Today, as chief executive officer and founder of Explore Schools, Ballen runs two acclaimed charter schools in Brooklyn, N.Y. He constantly challenges the notion that kids from disadvantaged backgrounds cannot achieve academic success.
"We tell our kids, 'Actually, you get smarter by working really hard,'" says Ballen, who recently appeared on CNN to discuss the success of his Explore Schools network.
After graduation he taught in Baton Rouge, La., through Teach for America before moving on to schools in impoverished parts of South Africa and New York City. "I saw really smart kids," Ballen recalls. "I saw really great parents with high expectations for their kids." But many children didn't progress because the adults running their schools had low expectations of their students.
Ballen is convinced that all children can thrive — but they need schools with good teachers and the freedom to change how they use staff and other resources. He earned a master's degree in education administration from Columbia University in 1997 and stopped teaching in 1999 to launch Explore Schools.
Explore Charter School (K-8) opened in 2002 and was followed by Empower Charter School (K-3), which opened in 2009. Both aim to prepare students for college-prep high schools. Explore's students consistently earn state test scores above New York City's average, and almost all of its graduates attend rigorous high schools.
Ballen attributes the students' success to teachers chosen for their commitment to change course in the pursuit of student achievement. Spreadsheets plot data on each student's understanding of concepts the state tests, and lesson plans are altered to improve performance.
Explore Schools (explorecharterschool.org) serves about 700 students, all chosen by lottery — a blip compared to the city's 1.1 million public school students.
Next fall, Explore plans to take over a failing city public school, chosen by the school system. Explore will get input from the community about the school's good points and invite effective teachers to stay. Additional teachers, deans and behavioral support specialists will be hired to give students extra attention. Ballen hopes to open a region of six schools, serving 3,000 students, by 2015. This represents about 10 percent of the number of students who attend public school in Central Brooklyn.
"We want to prove that failing public schools aren't broken," he says. "We also want to prove that there's more to the solution than just charter schools."