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Ben Mikesell | The Journal Gazette
In his first year as superintendent of East Allen County Schools, Ken Folks has set up a war room full of data in each high school.

EACS chief celebrates 1st year on job

Sees data, communication as keys to improving test scores

If you aren’t looking for it, you can walk right by Room A116 without giving it a second thought.

Tucked away in a deep nook on the first floor of New Haven High School, there is nothing outward to indicate it’s of any importance at all.

No sign on the nondescript wooden door; no way to peek through the window that’s covered by a placard; no way to even turn the knob without a key.

If you do get a glance inside, the door itself seems strangely too narrow for the sprawling room that sits on the other side.

But for Ken Folks, the East Allen County Schools superintendent, this room might just be one of the most significant in the entire building.

“This is it,” he says, swinging open the door.

Then he flicks on the light, giving a far-away and quick look at gigantic walls covered with numbers, charts, graphs, grades, lists.

It’s data galore.

Think an NFL or NBA draft room on draft day, and you have a good picture of the war rooms Folks has had installed in every high school in his district.

“That’s it,” he says, flicking off the lights after one second to maintain the privacy of students and the school.

“You get the idea.”

Last week, Folks, who has spent more than three decades teaching and administering in public schools, completed his first year as East Allen superintendent.

He inherited a district that had forced out its previous superintendent, had gone without a leader for more than two months and needed to adjust to a partly implemented redesign plan that left some communities without funding for building upgrades.

And there were those – like this newspaper’s editorial writers – who called the school board he was walking into divisive, at best.

A year later, though, Folks has instilled his infectious personality into the school district and, through some growing pains with the board, created an atmosphere of open dialogue, a focus on school safety and rising test scores.

The latter is due in large part, he says, to the war rooms at the high schools, which will in the next year be implemented at the district’s other schools and boil down students’ strengths and weaknesses on an individual level.

Too much

Right off the bat, Folks wanted people to know his office had an open door.

Communication, he said, was his No. 1 priority.

“One of the biggest complaints we heard from people was, ‘We didn’t hear ’bout this,’ or ‘we didn’t know about this,’ ” he said.

So he went about making himself visible in the community. And that meant attending events.

Folks wanted people to know he was present and that they could talk to him – whether they were students or parents or concerned citizens.

“I think he’d show up to my family reunion if I invited him,” district spokeswoman Tamyra Kelly said.

This summer, he’s scheduled to speak at the 100th anniversary of the first class to graduate from Woodburn High School, which is no longer in existence.

In fact, Folks, 56, believes his grandfather may have graduated with that 1914 class.

“What an honor,” he says of the speaking engagement. “I mean, why would they want me? But I’m happy to be there.”

It’s at these appearances where he meets people from the district – some of whom are not always happy with the decisions he and the school board make.

That’s something that does not faze him. He welcomes those people to set up appointments with him to discuss issues.

“Not everyone is happy with you all the time,” he says.

The district also now sends messages to parents and students through texts, voice mail and email.

In fact, a recent survey given to parents came back with complaints that the district communicates with them too much.

“We thought that was great,” Folks said.

War rooms

Folks, a native of Allen County, began his career teaching and coaching various sports in Santa Rosa, Texas, in the early 1980s.

He ended up as a principal in Northwest Allen County Schools and then as an assistant superintendent in the Marion school system.

During his tenure there, that district’s high school came to the brink of being taken over by the state because of low performances.

Three years later, the school was off probation and on the upswing, just missing out on a B grade under the state’s A-to-F grading accountability system.

What that district did was begin breaking down the performance of individual classes and students on nearly every level of tests.

While it was not Folks’ idea, the sports statistician in him was taken with it and brought it to EACS.

“When I was a wrestling coach, I would record when every pin fall happened,” he said, referring to his time coaching in Texas as well as Norwell High School, where he also spent time. “I found we won more matches when we got pins early.”

Just like Marion, Folks installed the war rooms at EACS high schools, where teachers and administrators can chart a student’s success almost to the most microscopic of topics.

In these war rooms – Folks loves that term, though he admits many of the teachers prefer “data rooms” – data are placed on boards and organized.

Students are organized into various groups in an attempt to isolate problem areas.

Some who are in danger of not graduating are put on a board, and specific areas that are keeping those students back are addressed and pored over.

Even students with good test scores are analyzed to see the areas where they can improve.

And Folks is able to convey that data to the people who need it most – teachers, parents and students.

“He’s unusual in that he’s strong with data and analysis as well as the relationships with the people he works for and with,” said Steve Yager, the former superintendent at Northwest Allen and Southwest Allen County schools and Folks’ former boss.

The data can go so deep, Folks says, that teachers and administrators can pinpoint whether a class as a whole is having trouble with algebra or whether an individual student is struggling with polynomials.

And there will be a payoff, just like the one that happened in Marion, Folks promises.

“We’re excited about our test scores,” he said, referring to the as-yet-unreleased ISTEP+ results. “We’re excited about when they become public.”

School safety

When Folks speaks, it’s hard for him to not become animated.

Whether he’s moving his head or his hands, he’s able to move from one topic to the other quickly and with a flow that never feels like an abrupt switch.

His personality sticks with people who encounter him, as well.

“He always looks for the bright side and the positive,” Yager said. “He holds himself to an extremely high standard. I don’t know anyone who can outwork him.”

That kind of outlook can help with getting people on board with new ideas or programs.

For instance, Folks began immersing himself in the study of school safety since 1999, when he was asked to attend a conference on the subject.

In 2008 he wrote the dissertation for his doctorate, which he received from Purdue University, on school safety.

And just this year, he used a grant to introduce new safety protocol called “ALICE” – which means Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate.

Essentially, what ALICE allows is for teachers – and to an extent, students – to have more of a decision-making role if someone firing a gun comes into the school.

Instead of the basic lockdown method, which had been in place for years and shut students and teachers alike into a classroom in hopes a shooter would pass it by, ALICE calls for, when the time is right, students and teachers to try to get out of the building or try to counter a shooter if there is no other choice.

He has even won over many of the school board members, and relatively quickly, though Folks admitted there was some difficulty adjusting, as there would be in any job.

“My personal opinion and, I speak for myself and the majority of the board, is that he’s done a pretty good job,” said Neil Reynolds, president of the EACS board. “I think Ken hit the ground running, and we’re all right with the direction he’s taken.”

In the year ahead, Folks said the biggest challenge facing the district is the budget.

He would like to hire more people, but right now that’s problematic with the budget he has, he said.

And while he’d like to afford more technology – the school district is grappling with giving students tablets and laptops – he believes teachers and instructors are still more important.

“The power of a school corporation is the people,” he said. “It’s human capital.”

And Folks isn’t always just talking the talk, but tries to show how seriously he takes the people in his schools.

Whenever there is a hint of an emergency at a school, Folks is bound to show up.

At one school, when a student became stuck in an elevator – he was safely freed within minutes – Folks was there.

During another day, he was about ready to go into a meeting when he found out one of the district’s buses was involved in a crash.

Initial reports sounded serious, and Folks quickly ditched the meeting and drove out to the scene.

Luckily, no one was hurt.

Still, Folks stayed there and lent his cellphone to some elementary school students, making sure their parents knew their children were safe.

It was nothing for Folks.

“Any superintendent would’ve done the same thing,” he said.

But that’s the typical response from Folks – and just the kind that has many in the district lining up behind the superintendent.