A Shared Interview
Dr. Ammar, CASCWA is exceptionally impressed with the leadership that you are providing to the membership of CASCWA’s Bay Section. Please tell us a little bit about your career in education and your current responsibilities.
My first experience as an educational practitioner was with a Day Treatment School (NPS), in San Francisco (Westside Community Day Treatment). Educationally, my primary passion has always been psychology and the essence of consciousness, but while working on my MS in Counseling (MFT), I decided to pursue my PPS Credential as well, never thinking I would put it to use. Before formally entering the world of education, I worked as a therapist and clinician with underserved adolescents and mentally ill adults. I entered the public k-12 domain of education as a School Counselor at Benjamin Franklin Middle School (4 years), after being persuaded by my former 8th grade Science teacher of the Middle School I attended as a child–who at that time was the Principal– to work with her. Not only that, but her husband was my varsity basketball coach in High School. She asked me for two months to work with her before I finally consented.
It was interesting to work in the same school I attended as a youth, especially considering the fact that it was still filled with some of my former 6th, 7th, and 8th grade teachers. I started as one of the School Counselors and soon became the Dean. At one point, due to budget cuts, I was the Counselor and Dean, with a different office for each role. I later moved to the East Bay because of preaching and ministry duties in Oakland, also taking an administrative position at Mount Diablo High School, Student Support Services Coordinator (4 years). After the death of my son in April of 2006, I needed a change, thus becoming an Assistant Principal at San Leandro High School, just blocks from my home (2 years). I am currently serving in my 5th year as Director of Student Support Services in the San Lorenzo Unified School District. In part, my department is responsible for the oversight of disciplinary procedures (Suspensions/Expulsions), Restorative Justice, Truancy interventions (SART/SARB/Chronic Absenteeism), Foster Youth, McKinney Vento, Interdistrict Applications, Equity support, DICE — independent study, Section 504s, our Mental Health Collaborative, and more.
I earned my doctoral degree in 2003 and it remains important that I connect both the world of psychology, emotionality, and wellness — with the concept of education. The intersections of psycho-social and psycho-educational approaches to learning and student ontology are critically germane to academic success. Such passions are what led me to create my own educational consulting business in 2007, addressing adult educators and students by way of cultural competence, racial disproportionality, equity, trauma, violence, student empowerment, racial identity development, the maafa, and consciousness (www.Saheli7.org).
Dr. Ammar, You are currently the President of CASCWA’s Bay Section. Over the past several years, school districts have faced incredible challenges. Administrators are being given additional responsibilities while resources and funding are being cut. The volumes of California Education Codes are not being reduced and complying with all unfunded Federal mandates is beyond belief. If we were to look on your desk today, what are the top topics that you are trying to address and how are you chipping away at this mountain?
Educationally today, we have more mandates with limited resources and funding opportunities. However, I try and operate out of a paradigm that is more about a mental shift as opposed to a dollar. One of the primary keys to programmatic sustainability is mindset and will. This is not a popular statement, but many of the challenges we face in our k-12 system are not rooted in finances. They are rooted in perception, practice, and passion. Many programs and schools have engulfed millions of dollars for years, continually producing the same plaguing institutionally predictable opportunity and achievement gap data/results. Money, in and of itself, does not change student performance or increase family engagement. With all of that said, for the 2012-2013 school year, my top priorities are laced within the development of two models and programs for my district that will address:
- Restorative Justice & Practices
- Chronic Absenteeism
Restorative Justice/Practices (SLZUSD): At this time, the development of the two models is being driven by passion, dedication, and committed people who are willing to invest extra time. My department adopted the two development projects this year and our restorative Justice Task Force is comprised of 22 volunteers across the district and community. We try and meet twice a month and currently our meetings are facilitated online in the evening, using a collaborative online/interactive tool. All Task Force participants are project volunteers. Our goal is to develop a model and shop it to all district stakeholders, for the purpose of buy-in and implementation. At this point, money is not driving this initiative, but it is one of the priorities on my desk.
The Restorative Justice model development project is also in step with (AB 1729), a law that urges districts to use restorative practices for first time offenses, before issuing out of school suspensions. It seeks to move minds away from unconscious practices of punishment, seeking to use restorative responses to discipline, caring for all involved parties.
We were thankful to learn from Napa Valley Unified, Laura Mooiman and Ivan Chaidez. Laura and Ivan sacrificed a lot of time and energy, and now have a comprehensive Restorative Justice model. We have also learned from a national expert in the field, Ms. Patricia LaCocque. We look forward to learning from Oakland Unified in the future.
Chronic Absenteeism (SLZUSD): Like Restorative Justice, Chronic Absenteeism elicits a reaction of ambiguity. However, also on my desk are the blueprints for developing a district-wide training, regarding the holistic importance and nature of attendance, inclusive of SART, SARB, DA Referrals, and the identification of Chronic Absenteeism trends. My department started meeting at the beginning of the year, for the purpose of developing a system and introductory method of data analysis and information delivery around Chronic Absenteeism; a process that goes beyond the mere look at truancy and unexcused absences. Chronic Absenteeism seeks to identify any student who has missed or is on track to miss 10% of their school year, due to any form of absence.
Thanks to Alameda County Health Care Services, we have received the gift of being able to work with Hedy Chang and Attendance Works, one of the leading experts in the Nation regarding Chronic Absenteeism. It is a pleasure to have the assistance of Hedy and Attendance Works in this effort.
Everyone in education looks back at their career and thinks of that one child who, through an intervention of some kind, have turned their life around reached success as an adult. You are well respected and our membership would appreciate it if you could share one of your many success stories of an “at-risk youth.”
I pondered the depths of this question for several days and one student continued to resonate and dominate my thinking. While visiting San Lorenzo High School on 12/20/12, writing about this student was solidified when the niece of the student, randomly approached me with the mother of Greg on her cell phone. Ironically, I asked Ms. Ballard if I could write about her son, and with jubilance and reflection she said yes.
I met Greg Ballard during his junior year (2006-2007). Our first encounter was interesting. While attending and supervising a San Leandro High School Friday night football game, a piece of bark or a small rock struck the back of my super-puffy green Down Coat. As I turned around from my first-row bleacher seat, Greg was two bleachers above, directly behind me. He was one of several students I glared at, but only Greg had a slight smile on his face and looked at me. My interpretation of the smirk was, “I did not do it, but do not think for one moment that I will tell you who did.”
I think it was Greg. He was testing me, like many of our students. My response was one he would use to assess if I was an adult he could trust, or one who would work from a paradigm of punishment. I made some kind of comment to the group and turned around. Before that encounter I had never seen Greg Ballard on the campus, but the next week he was in my office and I realized that not only was he a San Leandro High School student, but as an Assistant Principal, he was in my alpha (A-G).
From that moment, Greg and I started developing a relationship. Through dialogue and observation, Greg was one of the toughest students I had met and had a multiplicity of experiences that gave him credibility in the community and school. On the campus, “Doody” commanded healthy respect and my relationship with Greg was authentic. I shared things with him that I never shared with any other student, and he probably shared things with me that he never disclosed to any other administrator. Greg overcame many obstacles. During his junior year at San Leandro High, he transformed his life. He was safe and in an environment that cultivated student growth and expression. His mother, brother, and family were extremely proud of him and his progress.
For me, it truly became more like a father son relationship with Greg. With love and care, I was hard, but holistic with him. As I visited his classes (especially with Ms. Mudd as his teacher), he made sure I was watching him. He wanted to be certain that I saw him raise his hand and respond with the correct answer. The transformation was remarkable. Many can speak it, but Greg actually did it. He lived what he spoke. If not the first, his goal was to be one of the first to graduate from High School in his family.
During his senior year, Greg Ballard triumphantly joined the varsity football team. I joked with Greg a lot, regarding his status on the team, and all he could do was smile and say it would change. As the toughest and one of the most charismatic students in the school, he saw a small amount of playing time. Watching him on the sideline with a crispy white uniform, without a spec of dirt, was something I could not wait to jest with him about on Monday mornings. Sitting in my office I would ask, “How can you be so tough, but hardly get in the game?” No one else could broach this subject with Greg. He was truly going to change the reality of his playing-time. In terms of the most remarkable turn-around story, Greg Ballard is at the top of my list.
On the evening of October 13, 2007, a few hours after Greg and his San Leandro High School varsity football Pirates defeated Bishop O’Dowd, 26-21, Greg was senselessly shot and killed in East Oakland, without reason or provocation. Greg was on track to graduate and was going to accomplish his educational goals and more. The Principal at the time, Amy Furtado, made sure Ms. Ballard was presented with his High School Diploma at the graduation ceremony. Some of the most difficult words I have ever had to share was to his football team, the Monday morning after his death. Not to mention the home visit to Ms. Ballard and his brother Don Taylor. Despite the tragic end, the life and transformation of Greg “Doody” Ballard, continues to be an inspiration to me, and a testament to the power and influence of caring family, adults, educators, and positive peers.
My experience and relationship with Greg Ballard continues to push me to be a compassionate, concerned, vigilant, strategic, and thankful educator and parent. May we all remember and learn from the heroic students and children we have lost to tragic and senseless gun violence, cutting their stories of success short; Students from Oakland to Newtown, Los Angeles to New York, and all across our Nation.