Though Cynthia Burton's official title is family involvement specialist, she prefers to think of herself as a parent engagement specialist because she strives to ensure parents are actively engaged and not simply involved at the various Juvenile Court and Community Schools (JCCS) sites.
She oversees everything having to do with Title I parent involvement compliance and support for JCCS students' parents and family members. This includes connecting them with community resources, ensuring they're involved on various committees, keeping communication open, and helping to draft parent-related policies. She even helps parents with their children's court cases.
"We need to make sure parents are represented," she said. "I'm pretty vocal about that."
That can be challenging, she added, since many JCCS students do not have a long-term enrollment with us.
With more than 30 years of working with parents, guardians, and students in one role or another at SDCOE and Grossmont Union High School District, Burton has learned the importance of viewing the parents and students as whole people who come from different backgrounds, cultures, communities, and experiences.
"I have to get to the heart of the parents and students before I can get to their head," she said. "The more we feel and know, the more we can educate others."
She started her education career in 1976 as an instructional aide at San Diego County Juvenile Hall. That experience ignited her passion for helping students overcome some of the obstacles they face.
"There I realized how important adult support is to a student's success in life," she said.
Burton grew up in an upper middle-class, two-parent household and wanted to do all that she could to help the students in the court and community schools experience some opportunities for success that she had.
After about seven years with JCCS, she went to work at the Grossmont Union High School District as an interpreter for the deaf. She stayed there for 22 years, working her way up to serving as the district's community liaison. She has worked for SDCOE for nine years, including three as the family involvement specialist.
Two years ago, Burton established four parent support network centers to make it even easier for families to connect with needed resources and help. The centers are strategically located throughout the county—one in downtown San Diego, one in North County, one in South County, and one in East County.
Burton leads a three-person parent and family liaison team, which also includes family liaisons Mary Alvarado-Hernandez and Alicia Romero. The team connects with as many as 200 parents each month.
Eventually, she says she'd like to help educators, parents, and guardians across the globe as a motivational speaker. She currently works with DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative as a trainer and liaison for youth leaders in urban ministries. In this role, she helps youth leaders encourage teens to keep a positive mindset and encourage community building. The work is important, she said, because she believes that it takes a whole community to educate a child.
"We're not all holding hands together the way we should be," she said. "We just need to do a better job at it."