The Ballard Community School District is riding a huge wave of success this school year. It began this fall, athletically, with a cross country championship and has continued this winter with boys’ and girls’ basketball and wrestling each winning conference titles. Recently, fine arts got it on the action as well, with five groups making the All-State Speech Contest. Most importantly, Ballard’s academic stature is also riding a wave of success, as reflected by its ranking as one of the elite districts in the state in a recent report.
All four Ballard locations achieved high marks in the most recent Iowa School Performance Profile, which is the measuring stick of the Every Student Succeeds Act. The statewide report card indicated that each building received a ranking of High Performing or Exceptional — the top two scoring categories out of six possible ratings.
The profile mostly measures competencies in reading, math and English, with an emphasis on student growth in math and reading. There are six categories of ratings, which range from a low end of Priority and Needs Improvement, to two middle categories of Acceptable and Commendable. The two highest rankings schools can achieve are labeled as High Performing and Exceptional.
Out of 1,302 schools statewide, less than two percent — 25 schools — achieved an Exceptional ranking. Ballard East Elementary and Ballard West Elementary proudly occupy two of those spots. Ballard’s other two locations, the middle school and high school, achieved a High Performing rating, ranking in the top 15 percent of all school locations across the state.
Ballard Superintendent Ottie Maxey credits much of the success to his team of people and also to the Ballard students.
“The Ballard Community School District continues to improve in the comprehensive report card,” Maxey said. “I think it speaks to strong leadership and the commitment of the teachers and students to the work that is ongoing. This puts Ballard into a small group of districts statewide that had performances at that level.”
Maxey also gives a lot of credit to the Ballard School Board, which has made classroom instructional materials a priority in recent years.
“Seven or eight years ago, if you were to audit our instructional materials, they were dated in a number of areas,” Maxey said. “The primary reason was due to budget reductions, and those materials were among the first to be cut. We are caught up now across the district. Our students are using the best materials, based on a strong foundation of research.”
The growth and development at the elementary levels is a feel-good story all its own — a story of hard work and redemption for Ballard administrators and staff. Several years ago, Ballard East was on the opposite end of the ratings.
“When I came to Ballard around eight years ago, Ballard East was on the Schools In Need of Assistance (SINA) list,” said Ballard East Principal Mike Manock. “The first couple of years, we were sending federally required letters to parents that essentially said, ‘If you want to go to a different school, you’re welcome to.’ We weren’t trying to kick kids out. It was a sanctioned letter. That’s not the first thing you want to do as a principal.”
Manock, along with Director of Teaching and Learning Katie Claeys, and others, began a comprehensive overhaul of the culture and teacher training process at the elementary level.
“We started bringing in experts from the Heartland AEA,” Manock said. “They are some of the best people I’ve seen. They are experts in their field, and they have helped drive and lead this learning with our teachers. We started with reading and then did the same with math. You had a change of culture with teachers who decided that ‘just because I’ve done it a certain way for 20 years, doesn’t mean it’s the right way.’ There were some tough times through that.”
Manock gives Claeys a lot of credit for her work with the Teacher Leadership and Compensation (TLC) program which helps teachers learn from each other and rewards effective teachers. Manock says he can’t speak highly enough about the program and the work Claeys has put into it. Most districts he speaks with aren’t having the same kinds of success that Ballard is.
Claeys is in her fifth year at Ballard and is excited to see all the hard work of administrators and teachers paying off.
“You can spend a lot of time trying to convince people to change their philosophy, but what we needed to do when we started this, was we needed to change the structures, the expectations, the tools, and strategies that we were asking people to use,” Claeys said. “Once you start making changes, it’s hard, but you do it together. You are in each other’s classrooms talking about ideas, then you start to get this data back, and it’s a snowball effect, and you start to see that this is really what works for kids.”
At the middle school level, Principal Tom Maher credits a change of schedule, which maximizes instructional time, and the “collective effort of all involved” (teachers, administrators, AEA, students and parents) as some of the key factors in his school’s ranking.
Like the middle school, Ballard High School also achieved a High Performing ranking. Principal John Ronca said he is excited about the future of the Ballard District, especially when he sees the amount of academic talent that is in the pipeline. He believes the combination of talented kids and talented teachers is a winning formula.
“I think we do a nice job in hiring people,” Ronca said. “It’s hugely important. And everyone is on the same page in the playbook. The conversations amongst staff are different now than they were three or four years ago. I couldn’t be more proud of the program that we have right now.”
Many of the Ballard administrators have a coaching history in their background and readily equate the same principles that make a team successful on the playing field with their classroom instructors.
“Winning builds winning, and success builds success,” Manock said. “As teachers get a taste of success, they want to know, ‘What else can we do, what else can you teach me?’ so they can pass that along to others.”
It is that winning culture which Maxey, Claeys and other administrators believe will make Ballard more than just a bedroom community in the future. They believe reports like this can be deciding factors for parents on where they want to move, and where they want to educate their children. They know that there is still much work to be done, and with so much focus on continuous improvement, they readily admit it’s sometimes hard to slow down and celebrate victories like these.
“The one thing I want people to understand is that we all know the number one factor (besides parenting) is the teacher in that classroom,” Manock said. “The teachers at Ballard are phenomenal. If there is one message I can give, it is that they are working their tails off and they just want to get better and better.”
(You can view the complete list of school rankings and more at educateiowa.gov or iaschoolperformance.gov)