Corey Burns doesn’t know where he would be today if it hadn’t been for Duke Butkovich and Taryn Simms.
As parent liaisons at Seneca Ridge Middle School and Dominion High School in Sterling, Butkovich and Simms are resources for parents trying to guide their children through the school system. But their reach extends far beyond that basic job description. They also provide academic and moral support — and even necessities such as food and clothing — to many students.
Most parent liaisons in Loudoun County serve at only one school, and most schools have one liaison, officials said. Butkovich and Simms, however, have had a different arrangement from the beginning. When the parent liaison program started 20 years ago, each applied for positions at Sugarland Elementary and Seneca Ridge Middle schools.
“Both principals wanted both of us,” Butkovich said. “So they got together and agreed [to share us] equally in both places. And here we are, 20 years later.”
During their first year, they started the after-school Excel program to provide weekly academic assistance for selected students and to monitor their progress. They used small incentives to motivate the students.
Burns, 27, said he was failing almost every subject when he entered the Excel program in 1999, when he was in sixth grade. His grades improved that year, but he continued to struggle academically throughout middle school. In eighth grade, he was removed from a class for refusing to do the work. When Butkovich checked in on him, he threw his textbook at her.
“I remember the pain that I could see in her eyes,” Burns said.
Butkovich and Simms became “almost part of my family,” Burns said. His parents had divorced, and his father, who worked long hours, was raising him alone. The liaisons sometimes invited him to their homes and made meals for him, he said.
“With the constant checking in . . . I just didn’t want to let them down,” Burns said. “I could see in their eyes that they wanted just the best for me. That was motivation enough. I wanted to do it for them, to see the joy that came from that.”
As their own children grew older, Butkovich and Simms left Sugarland for Dominion, while keeping their positions at Seneca Ridge. Burns said they also supported him in high school at Dominion, where he had “a big turnaround” academically. He is now in his fourth year teaching world history at his alma mater.
“I don’t know where I would be without them, and I know I could speak for so many other kids,” Burns said. “The amount of work that they put in to ensure my success is monumental.”
Butkovich and Simms also started an after-school program at Dominion, similar to the one at Seneca Ridge, where they hold weekly sessions for selected students, including joining them for a meal. They also work with parents, coaching them on how to help their children succeed at school.
The needs are great at the two schools, where almost 33 percent of students receive free or reduced price meals, Seneca Ridge Principal Mark McDermott said.
Butkovich and Simms collect donations of food, clothing and household items, which they distribute to families with low incomes. They helped convert cottages at Seneca Ridge into distribution centers that resemble thrift stores, where families can pick up donated items by appointment or on designated free shopping days.
Many students volunteer to help collect, sort and distribute the donated items, often joined by alumni who received assistance when they were in school, Butkovich said.
McDermott echoed Burns, describing the work the liaisons do as “monumental.”
“There’s hundreds and hundreds of our families who have experienced success because of their efforts,” McDermott said. “They’re the best. It’s as simple as that.”
Barnes is a freelance writer.