Paper cut-outs of students holding hands

Historic partnership between Ball State and Muncie Community Schools is making a difference at South View Elementary School.

By Kate H. Elliott

The students of South View Elementary are neighbors to fifth-grade teacher Malia (Allen) Sandberg, ’14. She held some of them as babies and now gives them popsicles, enjoys their grandparents’ tamales, and sings hymns with them on Sundays.

That sense of community doesn’t end when the school bell rings. Ms. Sandberg, and other South View staff, counsel students on lunch breaks, and model multiplication strategies after school. Custodians know the kids by name, and for 41 years, a teacher welcomed late students with granola bars topped with peanut butter.

South View serves nearly 550 students— the most of any of Muncie Community Schools’ (MCS) six elementary schools—yet it operates in the haze of generational poverty and deindustrialization. Nearly 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and the school has ranked below several state standards. In 2017, the Indiana Legislature placed MCS under direct, state-government control.

Those statistics, Ms. Sandberg said, speak to the barriers and outcomes associated with poverty, joblessness, and addiction; they do not represent the community’s abundant assets of “goodness, care, inspiring resilience, and stubborn compassion.”

In 2018, Ball State embarked on a historic partnership with MCS to reimagine Muncie Schools. The MCS-Ball State Academic and Financial Viability Plan and MCS Strategic Plan detail an innovative, holistic model to educate students from cradle to career.

That vision attracted former MCS teacher Anthony Williams, ’06 MAE ’12, to become principal of South View. The Indiana native came from Allen Elementary School in Marion, Indiana, where his leadership reduced suspensions from 212 to 16 in one academic year. Between 2013-14 and 2015-16, the school climbed from an “F” academic rating by the State of Indiana to a “B” rating.

The secret? “There is no secret,” Mr. Williams said.

“It’s about respectful, authentic relationships.” This city-school-university partnership is an “all-hands-on deck” approach, he said. South View’s community-based model reflects the heart of this effort.

“At the center of every community is its schools, where we have the privilege and responsibility to address and nurture the intellectual, physical, social, and emotional needs of our children,” he said. “Students deserve our best. And every day, South View teachers show up for their students and for each other. When your colleagues, students, and families know you care, they care.”

Rheaunna Jones, ’19, cares. The mother of two grew up on Muncie’s south side and is in her first year of teaching at South View.

Ms. Jones said she was drawn to the school’s focus on positive reinforcement and its family-like atmosphere.

“If students are having a bad day, instead of sending them to sit in the principal’s office, we pause to connect with them or we allow them to go visit a sibling or a former favorite teacher, or check in with a staff member who might be their neighbor,” said Ms. Jones, who is also a parent of an MCS student. “Prior to teaching, I worked with an organization that partners with South View, and Principal Williams always addressed emails to us with, ‘Hi team.’ It was a small gesture, but it made us feel like we were part of something bigger, and we are.”

Fourth-grade teacher Hailey Maupin, ’19
Fifth-grade teacher Malia (Allen) Sandberg, ’14 with fifth-grader Krystal Flores during recess

Mutual support and unity

South View does not have a Parent Teacher Organization, as the school’s caregivers—many of whom work multiple jobs— don’t have the capacity to organize dances and prepare teacher appreciation baskets. Instead, dozens of community organizations, parents, neighbors, and businesses work together to identify and address challenges and opportunities.

Or, in the words of fifth-grader Krystal Flores, “they make sure all South View students and families are seen, heard and supported. They want us to know all we can do and be.”

The YMCA of Muncie, Boys and Girls Clubs of Muncie, Muncie Public Library, and the Ross Community Center are among the entities that provide on- and off-site after-school programs. The 8twelve Coalition cultivates community gardens and outreach. A nearby muffler shop invites students to practice guitar and hang out after school. Open Door Health Services offers mobile health care, and low-to-no-cost physicals and screenings. Avondale United Methodist Church houses struggling families and hosts weekly community meals.

Neighborhood pastor Neil Kring, ’93 visiting South View Elementary
First Presbyterian Church member Carol (Hill) Pyle, ’75 reads to third-graders

Faithful support

More than 25 people from First Presbyterian Church volunteer in the school each week. Bill McCune, former associate vice president for business affairs and controller at Ball State, greets students and gives them masks each Monday morning. His wife, Jan (Krupp) McCune, MA ’93, aids kindergarten classes from 9-11 a.m.

Jan, “who’s taught everything from Head Start to college,” was integral in securing a 2018 matching grant that funneled $60,000 into renovations, including new playground equipment and a new teacher’s lounge.

“South View has become part of our DNA, and those kids and teachers have reinvigorated our aging church,” said Ms. McCune. “This partnership has really deepened our understanding of community and the impact even one person can have on an entire school.”

‘We Show Up’

Mr. Williams said the school thrives on community support. In fact, Mr. Williams serves on a number of boards for organizations, including East Central Indiana Second Harvest Food Bank, and the Greater Muncie Habitat for Humanity. The MCS parent serves on the Teachers College Dean’s Advisory Council, and on Minnetrista’s Visitor Experience Committee.

But as soon as Mr. Williams’ commitment to community and leadership is brought to light, he’ll deflect that praise back on his staff and community partners.

Anthony Williams

“If I have a gift, it is to recognize the gifts in others and to empower them to lead in their own way, and to contribute their talents,” said Mr. Williams, who won a Ball State Graduate of the Last Decade Award in 2016.

Anthony Williams

“Our daily focus is on the positive—from morning announcements until we lock up. We invest and plant seeds and wear lots of hats. And we meet kids where they are.”

The South View staff is a family. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it punched through karate classes and made stress-relief jars. The school’s Cultural Competency Cadre holds “Candid Conversations” about complex topics that draw robust and vulnerable discussions.

“Our culture is growing in mutual support and unity,” Ms. Sandberg said. “There is a strong current at South View of committed individuals who listen and respect neighborhood leaders and view themselves as neighbors and not saviors. We strive to build on the strengths of our community rather than focusing on its deficits.”

Neil Kring, ’93, is one such community advocate who walks alongside South View families and staff. He literally walks—strolling the neighborhood with Mr. Williams or walking to Rosebud Coffee House with teachers to decompress over lattes.

Mr. Kring has served as a neighborhood pastor with Urban Light Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit that supports a faith-based recovery home for women, housing revitalization and neighborhood engagement. Mr. Kring said he can’t solve systemic issues, but he can be a friend to and advocate for his neighbors.

Second-year teacher Hailey Maupin, ’19, created a Facebook group to connect with students and families. She calls parents to share positive news and praise, and she volunteers at the weekly school food pantry.

“I have never experienced parents who care and love and try so hard, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know them, even at a distance due to the pandemic,” said Ms. Maupin. “The other day, a parent posted that her son really loves school, and that, ‘School has never been his thing.’ Relationships change the hearts and futures of teachers, students and community members. It’s a gift to be part of those connections, this work.”

Chuck Reynolds, ’98, associate superintendent for Muncie Community Schools, attended South View. He said it’s inspiring to watch the school continue to evolve through deepening bonds and support, particularly as a result of the partnership with Ball State.

“This Fall, Ball State’s Teachers College launched the MCS-Ball State Connections program, which pairs each Ball State college with an MCS school,” said Mr. Reynolds. “On the first day of school for MCS, faculty and staff from each college were up early to welcome students and help families navigate that first day.”

Dr. Kendra Lowery, associate dean for equity and engagement at Ball State’s Teachers College, shared some the outcomes of the college-school partnership. The College of Architecture and Planning is developing a LEGO Club at South View; the College of Communication, Information, and Media is forming a Journalism Club, and hosting a book giveaway at West View Elementary; Teachers College cleared gardening beds and installed an irrigation system at Southside Middle School; and the College of Sciences and Humanities is inviting MCS teachers to network and brainstorm ideas for partnerships with the University.

“MCS-BSU Connections acknowledges and builds on existing University-school connections while creating clear pathways for more projects and ideas,” Dr. Lowery said. “Each MCS school now has a direct link to a college of faculty and staff who are eager to engage.”

Ms. Sandberg and other teachers said they are encouraged by this “true partnership” that listens to and addresses the “dreams, needs, and desires of those we are serving.”

“My 3-year-old attends the preschool program at South View, and as long as I am able, I am committed to building a school that is a place of life, beauty, and pride in south Muncie,” Ms. Sandberg said. “I am not alone in that commitment. It’s an all-hands-on-deck place. But out of that need can emerge great opportunity and lasting change.”