Tomiko Ball with her student Darius Warner

You can’t give up in Ms. Ball’s class

Determined to see 6-year-old Darius succeed, his teacher gave him and his parents a new set of tools.

If there’s one thing Tomiko Ball wants you to know when you come to school every day, it’s this: “You can’t give up in my class.” That might sound harsh, she says, but it’s not negotiable. “I am determined to help you see that you cannot give up. I am going to give you all you need in order to do this by yourself.”

That was the approach she brought this summer to a group of young children, fresh out of kindergarten, enrolled in a special reading program in Washington, D.C. She quickly realized they needed a lot more than just help with the ABCs.

Ms. Ball in her classroom

“I thought I would be flying them off to the first grade,” she says. Instead, many of the kids had already, in their first year of school, fallen far behind. “These children needed strong intervention just to get them to the level they should have been at in June.”

Ms. Ball, who has taught in city for eight years, knew that a big part of that extra help would have to be “motivation and confidence.” She finds that with some young boys, especially, it’s not just a lack of skills. “They have low confidence for whatever reason. They’re accustomed to people allowing them to put their head down. I try to snap them out of that really fast.”

And so, with 18 students and just five weeks to work with them, Tomiko Ball set out to change that attitude. Over the course of the summer, she did that and more, producing remarkable gains in the reading abilities of those children. In the process, she changed the lives of a soft-spoken 6-year-old boy named Darius Warner and his family in a way that none of them will ever forget.

“She became, outside of Mom and Grandma, a third mother figure for Darius,” says his father, Darius Day. At 29, Day has studied criminal justice and works nights as a security guard, which allowed him to attend sessions of the program and to see first-hand some of the lessons. He says this amazing teacher was so much more than just a reading coach for his son. “She treated me like family.”

He says he learned a lot over the summer, too — about how his son learns and how he can help with that learning. “As parents we don’t always know how to approach our kids,” he explains. “We try to do what our parents did, to our kids.”

“My son is coming home excited about school … We wish we had other people at school who could make this spark in my son.” — Brittany Warner, Darius’ mom

Tomiko Ball feels like she’s uniquely positioned to help kids like Darius — and their parents. She grew up in Philadelphia, raised by a single mother. “I always wanted to be a teacher,” she says. “I was an only child, and I would sit with my baby dolls in front of me, just teaching them.”

But she had other strengths and skills too, and beginning in high school they took her in a different direction. “I was big in STEM,” she says, “and in Philadelphia they had an engineering program for minorities.”

When it came time to go to college, she first applied to engineering school, but ended up pursuing a more business-oriented career. She graduated from Temple University in 1995 with a dual degree: strategic management and real estate. “Yes, I was ready to begin working in corporate America,” she says. She worked in different positions for a bank for more than three years. And then her life took another turn, one that would bring her back to the lessons she taught those dolls as a little girl: She had a son and then a daughter.

“When I gave birth to my daughter I became a stay-at-home mom,” she says. And that got her rethinking her whole life. “I was in corporate America. I was young and black, moving up the ladder. But I wasn’t really happy at the end of the day.” She remembers thinking, “If go back to work it has to be something I love, or nothing at all.” That’s how she got into teaching.

Ms. Ball with Darius and his dad

She moved to Washington, D.C., when her daughter was little. After a few years at home, she began night courses at American University while teaching at a local charter school during the day. In 2012 she earned a master’s degree in elementary education.

Ms. Ball says it is that background — a mix of her education and upbringing, her experience in the business world and that long ago love of teaching — that enables her to succeed with students like Darius.

“Darius was a student that would sometimes give up,” she recalls. He came into the summer program with reading behaviors more at the level of a child entering kindergarten rather than one who’d just finished that crucial first year. And she saw that lack of confidence she’s seen so many times before. “He was quick to delay his work. He learned in the first week that I wasn’t going to allow him to do that.” Soon, both teacher and parents began to notice a change. “He began to change his attitude and demeanor,” Ms. Ball says. “To rise to my expectations.”

“I saw the difference,” says Darius’ mom, Brittany Warner. “I could tell how much of a good teacher she is.” The transformation was remarkable. Soon, she recalls, Darius began “holding his attention, he’s showing initiative and sounding out words.” The five-week program was part of the D.C. Public Schools’ partnership with a national summer school effort called Springboard Collaborative.

The nonprofit works to improve reading by coaching teachers, training parents, and providing incentives to students and families in proportion to the reading gains they make. Involving parents was part of Ms. Ball’s approach right from the start. “His father explained that they didn’t know what they could do to help him at home to become a stronger reader.”

That’s exactly what the Springboard program aims to fix. “Springboard is built on the idea that parents’ love for their children is the greatest underutilized natural resource in education,” says Mike Gross, Springboard’s East Coast Executive Director. He spent some time this summer in the classroom with Ms. Ball and says her one-on-one approach is exactly the kind of effort that can make a difference.

“Ms. Ball has made my son be interested in reading. Since he moved up two levels with Ms. Ball, he has no problem incorporating his reading with his math and other studies.” — Brittany Warner, Darius’ mom

“She was incredible in the care she took and the individual attention she gave to his family and to him.” Both of Darius’ parents agree. “I love her communication,” says Darius’ father. “She treated me like family.”

A big part of that communication, he says, was information about how he could help with his son’s reading. “As parents, we don’t always know how to approach our kids with teaching styles,” says Darius’ father. “We try to do what our parents did, to our kids.”

So Ms. Ball set out to change that: “His father wanted to help his son. But he didn’t have the tools.” So she modeled some of the strategies they were using in the classroom that Darius’ father could use at home.

Like focusing on certain words and returning to them over and over. “There was a reason he wasn’t acquiring words, everyday words that people use in their home,” Ms. Ball says. “I talked to his father about that.” She provided simple examples: “Don’t tell him, but coach him.” Or, “make sure you go back to that word over and over.” And even what books to read. “I think that some of it was, they didn’t know what books were right for their son to be reading.”

Instilling confidence in her students is Ms. Ball’s priority | Ms. Ball with one of her students at Orr

She worked with Darius and his parents on “sight words” — simple words which, to a 6-year-old, have tricky spellings: like “see,” “was,” “is.”

“Normally children are taught in kindergarten to phonetically sound those words out, and if you sound those words out you’re not going to get that.” Every day, Darius and his teacher, and his mom and dad, worked on all of these things. And then came one of those incredible moments that teachers — and parents — live for. It started with a book about ants.

“What I saw one day,” Ms. Ball recalls, “I saw Darius using some of the reading strategies I had given him, and his father picking up that he could do that.” The title of the book, appropriately, was ​Ants. And inside, as you might guess, were lots of pictures of those busy creatures. The challenge for young readers was to identify a word or number on those pages.

“And if he didn’t figure it out,” Darius’ father says, “he was supposed to think about the picture, and then pick up on the clues to figure out the word.” One page showed an ant and its six legs, and a word next to it. “The book is trying to tell him that this word is number six,” he recalls. “It’s trying to let him know how many legs this ant had.” As Ms. Ball looked on, Darius looked at the word, then at the picture. And then at his father. And back at the word and back at the picture again. Then, it happened. “Six,” said Darius.

It was one of the proudest moments of his father’s life. “It felt fantastic that I had that moment,” he says. “That heartwarming moment.” He knows his son felt it too. “He was proud that I was proud of him.”

In the shy way of a 6-year-old talking about schoolwork, young Darius agrees. Did he like having his father see him read that book? “Yes.” And what about the teacher who helped him get there? “She did a good job.”

“He’s started reading his big brother’s homework. His big brother is in the fifth grade!” — Darius Day, Darius’ father

It was a pretty great moment for Tomiko Ball, too. “His father was looking at him like, ‘My son knows how to do this word!’ ” she says. “He told me afterward, ‘I didn’t know my son could do that.’”

Both teacher and parents agree that by the end of the summer program Darius’ abilities — and his whole outlook — had been transformed. “He jumped two whole reading levels in a five-week period,” Ms. Ball says. “He showed that he could do the work. His mother and father began to send me messages on my phone: ‘My son is coming home excited about school … We wish we had other people at school who could make this spark in my son.’”

As a result, Darius started the first grade reading on a par with many of his classmates. “Imagine had he not come to summer school this summer,” Ms. Ball says. “He would be going to first grade without the tools that he needed to be successful. That would be awful.”

For his part, Darius’ father has seen what one incredibly devoted teacher can accomplish: “Ms. Ball has made my son be interested in reading,” he says. “Since he moved up two levels with Ms. Ball, he has no problem incorporating his reading with his math and other studies.”

And what about reading at home? “He’s started reading his big brother’s homework,” his father says, and then adds proudly, “His big brother is in the fifth grade!”

That, Tomiko Ball says, is why she traded in that corporate career: “When kids get it. Like I can see that spark in their face. They look back at me and it’s like, ‘Hah, I got it!’”

Ms. Ball and Steve Drummond | Ms. Ball with Darius and his dad

Photography by Elissa Nadworny and Tony Powell

Story by: Steve Drummond, Senior Education Editor, NPR News

Benjamin Orr Elementary School, Washington, D.C.

This month’s Honoree is brought to you thanks to the support of: Ambassador & Mrs. Howard Leach

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