor any animosity.
“That took a little time,” he said. “I’ve been able to move beyond that. I have been able to address the person I felt most responsible, shake his hand and move on.”
Burleson’s stint in Avery County produced two of the accomplishments he is most proud of, turning around the district’s slumping graduation rate and winning North Carolina High School Athletic Association Superintendent of the Year in 2016.
“We took the school system from having one of the highest dropout rates in the state to the lowest,” Burleson said. “We were able to do something pretty special there. We saw some kids, who in the past would never have graduated, graduate, learn to read and go on to (higher education) school.”
Still, when the opportunity came to return to Burke County in the form of an appointment to serve as the Executive Director of Burke United Christian Ministries, Burleson jumped at it.
Two years later, he was back in education at New Dimensions. During his tenure at New Dimensions, Burleson led the school to new heights with the school more than doubling its enrollment and adding several new programs.
“He has made the school better,” said New Dimensions’ board member Regina Rhodes. “He brought in things that we had wanted to do but weren’t sure we would be able to do.”
She said under Burleson, the school added a full-time nurse, resource officer, new counseling staff and a STEAM program.
More than all his accolades and accomplishments, though, those who worked with Burleson said it was his character that set him apart.
“His big legacy was he tried to get to every individual and every family,” said Sam Wilkinson, who coached against him during Burleson’s tenure as Freedom’s football coach and served on the Board of Education during Burleson’s tenure as superintendent. “Every time there was a great need, he was the first person there.”
Wilkinson recalled the time after losing to Burleson’s Patriots, he watched as Burleson skipped the celebration at midfield to go shake hands with each one of the East Burke players, congratulating them on a hard-fought game.
“That’s the kind of person he was,” Wilkinson said. “If anybody I’ve ever known in my life followed the principles of a real Christian man, it was him.”
Burleson’s character was on display when he stepped into the role of superintendent in 2000.
“If there was a medal of honor in education, he’d deserve it because he went way beyond the call of duty,” Wilkinson said.
Rexanna Lowman said Burleson’s work ethic always stood out to her.
“He was always the first in the office and the last to leave,” she said.
She said his people-first leadership approach was the main inspiration for her to go into school administration.
“I always admired his kindness to others,” Lowman said. “He is a person of high character.”
For Burleson, people-first leadership made sense because it was the people who made his job worth doing. He said the fondest memories of his career are the interactions with the people he has been able to impact.
“I remember walking down the street and a young lady came up to me and said, ‘Dr. Burleson I want to thank you for keeping me in school, you’re the reason I graduated,’” he said. “That means probably more to me than anything else.”
He also recounted the time a server at a Morganton restaurant thanked him for being “the nicest guy to ever suspend” her.
“If you can suspend somebody from school and they know you still care about them, I guess that’s a good thing,” Burleson said.
He said knowing the impact he has made on the lives of his students is more important to him than any award he could win or honor he could receive. And he said former students and teachers still sometimes come up to him when he is out and about.
“You’re just hoping they have a nametag on,” Burleson said. “Fortunately, many times I remember their names.”
As for how Burleson is able to remember so many people, he said it has always been important for him to get to know the kids.
“It was easier then than it is now,” he said. “I remember students I had in 1982 better than some I had a few years ago.”
A strong foundation
In retirement, Burleson plans to spend more time with family.
“It is time to concentrate on being a husband, father and grandfather,” he wrote in his resignation letter to New Dimensions.
School leaders told The News Herald that Burleson has set them up for a smooth transition, giving them the time and flexibility they will need to find a new director. Administrator Misty Dillingham said Burleson has also given the school the foundation it needs for a long successful future.
“Dr. Burleson has been a wonderful director,” she said. “He has built a great foundation that we’re going to continue to grow on.”