OCDE’s new leader of alternative education banking on innovative and individualized instruction to engage students

Career paths don’t always follow straight lines. Vern Burton knows this as well as anyone.

In his younger days, Burton played semi-professional football. He took pre-med courses. He worked as a substitute teacher. He studied abroad at the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris.

Yet he would ultimately find his calling in alternative education at the Orange County Department of Education. Now, after serving for nearly a quarter-century as a teacher, assistant principal and principal in ACCESS, Burton has been selected to oversee the program. His new title is assistant superintendent.

Vern Burton
Vern Burton was selected in July to take over as assistant superintendent of OCDE’s alternative education program, known as ACCESS.

“I thought by this time in my life I’d be living in the south of France, working on my 15th film, or being an announcer in the NFL,” he said with a smile. “But I am so excited to continue to serve OCDE’s alternative education division in this capacity, where I get to work with deeply committed and talented educators on behalf of our students and families. This is a great honor. It really is.”

Orange County Superintendent Al Mijares said he believes Burton is the right educational leader for the moment.

“The mission of ACCESS is critical,” Mijares said, “and extending its reach, despite enrollment challenges, needs the continuity of strong leadership, which Mr. Burton has demonstrated time and again for over two decades in ACCESS. I believe Vern has the instructional insight and integrity to lead with the highest degree of professionalism.”

Pathways to better futures

ACCESS is an acronym that stands for Alternative, Community and Correctional Education Schools and Services. The division serves about 10,000 students a year, including many who have encountered significant academic and social obstacles. All together, it’s a program that is both expansive and diverse.

Consider that ACCESS operates community day schools, offers independent study options, and educates incarcerated students from county correctional programs. At the same time, the division oversees the Community Home Education Program for families who choose to home-school their children, as well as OCDE’s Pacific Coast High School, which offers on-campus and online coursework for students seeking an alternative to the traditional high school experience.

There are also niche programs like Sunburst Youth Academy, which is a military-style high school run in partnership with the National Guard, and the College and Career Preparatory Academy, a charter school for young adults who need to complete their high school graduation requirements.

At its core, ACCESS is about credit recovery, career preparation, individualized support and creating pathways to better futures — even if there are a few twists and turns along the way. But there are often misconceptions about students who need a little help to get back on track. These students are sometimes labeled as “at risk.” To Burton, they are “at promise.”

“These are students who just didn’t have the same breaks,” he said. “These are kids who, in some cases, have endured traumatic experiences. They haven’t been as lucky as some of the other kids, and maybe they don’t yet have the emotional skills to deal with some of the stuff that they’re facing.”

A unique lens on ACCESS

Burton says it takes a special kind of staff member to work in alternative education settings — and to understand that it’s usually not personal when a student lashes out.

“That is the result of 20 things that happened to that student before they came to school,” he said. “Maybe he said in his mind, ‘The next person who tells me to do something, that’s it.’ So we’re dealing with a lot of heavy emotions, and of course the pandemic makes it all worse.”

Burton started out as a teacher in the program in 1997 before moving into the administrative ranks as an assistant principal and principal. He’s worked at community schools, Juvenile Hall and the Rio Contiguo program for students completing substance abuse treatment.

Most recently, he served as principal of ACCESS Area 3, which spans the Garden Grove, Orange, Placentia-Yorba Linda, Santa Ana and Tustin unified school districts, along with the Anaheim Union High and Fullerton school districts.

His experiences painted a comprehensive picture of alternative education — and its potential to change lives. Then came a global pandemic that changed everything.

When school campuses closed, Burton led the divisional task force to evaluate educational options for ACCESS in accordance with health and safety protocols. He also played a key role on the division’s leadership team, collaborating with principals and other administrators to address the needs of thousands of students and families across the county.

“Vern has been a key leader in ACCESS strategic planning and has demonstrated his ability to lead teams through challenging circumstances,” Superintendent Mijares said.

Sweet Home Chicago

A native of Chicago, Burton still retains his fan allegiance to his hometown Bears, Bulls and Cubs. Yet he’s spent much of his life out west, with a stop in Arizona before finishing high school in South Orange County.

He played football at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo and was recruited as a player-coach for a sports development league that was taking shape in Europe. It was the late ’80s, and as a 6-foot-4 barrel-chested linebacker, Burton was hard to miss in countries like Finland and Sweden.

“It’s almost like celebrity-type status,” he said. “Locals would say, ‘Oh, he’s an American football player.’ And you’re in kind of these small towns. So it was just fun. It was a great opportunity.”

After returning home to California, he headed back to Europe for a unique study-abroad program at the Sorbonne in France. He took French history and language courses, and, most notably, he met his future wife, who was also an out-of-towner. She was from Fountain Valley.

“We met in Chartres in the south of France in this huge medieval church,” he said. “And I, who was never going to get married, said ‘When I get married, I’m going to get married in this church.’ My wife was the one I was telling this to, along with her friends on the trip. And the rest is history.”

Re-engaging students

A fan of books by J.R.R. Tolkien, Herman Melville and Alan Moore, as well as films by Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick, Burton earned his master’s degree in educational administration from Pepperdine University, and he’s currently pursuing his doctoral degree in organizational leadership at California Baptist University. He has been an adjunct professor in the international studies program at Cal State Fullerton.

Among his ACCESS accomplishments, he’s served as a restorative practices trainer, a site team evaluator for the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and chair of OCDE’s science curriculum committee. He has also organized “Coffee with the Principal” events to better connect with local families, and he helped launch the ACCESS “Careers without Borders” series, which recruits high-profile figures to share their inspirational stories.

Inspiring students may prove critical to growing and sustaining enrollment. Even before the pandemic, ACCESS saw its numbers drop steadily over the previous decade, driven by changes to the juvenile justice system and the state’s funding model for public schools. Burton and his team now face the added challenge of re-engaging students who have been in survival mode for much of the last 18 months. Many have been traumatized by isolation and loss.

Amid the summer’s Delta surge, schools across the country have been working to maintain a sense of normalcy while grappling with ever-changing COVID-19 protocols. But the challenges are more acute in alternative education settings.

Innovative lessons

When distance learning began in the spring of 2020, a number of ACCESS students simply disconnected, and some have yet to return. Burton and his team are banking on innovative, engaging and individualized lessons to bring them back.

As an example, ACCESS recently piloted a virtual reality program that focuses on building social-emotional skills, which are foundational to academic success. Burton said students wear headsets to enter a virtual landscape where they pick avatars and learn conflict resolution and de-escalation skills. The program, which has the appeal of a fully immersive video game, is run through a partnership with the Peace Literacy Institute.

Burton also sees opportunities to empower young learners through culturally responsive instruction, which is a way to help students see themselves and their cultures as part of the story of the United States.

“With cultural proficiency, we’re all somewhere on that continuum of it,” he said. “And so we just want to get further along the continuum. It’s a journey.”

Measuring success

Moving forward, the program’s successes will be measured a number of ways, including attendance rates and test scores, which are staples of the California School Dashboard. But Burton said he’ll be tracking other indicators as well.

“When I see classrooms full of kids and they’re learning and they’re engaged and I can come in and have a conversation, that’s one of the ways,” he said. “Are they happy? Are they coming in? Are they engaged? Are we getting a lot of family involvement? Those aspects are telling.”

There is no denying that the pandemic has disrupted educational systems around the world and created barriers to learning. Indeed, silver linings may be difficult to come by these days. But Burton hopes to leverage some of the tools that made distance learning possible to better engage with students and their families.

“We have all this new technology, and it’s going to look different — but in a lot of good ways,” he said. “Just even with how we’re meeting (via Zoom) and how we’re approaching the kids right now. We are learning a lot through this. So our delivery model is going to continue to grow and change.”

“I think all schools are going to change through this,” he added, “and we are definitely going to be part of that.”