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Educational assistant Phyllis Burge honored for four decades of work with elementary special education students

HOLLY SCHOLZ - Crooked River Elementary special education educational assistant Phyllis Burge, left, helps plant a sienna maple tree in the schools west playground as CRE Assistant Principal Adam Stefanek holds up the tree.

It was the late summer of 1978 when Ochoco Elementary School Principal Royce Chadwick asked his friend Phyllis Burge to come in for a job interview.

He offered her the job. She accepted, and so began a 41-year career.

"I started in the fall of '78," Burge recalls. "It was when they first started a special ed classroom."

Four decades later, Burge can still be found working with special-needs students for the Crook County School District as a special education educational assistant.

But her tenure with the district comes to an end this week when she retires.

"Mrs. Burge has made a tremendous, tremendous mark in the school district and in this town," Crooked River Elementary Principal Kimberly Bonner told her students and staff Monday afternoon during a tree-planting ceremony.

Not only will Burge's legacy live on in the lives of generations of students and teachers she came to know over her four decades in local schools, but her life will touch future generations who will be able to rest on a bench in the shade of a maple tree.

"Just last year, Mrs. Burge said, 'You know, Mr. Stefanek, it sure would be nice if those kids had some shade out there on those playgrounds — somewhere where they could be underneath, reading a book,'" Bonner told her students.

Stefanek, who is the CRE assistant principal, liked the idea and with the help of some fellow staff, formulated a plan.

So on Monday, they planted four sierra maple trees on the Crooked River Elementary playgrounds — one for each of Burge's 10 years with the district.

Stefanek will build one bench for each of the two playgrounds. The benches will have plaques that say, "Dedicated to Mrs. Burge for her 41 years of service to CCSD."

Burge worked at Ochoco Elementary until the school closed in 2015. For the last four years, she has been a special education educational assistant at Crooked River Elementary.

The CRE student body and staff gathered around the tree-planting site on the west playground Monday afternoon and shared stories about Burge.

"I knew her when my kids were little when I was singing with her husband at the Community Church," said CRE music teacher Grace Deboodt, noting that she's known Burge for around 30 years.

"What would Jesus do is the same thing as what would Mrs. Burge do? And that was enough for me to know that she was someone that I needed to follow, I needed to learn from, I needed to try to be just like her — I don't know if I got very close," Deboodt said. "Phyllis, you have been a wonderful guidance in a lot of people's lives — big kids and little kids — and we love you very much."

A few students even spoke about her — one saying Mrs. Burge is a great part of the school and that he would miss her.

Another student thanked her for carrying his glasses at recess when he'd play wall ball in third grade.

"She is the best RTI teacher in the whole world," one of Burge's students said, referring to the response to intervention process.

CRE fifth-grade teacher MeriLe Glass said when she became a teacher 29 years ago, she looked to Burge to teach her what it was to be a good teacher.

"She's one of the reasons I'm the teacher that I am today," Glass said. "She helped me to see that kids are first. Kids are important."

Burge was pleased that the two school playgrounds will eventually have four shade trees to shelter the children from the hot sun.

"When I was out here last year on playground duty, I said, 'We need trees. The kids all congregated under the tree for shade,'" Burge said. "It's perfect. I don't like this attention, but if it's going to give them trees, I'll take it."

Bonner told her students that the maple tree leaves will change to a beautiful red in the fall.

"The leaves will fall off, and you can jump in them," she said as the children cheered.

Deboodt led the students in singing "You Are My Sunshine" while Bonner and Stefanek prepared to plant the maple tree. Soon, Burge joined in, gingerly shoveling soil into the hole.

Burge said the ceremony was a special time.

"I am very grateful and feel blessed," she said.

"The whole entire Crook County School District and community — how many people you have impacted," said special education teacher Katelyn Pahl. "You have truly shaped this community of people. You truly are the best example."

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