In 2013, the Washington Post reported that only 27 percent of college graduates held jobs related to their field of study while USA Today reported about 80 percent of college students nationwide change their majors at least once. Yet South Carolina native Sarah Burbach, trained speech pathologist and assistant superintendent for the Morgan County Charter School System, discovered exactly what she wanted to do while in seventh grade and succeeded in doing it with passion and dedication.
“I value communication, but I didn’t even know that speech therapy existed as a job until I volunteered in the seventh grade with the Head Start program in South Carolina,” Burbach recalled. “They had a speech language pathologist – at that time called a speech therapist – and I got to work with her, and it was exactly what I wanted to do. We worked with children who have articulation problems, language issues, traumatic brain injuries, as well as stroke patients and stutterers. It was wonderful to be able to help someone communicate better.”
That feeling of purpose and fulfillment led Burbach to pursue a bachelor’s degree in speech correction from Columbia College, the same institution her mother and grandmother had also attended. After marrying the boy next door, she and her husband, David, moved to Athens where she earned a master’s degree from the University of Georgia in speech language pathology. She later completed the Educational Specialist (EdS) program and received certificates in educational leadership, curriculum, and supervision.
After graduate school, she worked more than 30 years in the Morgan County School System and has become an important asset not only as a speech pathologist at the primary school but also as the director of special education.
“Special education is my first love,” Burbach stated. “I am proud of the special education program here. We were given the Pace Setter Award in 2005 because of our wonderful teachers, parents, and students; that award is no longer presented but was a recognition for meeting and exceeding state targets.
“Another wonderful result is that our graduation rate for students with disabilities continues to increase. That is due to the hard work of our teachers and the students.
“When you sit on that stage and you watch children who have been in special education since they were 3-years-old, and they’re walking across that stage to get their diploma, that is why we’re here.”
Morgan County Charter School System Superintendent James Woodard described Burbach’s connection with the students.
“She knows every special education kid grade K-12. There’s never a situation that comes up where she doesn’t know who we’re talking about and what they’re going through and how they’ve progressed. She just has that personalization with what she does.”
This year’s high school graduation will be Burbach’s final time to attend as assistant superintendent as she is retiring at the end of the academic year. Well, sort of.
Beginning in July, Burbach will work part-time as the executive director for the Georgia Council of Administrators of Special Education (G-CASE), an affiliate of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders.
Burbach disclosed that applying for this new job was a little different from past experiences: “I had my first interview and wrote my first resume. My daughter’s advice was, ‘Momma, don’t think you can wing it and don’t think that you know everything they’re going to ask just because you’ve interviewed so many people.’ She was so right!
“I’ll be planning professional learning for special education directors and conferences. We also rally around our legislators with important bills and issues. I’m really excited to help represent all of the teachers and administrators in Georgia with our special education.”
Woodard spoke highly of Burbach’s passion for her work: “I truly believe that it is part of her personal mission to be a part of our school system. She’s always upbeat and positive and has been instrumental in our charter system. Working with student support for all students, especially those with special needs, has truly been her passion for the work she’s done. She’s created relationships with parents as well as with kids who have special needs. She’s absolutely an advocate for those kids. I think, if you look back at her career, you’ll find that she is highly regarded and well-known across the state in the special education field. Her institutional knowledge, commitment to this school system, dedication, loyalty, integrity, all those things will be sorely missed.”
Reflecting on her career, Burbach adds, “I’ve been here for 35 years. I have seen our system change from a rural school system to a system that other people and school systems look up to. We present at conferences, people come to observe what we’re doing from all over, people ask us to be speakers, and we write grants that we get. It’s been a wonderful career to work in a school system that is revered by other counties. We’re on the map.
“The relationship that we have with our staff, parents, and students is just so strong, tight, and sincere – it’s real. Everybody really cares about the success of our school system and the success of our students – everybody”.
Although Burbach is stepping away from the Board of Education, she is firmly rooted in Morgan County. In her upcoming free time, she enthusiastically discussed what she plans to do.
“I want to volunteer. Our new hospital is going to have a gift shop, and I think that would be fun. I want to volunteer for the organizations that mean so much to Morgan County and my family. This community has been so good to us that anything I can do to pay it back is what I want to do.”