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Always student focused, Westwood Middle School principal wins national advocacy award

Westwood Middle School Principal Erika Burden, Ph.D., is photographed in the school on April 30, 2020, in Cheney, Wash. Burden has been principal at the school since it opened eight years ago and has over 17 years in education. In April she was named National Association of Secondary School Principals’ 2020 Advocacy Champion of the Year. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Westwood Middle School Principal Erika Burden, Ph.D., is photographed in the school on April 30, 2020, in Cheney, Wash. Burden has been principal at the school since it opened eight years ago and has over 17 years in education. In April she was named National Association of Secondary School Principals’ 2020 Advocacy Champion of the Year. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

When Erika Burden was growing up she didn’t always know where her next meal was coming from, but she knew this: Public education would be her ticket out of poverty and into a safer, healthier future.

Last month Burden, the principal of Westwood Middle School in the Cheney School District, was named the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ 2020 Advocacy Champion of the Year.

“Dr. Burden has worked tirelessly to improve education across the country, and we are proud to recognize her as the 2020 NASSP Advocacy Champion of the Year,” NASSP executive director JoAnn Bartoletti said in an email. “She has made concerted efforts to develop lasting, meaningful relationships with her state lawmakers and has driven collective impact and changed the lives of her students.”

Burden, a Shadle Park High School graduate who received degrees from Whitworth and Gonzaga universities, said education has always been paramount to her.

“I knew I was going to be a teacher since I was 7,” she said. “School was a place I felt sustained.”

After a stint teaching high school English, Burden became an elementary school counselor, and then moved into administration. She has been Westwood’s principal for eight years.

In her role as the middle level state coordinator for the national principals association, she promotes the group’s action alerts to school leaders across Washington state – empowering those leaders with tools to advocate for the needs of their students, schools, and communities. At the federal level, she has met with members of Congress and their staffs as part of the annual advocacy conference.

Roz Thompson, director of government relations and advocacy for the Association of Washington School Principals, said she values Burden’s commitment to advocacy.

“I met Erika at one of my first board meetings,” Thompson said. “She’s on the advocacy committee, and she’s such a reliable person. She’s a consistent voice and support for us. She goes above and beyond, reaching out to area legislators.”

One of those legislators had a memorable experience at Westwood. The NASSP was advocating about school safety issues, and Burden invited Rep. Jenny Graham to shadow her for a day.

“We had a lockdown situation while she was there,” Burden recalled. “She had a real life experience about the importance of a school resource officer in the school.”

Burden has worked with the NASSP to educate legislators about the vital need for mental health resources in schools.

“There aren’t a lot of facilities in Spokane that provide mental health resources for kids,” she said. “We advocated for funding for therapists right in the school. For Cheney that’s a big deal. We cover a huge geographic area and there’s a lot of poverty.”

For the past five years, Westwood has been able to have therapists working in the school.

“They’ve served over 30 families,” Burden said.

Telling the stories of those students and their families is her passion.

“She has such great stories about her kids,” Thompson said. “She always leads with that – she’s very student-focused.”

The advocacy award was supposed to be presented at a cocktail reception in Washington, D.C., but COVID-19 travel restrictions scuttled that plan. Instead, the organization hosted a Zoom meeting, featuring U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, who offered her congratulations and said she was disappointed not to be able to do so in person.

Burden didn’t mind skipping the formal party. She’s missing her students and trying to stay connected with them through Zoom.

“I believe in the power and promise of public education,” Burden said. “My advocacy is driven by student needs. I’m committed to do all I can to help our kids succeed.”

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