When he’s out of his office during passing periods, Principal Chris Walker, ’03, greets students by name, asking about a certain class or project and sometimes giving them a pat on the shoulder. He knows his roughly 1,300 charges at Muncie Central High School, where he’s starting his fourth year.

He knows that nearly each one faces challenges. And he has faith in all of them.

“When they come through the door, I truly believe our students’ intentions are to give us their best every day,” Walker said. ”Unfortunately, there are things that happen, whether at school or at home, that prevent them from being able to. And it’s our job to meet them in the middle to hopefully make sure that doesn’t completely derail their day, derail their week, their semester, their year, their high school career.

“If we don’t grow up in the exact same environment, I can’t completely say, ‘I understand. I get it.’ A lot of times, I break down the barrier by saying, ‘I don’t understand. I don’t get it. But I’m willing to listen, and I’m willing to learn. And I want you to know that my job here is to make sure you’re successful. So, how do we define success, and how do we go through that?’

“It can take a while to get to and through those conversations, but it can change someone’s life.”

Embracing the partnership

Though he grew up in the small community of Middletown, Indiana, Walker is in his element leading an urban community school. It’s a love he gained while student teaching in Ball State’s Urban Semester Program and has endured as a teacher, athletics director, and academic administrator in three urban high schools, including two in Indianapolis. He discussed his vision for Muncie Central during his application process, said Drew Shermeta, an economics and world history teacher who’s been at Central four years.

“What came through in his interviews,” he said, “was that his family would be a part of this community and that his children would grow up in this community.”

Returning to the city where they met as undergraduates was appealing to Walker and his wife, Katie (Haskett) Walker, ’00. “Ball State was very good to us,” said Chris, who also has a master’s in educational administration from Butler University. Their three children have grown to love the community that’s now home — and all say Ball State is a school they’d love to attend.

Early in 2018, when Ball State started talking about partnering with Muncie Community Schools (MCS), Walker saw exciting opportunities. First, it’d be a huge step forward for the district to no longer be labeled distressed or financially impaired.

State legislation in May 2018 gave Ball State the opportunity to partner with MCS. The University appointed a new school board from the community and campus, and a joint council is developing a long-term plan for both academic innovation and financial viability that the General Assembly is to get in June 2020.

In the renovated band room, Walker chats with musicians (from left) Hanna Tran, now a Muncie Central junior; Sam Baule, 2019 valedictorian who is attending the University of Iowa this year; and Kennedy Little, now a Central senior. (Photo by Samantha Strahan)

Walker’s been positive about the partnership from the get-go, said Shermeta. “He has been consistent in finding ways to identify and explain why the partnership could be a good thing. … He is very visible and very willing to build relationships that will help make the partnership successful.”

The biggest barrier Walker’s taken on, Shermeta said, is perception. “It would have been very easy for our building to fall into what is commonly expected of urban schools, and with that, everyone adheres to a lower expectation, which would be a huge barrier to our growth. … He has been consistent in his framing of the positive experiences that the kids have here.”

Progress underway

The partnership’s benefited Walker’s school early. Thanks in large part to Ball State faculty and staff, he said, Central reinstated Project Lead The Way last fall before it had to be canceled due to staffing issues. The national science, technology, engineering, and math program is headed by Ball State alumnus Vince Bertram.

Central’s relationship with Teachers College has also greatly expanded, and Walker noted a tremendous number of Ball State student teachers are getting placed at his school. He works closely with Cresta Hancock, ’04 MA ’16, a lecturer of secondary education at Ball State and liaison for Professional Development Schools, a nationwide partnership between schools and universities that helps prepare future educators while offering professional development for all participants.

Walker’s interaction with Central students, Hancock said, “is very real-life but very positive and upbeat.” He’s taken the same approach when talking with her Ball State students during their practicum course, usually a semester before student teaching. “(He talked) about everything from classroom management to what he looks for when he’s hiring new teachers.”

In May, Ball State President Geoffrey S. Mearns presented the Mearns/Proud Family Scholarship to Central senior Tiana Dunn. He and his wife, Jennifer, established the scholarship to benefit Muncie Central graduates who are first-generation college students. (Photo by Samantha Strahan)

Another result of the more robust town-gown relationship is that Central is among the district schools letting more than 30 Ball State freshmen observe classes every semester. Each sits in a different classroom weekly to see if this career’s for them. It was Ball State’s idea, and Walker was immediately on board, which didn’t surprise Hancock.

“I think he is someone who is constantly thinking about how we can move forward, how we can make things better.”

No rose-colored glasses

Yet Walker doesn’t just see rainbows and unicorns. He knows there are challenges, including scores on the 10th-grade ISTEP+ measure of student achievement. About 18 percent of Central students passed the English/language arts and math tests in Spring 2018, the most recent scores available. The state average was about 34 percent.

“What do we do? We own where we are,” Walker said of the scores. “And then we have to figure out where it is we’re wanting to go and how do we get on that road map.”

To better home in on students’ GPS, Central uses the Northwest Evaluation Association test, given thrice yearly to assess each student’s progress in English and math. Those assessments show a number of 10th-graders at third- or fourth-grade levels, he explained. “What our teachers have done a phenomenal job of embracing is: Let’s meet our students where they are, and then let’s focus on their growth.”

Teachers review the skills embedded in ISTEP+ standards, then devise a way to help students practice those skills daily so they can break down questions to answer them correctly. As Walker noted, “We want you to pass that test before you graduate. It is your graduation exam.

“I feel like with anything, if we have the right teachers who are putting in the work and truly looking at it from the standpoint of getting our students to grow, at the end of the day, we’re going to make sure those students are successful.”

For high-performing students, Central has partnered with the University of Notre Dame in an Advanced Placement (AP) incentive program since Walker’s first year. Students get $100 for each AP exam they score a 3, 4, or 5 on. Notre Dame ponies up the money for English, math, and science tests; the high school rewards students doing well in other areas with funds donated by Ball Brothers Foundation. A total of $15,000 was passed out to Central students at a December banquet.

Another point of pride for Walker is that some Central students have successfully transferred to The Indiana Academy on Ball State’s campus.

“I take it as a notch in our cap, the number of kids who make it into the Academy. One of the first sophomores they ever let into the Academy was a kid who went here as a freshman. I wish he would’ve stayed here, but I’m proud of the fact that that’s a Muncie Central kid that is now at the Academy.”

The teacher

Former teachers inspired Walker to go into the field, and it remains in his heart as he helps his youngest child, Grace, with homework at the dining room table (she’s in sixth grade this year). She reads aloud choices in the vocabulary-building Caesar’s English workbook and, when she has questions, he gently gives her other examples illustrating the point. Or not. Making students think is key to teaching.

Walker helps his youngest child, Grace, with homework at the family’s dining room table. Returning with their three children to the city where they met as Ball State undergrads appealed to Walker and his wife, Katie. (Photo by Samantha Strahan)

His mild approach is striking when you learn he’s spent most of his career at three schools directing athletics, not always a gig for soft-spoken folks. But it’s the same voice he uses when talking in his office or the hallways, and it communicates energy, enthusiasm, and passion.

He’s kept in touch with teachers he met while student teaching, including the athletic director at Indianapolis’ Broad Ripple High School. Since then, Keith Burke’s been Walker’s mentor and hired him for two jobs, most recently at Marion High School, where Burke is principal.

“Be part of the solution, not the problem,” Burke and Walker would exhort their athletes and colleagues. Burke said he sees Walker doing that.

“The first priority in education is that you want what’s best for your students and that you care enough about them to advocate for them and get them what they need. And I think Chris definitely does that.”

At Marion, Burke and Walker revamped the alternative school. Walker brought those basics to Central and got latitude to put it together. That fits with what Ball State’s Hancock has seen. “He has the ability to really advocate for innovative ideas in that all students have their own path, and he tries to help facilitate that.”

And Walker says those paths aren’t just about book learning.

“I feel that in order for our students to be successful academically, they have to be in a safe environment; they have to be in a fun environment; they have to be in an environment where they can express themselves without fear of retaliation.”

For their future, he said, “We want you to learn the skills here that will hopefully provide you with the opportunity to be successful in your next step. What we’re trying to instill is that grit, of knowing there will be things that will try to deter you from what your goal might be. It’s really how we respond to those things that ultimately make or break what we do.

“That’s one of the exciting things about our partnership with Ball State is being able to see, what does that look like in the future? What are the needs of our community?”

Every day, Chris Walker keeps working on being part of the solution.