Work Cut Out For Him

With only six weeks’ experience as Tulsa Public Schools superintendent under his belt, Dr. Keith Ballard has been daunted, impressed and, to say the least, busy.
Ballard accepted the position following the school board’s early termination of former super Dr. Michael Zolkoski’s contract. He began work Oct. 10.
Ballard came to TPS from the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, where he worked for nine years as executive director. He has served as superintendent of two suburban school districts — Claremore and Oolagah — but the job at TPS is his first experience in an urban school district.
“It’s been more of a challenge than perhaps I thought it would be,” Ballard said in a phone interview with Tulsa Business Journal. “I was a little surprised at the enormity of it, at the challenges that lie ahead of us.”
Ballard said he has been asking himself, “How do I impact an organization of this size? How do I really make a difference?”
A daunting task to say the least, especially in light of recent troubles clouding the Tulsa Academic Center, one of the school district’s alternative schools; ever-lowering test scores; and poor reports on the state of education in Oklahoma and in the city of Tulsa.
Ballard said he wasn’t totally discouraged, though.
“On the other hand, the other thing that was very obvious to me from the beginning is that there are real pockets of excellence in TPS,” Ballard said. “There are people here who are extraordinarily talented — people who have been here more than 30 years, who understand what urban education is about and are doing a magnificent job.
“Some of the schools in TPS are truly models of excellence, and we want to replicate those.”
Ballard mentioned Eugene Field Elementary, 2249 S. Phoenix Ave., as a beacon of light in TPS. Five years ago, he said, the school struggled with low enrollment and low performance. Now, it is “completely transformed.”
Ballard enters into his tenure with a somewhat idealistic philosophy: His goal for each of TPS’s 89 school sites is to educate and serve the whole child. That means providing for students’ safety, health and nutritional needs as well as their educational needs.
Ballard asserts that TPS is responsible for not only educating students in the district, but also for ensuring their safety and keeping them healthy.
“Part of my surprise, when I sat down with principals and asked, ‘What’s your biggest problem?’ they said, ‘Hygiene of the kids,’” Ballard said. “Some of these kids don’t have running water, they don’t go home to a safe place. Some don’t have a home to go to–they’re transient–or they don’t have good nutrition at their homes.”
Ballard said he knew issues like that were part of the problem with Tulsa schools but not to such an extent.
“If a kid needs a shirt, we need to put a shirt on that kid, or give the kid shoes that fit,” Ballard said. “We need to take care of their nutritional needs. We need to do that. We have to do more than tell the kids to ‘sit down and work hard’.”
Ballard said that 83 percent of students in TPS meet the criteria for free or reduced lunch. And, while he said poverty shouldn’t be an excuse for bad behavior or poor performance, “We must meet the needs of the whole child.”
“We have to break the cycle of poverty,” he said. “Education is the answer.
“A child has no control over the circumstances into which he’s born. It’s our moral obligation — and I do believe it’s a moral obligation — to take care of their health needs, their nutritional needs, their basic needs and to make sure we’re focused on good instruction.
“We have to emphasize to the child that there is another approach to life, through good education and on to meaningful employment.”
Ballard has put safety at the top of his list of priorities, and said that, so far, the district has made great strides in improving safety at the schools.
“We have to work diligently to ensure that our school zones are safe, structured places,” he said. “I’m not saying the schools are unsafe, but we need to improve.”
Ballard cited the partnership with TPS and the Tulsa Police Department that originated in 2006 as a “good first step.”
“We need to take a hard, careful look at the code of conduct,” added Ballard. “We need to have professional development programs with every person in the district to pinpoint what is accepted and what is not accepted in school. The key is good building leadership.”
Ballard said building leadership through the schools’ principals will enable TPS to recruit and retain good teachers.
He credited leadership with the positive changes at Eugene Field. Cindi Hemm is the principal of that school.
In order to improve the schools, in addition to putting good leaders in place, Ballard said, “We have to have the courage to change or remove poor teachers.”
One of the first actions Ballard took as superintendent was to reorganize district-level administrators.
Ballard reassigned Chief Academic Officer Mary Guinn to deputy superintendent for leadership, research and development; Area V Superintendent Jean Swanson to executive director of curriculum and leadership; and Superintendent Assistant for Quality Control Karen Rogers to director of Gear Up, operations and high school reform.
Ballard’s top lieutenants are Deputy Superintendent H.J. Green, Director of Accountability Roberta Ellis and Executive Director of Title I Robert Burton.
Ballard said it was important for him to put the school district in a position that would make it easy to manage. He liked the structure that was already in place, with area superintendents serving the superintendent, and he worked hard, he said, to put the right people in place within that structure.
“I talked to a lot of people inside and outside the school system,” Ballard said.
“I have to be well-organized and know exactly what I want to accomplish at the superintendent level. I am a highly collaborative person who wants a lot of involvement in decision-making. People should have a say in decisions that affect their daily lives,” he said. “I have to model that philosophy and put people in place who believe the same thing.”
Once he put the right people in place, Ballard said, “I had to make sure those people felt supported and empowered to do their work.”
He has spent his first few weeks meeting with person after person in the community, whether it be those working within the school district, members of the media, representatives from Tulsa’s philanthropic community or parents.
“It’s important to the school system that I build positive relationships with the media, the philanthropic and business communities, parents and faith-based organizations,” he said.
SDLqI’m about to get everything in place, and now I can start administering the schools,” Ballard said. “We’re just now getting to a place where we can make a meaningful impact.”
One of the first issues Ballard and his new administration will tackle is alternative education.
He believes there is a clear place for alternative education in TPS, and that it is an important vehicle for meeting the needs of many students who simply can’t handle the traditional classroom setting.
Some students work in order to support their families and need the option to attend school in the evenings. Some students don’t behave well in traditional classrooms, and they need specialized settings to suit their needs, Ballard said.
“We need to utilize alternative education settings and smaller settings, which are a key component in what we are trying to accomplish,” said Ballard.
Ballard said also high on his list is high school reform. He said the school district has shown improvements in elementary-level education over the last couple of years, and he wants to keep that momentum going into middle school and high school reform.
He said teachers, principals and administrators have to focus on what he calls the “Three Rs”: rigor, relevance and relationships. The curriculum needs to be not only rigorous, but also relevant to the real world.
And, he said, school district staff need to build relationships with students, especially with the children living in poverty.
“They have to know we care,” Ballard said. “If they think we don’t care, they’ll turn to other places where they think people care.”
Ballard, who has lived in the Tulsa area for a number of years, stated in interviews prior to his hiring at TPS that he’d like to be involved in education at the university level in three to five years.
When asked, despite his seeming passion for his new position, if he sees a time limit to his tenure at TPS, Ballard said it’s “open-ended.”
“I see my position as that of a servant. I took this job solely because I wanted to be a part of that service. I want to serve TPS and make a difference,” Ballard said.
He had been approached by the school board in both 2000, when David Sawyer was hired, and in 2006, when Zolkoski was hired.
Ballard said he will leave TPS “when my work here is finished.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Ballard said.
He said he sees himself at TPS for the next three to five years, and he believes, at some point, his service will come to a “logical conclusion.”
He said he is glad he took the job, and, for now, his sights remain set on reaching his short-term goals. He is thinking of what should be done right now.
“It’s very difficult when you know the decisions you make impact 42,000 kids,” he said.

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