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Spotlight on Bay Path University Alumna: Nancy Burke '14

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“Bay Path University changed my life and I am forever grateful,” exclaimed Nancy Burke '14, a graduate of Bay Path University and a special education paraprofessional at Haverhill High School.

Burke is an activist and leader in farm-to-school activities who has received local, state, and national recognition for her advocacy work for garden-based learning. She is the founder of a gardening program specifically tailored to students with special needs at Haverhill High School.

“I was inspired to start a school garden when I realized that students didn’t know how food was grown or where it came from, and that kids were not getting enough time outside each day,” she said.

Burke transformed a neglected courtyard at Haverhill High into an outdoor learning lab with wheelchair-accessible raised beds for vegetable, herb, and berry gardens. She has raised over $21,000 in grant money to buy lumber, plants, trees, and picnic tables for the garden. She credits Bay Path with teaching her the leadership skills and career confidence needed to be a trailblazer in her field.

“Getting my degree as an adult student was a transformative experience,” Burke said. “The staff, faculty, and other students were so supportive of me, and each other. Everyone cared about each other’s personal and professional goals. And Bay Path taught me to never take no for an answer when fundraising for students.”

After graduating in 2012, she began her garden project at Haverhill High School with a salsa garden within a single, accessible raised bed where she was able to bring together her special education students. The garden has become a space for high school students with different interests and backgrounds, from the football and wrestling teams to the students from the Jr. ROTC Programs, to come together as a community.

“As part of the garden program, students are introduced to basic food preparation skills in the high school’s Life Skills Apartment, as well as math skills as they relate to measuring quantities, shopping for groceries and maintaining a food budget,” Burke said. 

Across the state and country, the National Education Association and the Massachusetts Teachers Association are using her garden as an example for other schools to follow. Burke has planted seeds of success by winning top awards for her work in garden-based learning. For the fourth year in a row, her students have entered their harvest crops into the Topsfield Fair competition and won first-place ribbons for sunflowers, swiss chard, red hot peppers, and cherry tomatoes.

Burke is at the forefront of the farm to school movement, innovating and setting inspiring examples from which other educators can learn. In October 2018, she was one of three people in the state to receive the Kale Blazer Award during a ceremony at the Statehouse in Boston as part of Massachusetts Farm to School Awareness Day. She is also the recipient of Haverhill’s 2015 Roslyn Jaffee Award for outstanding professional work, the 2016 Red Sox Education Professional MVP of the Year, the 2017 Massachusetts Teachers Association Paraprofessional Support Person of the Year, the National Bammy Award by the Academy of Education, Arts, and Sciences, and the 2017 Bay Path University Alumni Carpe Diem Award.

Burke speaks across the country advocating for school gardens and hopes to continue to be an advocate for special education children and the farm to school movement for many years to come.

Bay Path University is proud to call Nancy Burke an alumna of its Eastern Massachusetts One Day A Week Saturday program. Learn more about furthering your education at our Concord, Massachusetts, campus location