Lynbrook Bids a Heartfelt Farewell to Dr. Burak

Superintendent Dr. Melissa Burak has served the Lynbrook school district for the past 30 years. On July 1, 2023, she will retire from her position and pass on the superintendency to Dr. Paul Lynch.

Burak has lived in Lynbrook her whole life. She grew up with a small family and attended a parochial school system. She continued her education past high school at Iona University’s honors program, where she pursued a major in education and a minor in mathematics. “I always knew I wanted to be a teacher,” Burak said. She remained at Iona to earn her master’s degree in educational computing. She taught as an adjunct professor at Iona before working as a K-8 teacher at St. Catherine’s of Sienna in Franklin Square. However, Burak always knew that she “wanted to work in the town that [she] was raised in.” In 1993, she was hired as a second-grade teacher at Marion Street. The following year, she taught first grade.

Burak fondly recalls her first years at Lynbrook. “I can still name all of [my students’] names,” she smiled. “I have fond memories of working with those kids each and every day.” One memory Burak has from her time at Marion Street is developing a pen pal program, where her second-grade students were matched with other second-graders from East New York. “We would just write letters and mail them,” Burak explained. “We would [also] create videos on VHS tapes.” At the end of the year, the students met each other and had a picnic at Grant Park. “It was a fascinating learning experience for the kids to describe themselves and their interests,” Burak said.

In 1995, Burak moved to the high school to teach various computer literacy courses, including Introduction to Computers, Computer Apps 1, and Computer Apps 2. Computer Apps 2 was the most advanced of the courses, where students would learn how to use programs from the Adobe Suite. “It was nice to expose the kids to spreadsheets, databases, and applications that they would use for their work experiences later on,” Burak said.

When Burak moved to the high school, she also became the director of Summer Playground. “I was a prior Mr. Bruno!” she exclaimed. The job entailed planning six weeks of programming for K-8 students in addition to booking field trips and organizing counselors. “It exposed me to the world of administrations,” Burak explained. 

Burak taught at the high school until 1997, when she was pulled out of the classroom mid-year to shadow then-Director of Technology Bernie Buchweitz. She became the director of communications, technology, and library media services after his retirement. As part of this position, Burak oversaw phone systems, libraries, and computer systems throughout the district. She held this position for three years, until July 2001.

Burak then became the assistant superintendent of business. In this position, she oversaw budgeting, capital projects, transportation, and civil service employees throughout the district. “It gave me great experience and exposure to learning different parts [of the district],” Burak said. “I’ve been in every basement, [on every ] roof, and [in every] nook and cranny of the district.”

 After the sudden passing of Superintendent Santo Barbarino in 2012, Burak was appointed interim superintendent. “I had one day to prepare. It was difficult,” she recalled. “I was hoping to console staff and students but still try to bring hope that we will move on stronger and better than we were in the past.” She emphasized the importance of looking ahead to a promising future during these dark times: “I always wear my sunglasses on my head because there’s brightness ahead.”

The next school year, Burak was officially appointed superintendent—the first female to hold the position in Lynbrook. However, only a few months in, Hurricane Sandy hit Lynbrook. Burak was in a difficult position, as she had to maintain communication with parents, students, and staff while telephone lines were down. “I was making robocalls knowing that half of the community didn’t have access to [telephones],” Burak said. 

Burak and Italian Teacher Lenny Bruno (Sal Brescia)

Despite the challenges presented by Hurricane Sandy, the community prevailed. Burak began working on ways to improve the district, one of them being an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) education. Burak specifically worked to foster young women’s involvement in STEAM classes. “There’s a stereotype that girls don’t continue science and math as they get older, and I really wanted to change that,” Burak said. Thus, Burak helped to establish the annual “Women in STEAM” night in May, which aims to “inspire young girls in the STEAM-related fields,” according to Burak. The night features a keynote speaker, different focus groups, and women who hold careers in various STEAM fields. 

Burak is also proud of the recent advancements in the science department. “Our science research program is growing. We’re having more Regeneron semifinalists, and we have a beautiful new research room and new science rooms,” she said. Burak also noted the live surgeries anatomy students view through the Liberty Science Center, the recent seal necropsy, and the new drone center that is currently being built. “I will always be a proponent of anything science-related,” Burak said.

Another project that Burak worked on was the One to World tablet program, which sought to place tablets in the hands of all students in the district. “We wanted to transform the way students learned,” Burak explained. The program was tested out initially in the middle schools. Middle schoolers were given tablets, and middle school staff members were given professional training for how to use the new technology. Unlike students from other districts, Lynbrook students received Dell tablets instead of iPads. “Ours was a more expensive proposition,” Burak said. Ultimately, however, Burak believes that the extra cost was ultimately beneficial for the students. 

Burak also helped to bring the Career Development Program (CDP) into fruition, which aims to teach special-education students life and career skills as well as academics. The program features a buddy system, where CDP students are paired with a LHS student. The two get to eat lunch, play games, and talk for an allotted amount of time during the day. Burak especially enjoys the Corner of the Sky performances, where CDP students participate in a play put together by their teachers and peer buddies. “Students who may have not been verbal were up there singing a song,” Burak said. “Music is a universal language. To see that shine through is special.”

Another accomplishment during Burak’s superintendency was the passing of the 2017 bond, which included building the new wing in the high school as well as improvements in other buildings throughout the district. She commented on the need for these changes. “LHS is the oldest functioning high school on Long Island,” Burak explained. The passing of this bond was no easy task. “The price ticket was high,” Burak said. The first bond proposed was not passed due to this high price. However, Burak did not give up. “When it failed, we went back to the drawing board, and we narrowed the scope of the project without losing the vision,” she said. 

The process for drafting designs for the LHS’s new wing and other projects throughout the district was long and complicated. “We had many, many, many meetings with the administration, director of facilities, and architects. We also sought advice from teachers,” she said. In addition, a bond attorney, financial advisor, and public relations company were hired. “There was a lot of planning leading up to the day of the vote,” Burak explained. The final bond, which focused on making improvements in schools other than just LHS, was passed.

LHS Principal Matthew Sarosy commented on the scope of this accomplishment. “[Burak] was able to accomplish something that was tried and failed over the years—and not only accomplish, but accomplish well, accomplish within budget, and accomplish within time, all during a pandemic,” Sarosy said. “That’s going to be her legacy. Even past her time remaining here, kids and the community as a whole will benefit from [the new wing].” Assistant Principal Sal Brescia noted that “when you step back and look at the [new wing], it’s emblematic of her vision for this district”–a vision to expand the arts and sciences.

Board of Education president William Belmont also commended Burak on the financial aspect of building the new wing. “[Finance] is one of the strongest places she came in. She’s always driven us to a point where we were very prudent with our expenditure,” Belmont said. The new wing was a “perfect example” of Burak’s ability to keep costs down while enhancing the district’s facilities, Belmont said.

Burak faced a large challenge during the latter end of her administration—the COVID-19 pandemic. She explained that the key to maintaining stability in the district was working as a team. “Dr. Lynch, Dr. Beleckas, Dr. Berman, and I were on the phone at 6:00 a.m., and we worked until 10:00 p.m.,” she recalled. “There were so many mandates that were put on schools during the shutdown, and there were a lot of services that we had to provide.” During this time, Burak began sending out weekly newsletters to all members of the district. “We had to make sure that the connection was still there between home and school,” she explained. Many modifications had to be made to traditional Lynbrook events, including graduation: “We had the [Class of 2020’s] famous beach graduation, and that went beautifully.” Ultimately, Burak noted that “we were challenged, and we did our best to meet the challenges.”

Brescia noted that Burak’s “driven” and “passionate” character was highlighted during the pandemic. “She listened to everyone and tried to be as accommodating as possible, but she always kept the students, their safety, and education as her primary focus,” he said. “There were tough meetings sometimes, but she left every meeting knowing that she was doing what was in the best interest of our kids.” Foreign Language Department Chairperson Lenny Bruno agreed: “Her main concern was the safety of all students and staff, and I really appreciate that because it was a tough time. She had the district in her mind every minute, thinking of the safety and health of everybody.”

On July 1, Burak will retire from her position as superintendent. She plans to spend her time traveling. “On the first day that students will be back to school, I will be going to Australia and New Zealand for three weeks,” she said. An avid lover of animals, Burak is excited to get to hold a koala on her trip. “I’ve [also] been hugged by an elephant, fed penguins, given a tiger a milk bottle, hugged a seal, and patted the tongue of a beluga whale,” she said. 

Burak, and avid animal lover, jus an elephant at an elephant rescue sit in Texas. (Melissa Burak )

Belmont reflected on Burak’s time as superintendent. “I have worked closely with her, sitting one-on-one with her and discussing important issues,” he said. “I’ve greatly enjoyed that discourse—debating and considering what would be in the best interest of the community.” He also noted that Burak “did a very good job of establishing the tone that we are a team.” The BOE has worked with Burak for a variety of issues, including financial policy, academic issues, COVID issues, and communicating with officials from Albany. “Being able to work with her is a very pleasurable experience, and it’s very rewarding to have accomplished all the things that we’ve accomplished,” Belmont said.

Brescia fondly recalls one of his first interactions with Burak. Entering the district in 2001 as an AP exam coordinator, he called Burak, who he believed to be the director of technology. However, he was unaware that Burak had been promoted to the assistant superintendent of business at this time. “I mistakenly called her, thinking she’d be the one to help set up the technology for the language AP exams,” Brescia recalled. “She was still gracious and helped me to get technology run for the AP exams. I’ve had a nice relationship with her ever since.”

As an assistant principal, Brescia works closely with Burak. “It would be shocking if a week went by without communicating with her,” he said. Whether it be a quick conversation to get a question answered or long discussions about scheduling and staffing, Brescia enjoys his conversations with Burak. He especially enjoyed getting to spend time with her on the music department’s trip to Disney World in February. “Dr. Burak, myself, and Mrs. Schaefer spent a lot of time together and went on a lot of rides,” Brescia said. “My best memory was riding with her on the Guardians of the Galaxy ride,” he laughed, recalling her hesitancy to board the rollercoaster that reaches speeds of up to 60 mph. He wishes Burak “happiness” and “continued travels” in the future.

Bruno has also enjoyed sharing field trips with Burak throughout the years. “She has come with us to Arthur Avenue and the French field trip in Manhattan, which included the South Street Seaport and the international market in NYC called Zabar’s,” Bruno said. “She has appreciated my work as language chairperson, and I hate to see her go. As I said to her, she’s too young to retire!” he exclaimed. “I wish her a wonderful, healthy, and enjoyable retirement.”

Sarosy is happy that Burak is “comfortable” with the decision to retire, but he will miss her presence in the district. He recalled his first impression of Burak: “She was always a very principled person. She was here for all the genuine and right reasons of putting kids first.” Sarosy believes that one of Burak’s lasting impacts on the district will be the hiring of the administrative team. “Dr. Burak has a responsibility to put the right people in the right positions. That’s been a major accomplishment of hers,” Sarosy said. “Even though [her superintendency] was only for 11 years, it was during those 11 years when a lot of people retired, so she brought new people in.”

One of Sarosy’s fondest memories with Burak is when he was offered the position as principal of LHS. “It was during a Class Night dress rehearsal last year,” Sarosy recalled. “She came into the gym and asked me to come see her. She offered me the position, and I remembered how proud she seemed.” Burak also helped to ease Sarosy’s transition to his new position this year. “She has a very open-doors policy when it comes to questions, and I appreciate that. As a new administrator, every incident is a little different,” he explained. Sarosy remembers Burak’s advice to him in regards to his new position: Be true to yourself. “I’ve often thought about that in making decisions because not every decision is going to be unanimous or popular immediately. If you’re true to yourself, and if you’re in it for the right reasons, then that’s your guiding light,” Sarosy said.

Although Burak will no longer be superintendent, she leaves Lynbrook with a piece of advice: “Look for the ways to stick together.” She continued, “The times we’re living in are very challenging. We have to remember that we are more alike than we are different.” Thank you, Dr. Burak, for steering Lynbrook through these challenging times. Enjoy your retirement!