Dalonte Burns Biography
Dalonte Burns is a father, husband, educator, and leader here in Chicago. He is a first-generation college graduate and a native Chicagoan, born and raised on the westside.
Dalonte graduated from Noble Street College Prep and has worn many hats within the Noble Schools community including serving as a Paraprofessional, Learning Specialist, Dean of Specialized Services and Dean of Instruction at Rowe-Clark Math & Science Academy before transitioning to his alma mater Noble Street College Prep where he served as Principal Resident.
Dalonte has committed his life’s work to education to serve his community in order to elevate and bring attention to the power of those most marginalized. He’s a firm believer in liberatory education being a key lever to multi-generational transformation.
Lion’s Pride (LP): You have been in education for over a decade now. What initially inspired you to pursue a career in education?
Dalonte Burns (DB): The thing that initially inspired me was how transformational it was for my father. My father was in insurance sales for most of his work life and the year before he passed away, he worked at a school, a Noble school.
He worked at Rowe-Clark and that year I was also in my first year of college. I’m the first one in my family to go to college so we would talk almost every day. The conversations wouldn’t be about me. It would start off with “how’s it going?” and then he would share all of these stories about his experiences now in education and the relationships he was building with students.
This let me know that there was something special happening because he would also have a certain level of joy that last year working at Rowe-Clark that I didn’t see before. Years later, I was at a gas station in the suburbs, far away from Rowe-Clark, and I came across a person that said, “I know you.” I responded “hey” even though I didn’t know them and they said “you’re Mr. Burns’s son.” I told them, “oh yea, that was my dad” and then they went on for five minutes about the impact he had on their lives in just the one year that he had with them.
Right at that moment, I realized there was something special about the work happening in schools. I always respected educators, but I think in that moment it just showed education is something that is transformational and spoke to the power of legacy. A legacy that I was also a part of with my own experience with education, being someone who was the first person in their family to go to college. Hearing that student share their story let me know how important this work is and once I had the opportunity to work in schools, I never got out.
The impact we have goes beyond our lifetime. We just never know our impact and I am grateful that sometimes we have folks that come back to tell us.
LP: That experience you had with your father is extremely powerful. Have you experienced any of those moments for yourself with a student you have taught who years later shared the personal impact you had on their life?
DB: I actually think about a parent, that’s the first one that comes to mind. It was the first group of students that I graduated. I was their advisor. It was after graduation, after the refreshments and the speeches, I am going to the parking lot and a parent runs up to me and just gives me the biggest hug. She’s in tears and tells me thank you and talks about the impact that I had on her son. I had no awareness of the impact and I didn’t think I had done anything, but she just kept going on and on about how grateful she was.
It makes me think about how the impact we have goes beyond our lifetime. We just never know our impact and I am grateful that sometimes we have folks that come back to tell us. I am hoping that the thing that I did, the work that I did with that student has a lasting impact. I am a recipient of that long lasting impact with the teachers I had in my life. And the thing that I experienced as a Black man in education, I am able to have a similar impact on someone else who looks like me, a Black boy.
LP: Transitioning a little bit to your work in regards to education equity. It is a phrase that we have heard so many times over the past two years and you have shared that you believe “education equity is providing students with opportunities to engage in education as a practice of freedom, positioning students with both the ability and opportunity to become active agents in the transformation of their world.” Can you elaborate more on what this means to you? How do you see your role as principal as working towards creating those experiences for students?
DB: When I think about liberation, I think about having the opportunity and ability to actualize your deepest aspirations. I don’t see it as just an output, I see it as an input. Not only what does it look like when we leave a space, but also what does it look like while we are engaging in a space? How are we engaging in that liberatory experience that speaks to the idea of who we are becoming? How do classrooms and school spaces become that for our students?
That’s the thing I hope to become as a principal in that when students walk into UIC College Prep, they are able to live out their aspirations. And it can be as simple as “I just need to make it through the day. I’ve had a rough morning” or “I am trying to re-evaluate the relationships I am in and my friendships.” How do we create that space where a student goes from “I want to raise my GPA” to “I want to engage in critical analysis about what I am learning?” Whatever the thing is, I want students to have the opportunity to take up space to live out those aspirations.
One thing that has been the history of what it meant to be a person of color, and speaking to my personal experience, a Black man in America, is not having the opportunity to live out or even at times, to discover those aspirations. For a long time, I have been trying to become a thing I did not see in front of me by being the first.
That used to be something I would say or I would hear others say with a sense of pride: “I am the first.” But there is also a little bit of that feeling like “dang, I shouldn’t be the first.”
I think folks still being the first speaks to the fact that we are not far removed from some of the things that have specifically impacted Black folks even though we try to create that distance in time. We are not that far removed and we are still in the early stages of trying to breakthrough so we can breathe and have the opportunity to live out our wildest dreams. I’m hoping schools can be a place where students have the opportunity to actualize that and that schools are not a microcosm of the experience of a Black man in America.
It’s hard because our educational system was grounded and created on these White supremacist and colonial practices. Now we have a unique and hard opportunity to really re-imagine what it looks like. But, it’s been like that for centuries and we have four years with a kid to try to do that. That’s hard.
LP: Our vision at Lion’s Pride is similar to yours where we want to provide a space where students can share their voices; for students to be able to feel like they have some say in programming and are free to take a journey in exploration and exploring who they are. When you think about our model with students being mentors and our curriculum which allows students to have these deep conversations and discussions, what are the things you are most looking forward to this year when it comes to the impact of the Lion’s Pride program on UICCP students? What do you hope students say about their experience in the program?
DB: If students say nothing else, I hope they say they felt seen, they felt heard, they felt valued, and that they belong. I want students to really speak to this sense of belonging. I believe that’s what we need to be able to position ourselves as a place for students to pursue those aspirations.
And we have to now deal with our own biases and mindsets and how to interrogate the things like the word “disrespect.” We have to question how what used to be defined as disrespect isn't actually disrespect, but a bias people have from their upbringing and in doing so, making sure we are not using our position of power to use this word of “disrespect” to silence the voices of students.
That tension is real, that tension is hard, but I also think there’s some beauty in that because I think that’s part of the transformational process in trying to re-imagine our schools. For example when someone hears a Black girl get loud and they get triggered as an adult when really the student is just happy. The question becomes how do I unpack that for myself so I am not silencing their joy and creating a space where they feel they don’t belong? Or how do I ensure students have that space to make a mistake and for it to be ok instead of a threat to the safety of the community?
Another question is how do we make sure we are not responding in a way to criminalize them? That can be what our educational system does for our students. But then when it's students who come from a place of privilege, it’s “boys will be boys.” Our students don’t get a chance to experience that forgiveness.
LP: That extension of grace is important and ensuring everyone receives that grace is the work we are tasked with. If you had to summarize your one big thing for schools to think about this year and this current moment when it comes to addressing student sense of belonging and personal biases in the education system to create equitable outcomes for students?
DB: I would say how do we create conditions in our schools for everybody to experience a sense of belonging. I know our kids are the focal point of our work, but even from a leadership perspective, what does it also mean for our staff community? How do we create those conditions for our entire school community to experience that sense of belonging and embrace that plus take ownership? Like whatever position we have, how do I ensure that I am making space for my colleagues so they feel seen, feel heard, and feel valued, and feel that belonging? So in summary, creating conditions so our community can experience a sense of belonging.
A Native Chicagoan Q&A
LP: Cubs or Sox?
DB: Sox even though I’m westside
LP: Sears Tower or Willis Tower?
DB: Sears Tower
LP: Deep dish or thin crust?
DB: I am going to go with thin crust. I don’t want to have to need a knife and fork to eat my pizza. Get a nice slice I can eat with my hands
LP: How do you like your Italian beef?
DB: Lightly dipped, not all the way drench with extra mozzarella cheese. I don’t need the extra peppers and not too much dip because then it runs all over the plate
LP: Favorite museum?
DB: The first thing that came to my mind was The Field Museum, but I don’t know how much I agree with what I am saying. Part of me wants to say the Shedd Aquarium. I haven’t been there in a long time, but I will say the Shedd Aquarium.
LP: Favorite Summertime Chi activity?
DB: Going to my mom’s house with my cousins and my siblings, hanging out on the deck, just getting outside with family.