CEDAR RAPIDS — A group of students spotted Darius Ballard’s purple Dodge Challenger in the Washington High School parking lot earlier this month and waved him toward them.
For more than an hour, they asked the new interim principal questions — about school clubs, homecoming, class schedules and countless other details about the southeast Cedar Rapids high school’s reopening. They didn’t seem scared, Ballard said, but excited.
“To me, that’s like the microcosm of this year. The kids whom I was talking to feel like we do support them and we listen to them, and they know we’re in this thing together,” Ballard, 34, said. “Now we all get to be bold and courageous together to make it actually work.”
After four years as an associate principal at Washington High, the district hired Ballard as the school’s interim principal, for one school year, when John Cline resigned in June.
Ballard and the rest of the high school’s administrative team have since hurried to prepare for students and teachers’ returns, which the school board was expected to delay due to the coronavirus pandemic. Then a massive storm system swept through Cedar Rapids, damaging many school buildings, further complicating the start of the school year.
The Gazette interviewed Ballard about his promotion and his hopes for the coming school year Aug. 7. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: How’s your summer been? Did you see this new position coming at all?
A: No, I did not see it coming at all. It’s been a fast summer because, in addition to COVID and social distancing, we worked really hard at the high school level to finish out the school year, trying to make virtual graduations and virtual senior (recognition) nights, get the textbooks back, everything like that. We worked really, really hard all the way until that second week of June because we were still cleaning things up, doing professional learning with staff and everything else. And then, a really short time after John Cline resigned. So I was still kind of catching my breath from that work.
Q: Was it in your plans to become a building principal?
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A: I would say Darius at 21, 22 hadn’t envisioned at all that he would be associate principal or principal in any fashion. Five years ago, I don’t think I envisioned being a principal.
But, as things have progressed, I think it’s become more and more likely — I still don’t think I fully realized that until this happened. I’m not a person who takes a job without really feeling passionate about that place and feeling like I can do a good job there. So I never saw myself as just being a person who just tries to be a principal (anywhere), like it has to be a school that I really feel I can get a good handle on, and can be successful in and, more importantly, like I can make the change that the school needs.
That’s not true for me in any school. But I did believe that that was true for me at Washington High School.
Q: Do you think you’ll be interested in the permanent principal job when that process starts?
A: Yes. I’ll just say yes.
Q: There’s an almost completely new Washington High administration team this year. How are you preparing for that change?
A: I look forward to it because I naturally like helping and assisting and training and onboarding people. … I look at it like this. When I built this team — and I can actually say that because I’ve kind of had a hand in building this team now — there were certain things I really, really wanted.
I wanted people who would connect with students and staff members and families, people who are going to be very, very passionate and were going to be hard working people, and then I also wanted people who believe that you move a school through what you do every day in each and every classroom. I want people who have that experience, that passion, that desire to do that work and work with our teachers to get that work done — and so that’s how I designed this team more than anything else.
And knowing whomever we picked would also be extremely hard working, those other deficits — like this team doesn’t have a lot of behavioral intervention work, they haven’t done that work — they will make up in due time that work.
Q: The last time the high school saw something like this much administrative change was summer 2016. How would you compare then to now?
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A: I think everyone’s psyche is significantly different. That one was extremely sudden. A lot of folks didn’t know how to process their emotions, and I think it took a long time for teachers, students, staff, families, alumni, to all kind of process the suddenness of that decision and that change.
Whereas in this case, I think while we have that heaping pile of COVID to factor into this, I think there’s more optimism. I think there’s more of a sense of newness and figuring out ‘what if’ and ‘what can be.’ Some of that’s COVID, some of it’s also the familiarity — when that change took place in 2016, it wasn’t mostly people that were internal coming into the building. Whereas in this case, I stuck around, (former teacher and new associate principal) Julie Cain stuck around. So really, there’s only one new administrator. There’s already relationships built vs. a lot of uncertainty.
Q: Cedar Rapids high school students will be on-campus for about two to three days per week this school year. How have you been involved with preparing for a return to school?
A: Our principals sat down and we discussed a lot and tried to look at being responsive to concerns. The first concern we had was just limiting free movement and then limiting how many people could be in the building so that we had social distancing. But then it came to our attention that there was pretty serious concern from teachers about how much exposure to various or just different students daily, or the accumulation factor for the week. So we pivoted our plan a little bit to decrease how many students they’re actually teaching during the course of the week.
The toughest part is the nature of this. There’s not a perfect solution, right? There’s no absolute way to do this. It was very much trying to just be as responsive as possible to what the highest demands were. And when you’re interviewing and polling this many different types of people from different walks of life, there is no consensus. So you’re just trying to be as responsive as you can to all of the things that are coming toward you.
Q: What are your personal priorities for the year?
A: One, I think it’s really important for me to really connect those new administrators and get them on their feet and feeling strong. That’s, that’s probably my number one priority. Because if I get them humming along and confident, they’re going to make me look good and ultimately our system’s going to look really good.
Besides that, I believe my responsibility is to do a great job of listening to all the different stakeholders and trying to respond and be responsive as a school. So if I’ve got parents who are bringing a concern to me, making sure that we can actually make those changes take place. And then the last thing is just making everybody feel supported — students, parents, staff.
The work we want to do involves the people and, hopefully, any policies we put in place will be policies that the people see value in. I think this year is a really good year for a training ground. You can really test things out and know that at the end of the day, you’ve got a safety net, which is: this year’s weird. But you may find something you try has got some legs to it. So I think we’re going to try some stuff out.
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