David and Christina (Saylor) Smith, MA ’00, could have left. They could have taken their boys out of Muncie Community Schools (MCS) when the “distressed” district closed their neighborhood elementary school. But they didn’t, and they won’t.

“This is where we live, and we’re going to give it everything we’ve got,” said David, MA ’08. “Our boys have great schools and opportunities. My hope is that our city will embrace what we have and fight together for what we can be.”

Chuck Reynolds, associate superintendent of MCS, could have stayed in his job as an administrator for a nearby district. Instead, he came back to MCS, where he attended as a boy and where his two sons have been enrolled since kindergarten. Reynolds taught or served as a principal for the district for 14 years, and also led the “Spirit of South” Marching Band & Guard to statewide acclaim.

“I grew up in a single-parent, blended family home, struggling to scrape by even with government assistance. But, thanks to caring MCS teachers, I knew I didn’t have to let my circumstances define my future,” said Reynolds, ’98, who later earned three post-graduate education degrees from Ball State.

“Because I grew up here, I know of the district’s unparalleled academic, cocurricular, and extracurricular opportunities. I will, and we must, invest in MCS students and families to realize the full potential of tomorrow.”

That grit and determination has taken hold as Ball State and MCS embarked this Fall on Year Two of the nation’s first public school district–public university partnership, one that is striving to transform the district into a national model for innovative education.

Shared purpose

The financially struggling district had been under state supervision for a year when the Indiana Legislature approved the partnership in May 2018. In the Summer of that year, University trustees approved a seven-member school board that Ball State appointed, and within days the board began collaborating with MCS administrators to re-imagine education for the district’s nearly 5,000 pre-K-12 students.

President Mearns and MCS CEO Lee Ann Kwiatkowski

Ball State President Geoffrey S. Mearns and Muncie Community Schools CEO Lee Ann Kwiatkowski greet students at North View Elementary on the first day of classes.

So far, the partnership has yielded enrollment stability, millions in philanthropic investments, and the first pay raise for teachers in eight years. Other accomplishments in its first academic year included a budget surplus, about $9 million in improvements to MCS buildings, and expansion of high-quality preschools across the district.

Support from the University started at the top, with President Geoffrey S. Mearns endowing a scholarship for MCS graduates who would become first-generation students at Ball State. He and other administrators have rolled up their sleeves alongside more than 500 Ball State employees who have volunteered nearly 2,200 hours to support MCS.

The district began its second year this past Summer with new leadership: In July, Lee Ann Kwiatkowski became the district’s first director of public education and CEO. The former senior education advisor to Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb is recognized for her collaborative leadership style and urban districts’ expertise.

“This is the most exciting job in the state of Indiana, if not the nation,” said Dr. Kwiatkowski, whose 35-plus years in public education began as a teacher. “The entire city is coming together to build a strong, sustainable foundation that will guide us to continue to evolve, collaborate, and adapt to meet the needs of our students and MCS families.

“Our plan is not about easy answers and quick fixes,” she added. “It’ll be a document that aligns Muncie’s hopes with effective practices and research, while creating space for continuous improvement in the years ahead.”

Inspired to innovate

At a two-day Academic Innovation Summit this Fall, about 500 teachers, administrators, community leaders, and campus partners heard from national experts and each other about effective practices. They shared experiences and filled white boards with ideas for the future of Muncie schools. According to Associate Superintendent Reynolds, educators who attended the summit felt heard, celebrated, and inspired.

Afterward, a joint MCS-Ball State Academic Innovation Council of nearly 30 educational and community leaders gathered outcomes from the summit to identify themes. They aligned those outcomes with research and effective practices proposed by a national panel of experts. Council members also reviewed feedback from listening sessions with hundreds of MCS parents and students, residents, and teachers. They pored over data from an analysis of strengths, opportunities, and threats, plus a comprehensive, external audit of instruction and curriculum.

Principal Chris Walker of Muncie Central High School

Principal Chris Walker of Muncie Central High School (right) is an alumnus of Ball State Teachers College.

Susana Rivera-Mills, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Ball State, guides the innovation council. A first-generation college student, Dr. Rivera-Mills said she is driven to support a culturally responsive system that nurtures all students’ potential, regardless of background or circumstance.

“It will take all of us to create a learning environment where our children can excel academically and in all aspects of their physical and emotional well-being,” said the former professor of linguistics, whose scholarship focuses on meaningful civic-university alliances. “There is much work to be done, but the level of engagement I have witnessed so far gives me the confidence that MCS is ready to be a model of excellence locally, regionally, and nationally.”

MCS Board of Trustees President Jim Williams is among a team of innovation council members charged with reflecting feedback, needs, and effective practices into an Academic Innovation and Financial Viability Plan. MCS and Ball State will present the plan by the end of June, as specified by the Indiana State Legislature.

“This is an unprecedented opportunity, and our entire city has come together to envision how to provide MCS students and families with the academic and social support they need to thrive,” said Williams. “Without question, we have created opportunities for anyone who wants to add their voice to the plan.”

A citywide approach

Until late Spring 2020, educators, parents, students, national experts, and district leaders will continue to perfect the plan. Emerging themes include a renewed focus on literacy and critical thinking skills at the K-3 level, ongoing and focused professional development for teachers and principals, and significant investment in career and technical education.

After the June presentation to the state legislature, MCS and Ball State will share the plan and a timeline for multistaged implementation with families, residents, and community partners.

As longtime advocates for community improvement, Muncie’s nonprofits and businesses have strongly backed the partnership, with nearly $4 million in support.

Jud Fisher, president and COO of Ball Brothers Foundation, was among dozens of community leaders at the Fall summit.

Teacher Sean White

Teacher Sean White of South View Elementary interacts with a student. MCS teachers and administrators have played a major role in shaping the partnership’s direction.

“We have an all-hands-on-deck mentality here in Muncie right now,” said Fisher, whose foundation has long supported Muncie schools, including a $1 million grant to assist Ball State’s efforts to transform MCS. “Educational attainment is the most important aspect of leading a fulfilling and productive life, and having engaged and enlightened citizens. We need a strong and continuous effort to give students, teachers, and administrators a chance to flourish.”

Among the thousands making that effort is Katie Washburn, whose two children attend West View Elementary in Muncie. Busy working at IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital as a clinical pharmacist, she wasn’t able to attend September’s Innovation Summit—but she did gather hundreds of pieces of candy and note cards from students and parents that thanked teachers for their love and guidance. Volunteers scattered the candies and cards throughout the summit’s breakout rooms at Muncie’s Horizon Convention Center.

“Sometimes it’s the little things, and it didn’t take much to ask parents to ‘treat’ their teachers to professional development, candy, and kind words. Every day, I see teachers go above and beyond—caring for students like they are their own, standing out in the rain or snow to help kids out of cars, buying coats for them, staying late to help with homework, and more,” said Washburn, a Muncie native.

“Muncie is amazing, and we will show the nation what we can do.”