Editor's Note: This story is part of The Partnership Project, a series of content written in an effort by The Daily News to follow the formal collaboration of Ball State University and Muncie Community Schools. Read more in this series here.
Susanna Benko, Ball State director of English education and associate professor of English, only had one answer when she was approached by representatives of the Teachers College asking her if she would want to help teachers in the Muncie Community Schools (MCS) district.
“Oh, my gosh — I am more than interested. I’m excited … I think this is exactly what I’ve been wanting to do.”
Benko, a professional development (PDS) liaison at Northside Middle School, Southside Middle School and Muncie Central High School, works alongside MCS teachers, co-teaches in classrooms and helps them with problems they’re working on.
Each semester, Benko meets with her teachers to tackle a problem they’ve been focusing on. This year, it’s been teaching struggling readers, but each semester and each year comes with a different challenge.
“I found [the teachers] to be really committed and willing to open up, and just wanting to keep learning, so that’s been super, super cool,” Benko said.
Ball State has eight PDS liaisons at the nine MCS schools, with those at the elementary schools focused on the school as a whole, and those at middle and high schools being more curriculum focused. Benko said she focuses on English and language arts, and Andrew Gatza, assistant professor of mathematical sciences, focuses on math.
“And though I’m English, I’ve really been working with — especially at Northside —- teachers outside of the English department as well,” Benko said, “because one of their school goals is focused on writing instruction and … improving students’ ability to read informational texts and write in response to them.”
The PDS program at Ball State began in 1998, but prior to 2019, liaisons focused on schools in the area outside of MCS, said Jon Dee, director of the Office of Teacher Education Service and Clinical Practice. However, because of Ball State’s partnership with MCS and to “keep PDS sustainable,” the focus shifted solely to MCS.
“It does cost money,” he said. “We wanted to keep our PDS liaison’s work on student achievement, and who better to do that with than people in their own backyard? We really want to be a spark within teacher education, and we want to be a way that teachers can explore ideas.”
Dee said people from his office — including himself and Sari Harris, assistant director of the Office of Teacher Education Service and Clinical Practice —- met with LeAnn Kwiatkowski, MCS superintendent, and Chuck Reynolds, MCS associate superintendent, to talk about how they could focus on the schools and grow in their partnership.
For the first time, Dee said, the program was focusing more on a single district’s goals and supporting them. At the time, its goals were improving social and emotional learning, literacy, mathematics and English.
“It was very exciting to make that switch and work with schools and administrators we had not worked with in the past,” Harris said.
Leaders in the Teachers College work in conjunction with each of Ball State’s departments to choose people they feel are good at being able to form a relationship with MCS. Halfway through the school year, principals at each of the schools evaluate their liaisons, which Harris said has been very positive and beneficial.
Benko said her time as a PDS liaison has been an “awesome opportunity” because it’s allowed her to give back and support the Muncie community.
“It’s a really, really unique opportunity to have part of my day job and be in the community, and I just consider myself so fortunate to have that opportunity,” Benko said. “I know that Ball State is a university that really prides itself on its community engagement … and I feel like my role is really an opportunity to put that commitment to practice and see what it really means to be committed.”
Being in the classroom with teachers has allowed Benko to understand more about challenges teachers face, and she said she has had “total failures in the classroom” as well. She thinks this is validating for teachers because she said teaching is “so difficult right now,” especially with the COVID-19 pandemic.
All around, Benko said she’s benefited tremendously from being a PDS liaison. Her work has kept her relevant in the field she began working in.
“It helps me make sure everything I’m teaching is super relevant,” Benko said. “It also helps me when I do work with our Ball State students; it helps me translate some of what they observe when they are out in the field.”
Dee said he believes PDS is an important program for the university to keep up with because it’s strengthened the relationship between Ball State and MCS. He is excited to see what the future of the program looks like.
“PDS is something I hope continues because it is an intersection between higher education and public education,” he said. “It would definitely behoove us to strengthen those partnerships … because in terms of a win-win scenario, we are able to understand what’s happening in the field.”
Harris also said she is excited to see what the future of PDS looks like, and in the coming years, she would love to see the program expanded to work in other schools and districts. However, Harris said even if the program doesn’t expand further, she is excited to see what it can do with the schools it's partnered with now.
“We have had other principals and superintendents who have asked about this program and said, ‘Wow, we would love to get back into that kind of relationship with you,’” Harris said. “I completely understand that — it’s a great benefit from their perspective.”