Melissa Burkhardt-Shields, originally of Pueblo, began her career in education from a place of adversity. She took a job teaching second grade at now-shuttered Helen Hunt Elementary School, in Colorado Springs’ Hillside neighborhood, which at the time was one of the lowest performing student bodies in the state.
That year, the entire established staff had been asked to reapply for their jobs, and only one had been rehired. So in taking that job, Burkhardt-Shields had accepted a challenge to increase student achievement for an at-risk student population that was upset from the loss of established educators. At the time, she was 21 years old.
“The first year at Hunt was the most challenging year of my entire career,” she said. “Towards the end of my first year, the principal said, ‘You’ve learned probably seven years worth of information and teaching experience in this one year.’”
Today, Burkhardt-Shields is the director of Adult and Family Education at Colorado Springs School District 11’s Roy J. Wasson Academic Campus, where she works with at-risk populations to keep them invested in educating themselves and improving their economic wherewithal. She’s been part of D11 for 25 years now, and has led adult and family education for 17. “Everything I learned early on taught me what it takes to help adults thrive in our community,” she said, “and what it takes to help them get out of poverty.”
When she started at Hunt Elementary, Burkhardt-Shields didn’t have a strong mental picture of what poverty looked like in the Springs. The staff’s first parent-teacher conferences were held in the parents’ homes, rather than at school, which gave her a direct view of these families and their environments.
“I think one of the most powerful things I learned back then was when we went on a few field trips,” Burkhardt-Shields said. “I had children who had never been to the Garden of the Gods. They had never seen any of the places we take for granted here in Colorado Springs.”
In 2002, the school won the Governor’s Distinguished Improvement Awards for their successes. By that time, Burkhardt-Shields had already been given a student teacher to train and had been sent to Florida to study programs that might benefit Hunt Elementary. On recommendation by Hunt Elementary Principal Jan Noble, she began studying for her principal’s license at the University of Denver at 26 — a remarkably young age.
Beyond the Hunt Elementary-established practice of meeting people where they are in order to help, Burkhardt-Shields also has a knack for partnerships and collaboration. She worked with Debbie Sagen, VP for workforce development at Pikes Peak Community College, and Traci Marques, CEO of the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, to point 17-year-olds from low-income homes toward community-tailored occupational training before they have a diploma or GED. She’s worked with local churches to teach refugees, with Teller County organizations to fund their GED classes, and with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office to teach jail inmates, to name a few.
Education goes back to the very beginning for Burkhardt-Shields. Her parents were both educators — her father was her teacher in elementary school, and her mother in high school — so education was everything. She always wanted to be an educator, and though her path has taken her unexpected places, she’s found something powerful and satisfying.
“We’re taking individuals who are out there in society who no one is really looking at or seeing,” she said. “They’re hiding in the shadows most of the time. And [the work we do] brings people to a place where they feel like they’re somebody.”