Q&A with new KIPP leader: A 'big risk, big reward' strategy for Memphis' oldest charter schools

By Laura Testino

A brand new teacher, Antonio Burt arrived from Alabama to Memphis for his first job. It was a new city, and he didn’t know anyone in town. He’d been assigned to Cypress Middle School in North Memphis, a school community he soon realized was burdened by a lack of resources, impacting the way his sixth-grade students showed up to learn.

The middle school building now houses middle and high school students in KIPP Memphis charter schools. Nearly two decades later and with several leadership experiences under his belt, Burt is returning to the building as the leader of the charter network.

Interviewing for the director role of the charter network, a role he began in November, Burt returned to his first school building. Looking around the classrooms, he thought back to what he was like as a teacher, a career path he was inspired to choose by his own middle school teacher.

“A lot of risks, but often the risk comes with a lot of reward,” Burt said of his education career. “And the reward is on behalf of improving outcomes for kids that have oftentimes been marginalized and overlooked, and improving outcomes of communities  that have in recent times and in historical times been those communities that are disenfranchised or underserved.”

Burt began his leadership of the local network of the national charter school group after several years in leadership roles with Shelby County Schools, which most recently culminated with stints as the chief academic officer and the chief of schools. He was an early leader among the district’s iZone turnaround district focused on quickly improving academic outcomes for students at struggling schools, and can rattle off how some of Florida’s once worst-performing schools have improved through today, years after he was there to help turn them around.

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