Reimagining Education by Thinking Globally
A conversation with Morten Ballen of Christel House International.
As an educator who has worked extensively in historically marginalized areas of the United States and abroad, Morty Ballen sees inequities in education as universal challenges, both here in the USA and in the developing world. Despite vast cultural, economic, and structural disparities, two key factors shape the role of education in the life-course virtually everywhere: the cycle of poverty, and the will of people and communities to work together to overcome it.
Ballen began his career as an educator by working as a middle and high school English teacher in Louisiana. He was immediately struck by how few resources his students had, simply by virtue of where they were born. Although the year was 1992, he was shocked to learn that desegregation had been first implemented at the school where he was teaching only four years before, in 1988. As Ballen put it: “That was a stark realization for me. I thought desegregation had ended way earlier… Every interaction was filtered through the dynamic of race.”
When the desire to broaden his experience through travel emerged, Ballen seized at an opportunity to work in South Africa just as apartheid was ending. It gave him a profound experience with seeing how systemic change can happen, even amidst crushing poverty.
“It was very inspiring to feel like I was part of an effort to build together— with people who looked to me as having different backgrounds, the different histories, but, but we had to serve a shared goal of building a better world… so much of our work as a class was about this idea called Masakhane.” (Masakhane means ‘we build together’ in the Zulu language.)
As Ballen describes it: “The big question is: what do we have in common with schools around the world? …I only have a small perspective, but I think we have more in common than not. Schools are about students learning and developing their own agency, teachers having opportunities to develop, and leaders having the opportunity to develop, working together with kids, families, and schools to support our future. …I believe that schools, more than any other institution (except maybe family) impact the trajectory of kids’ lives.”
Following his experiences working in South Africa, Ballen returned to the USA, working in systemically marginalized communities in New York City. He earned his M.A. in Educational Administration from Teachers College/Columbia University. He was the Founder & CEO of Explore Schools, located in Brooklyn, NY, which grew to a network of eight charter schools serving 2,000 low-income elementary and middle school students.
After guiding the growth of Explore Schools for 20 years, Ballen served as the Program Director for Global Schools Forum (GSF), an NGO that advocates for and strengthens the non-state education sector (mostly low-fee independent schools).
It’s clear that his previous work and global experience led him to his current role. Ballen describes his work with Christel House: “Christel House’s mission is to break the cycle of poverty. Our approach is to work with students from age five to 18, and then work with the alumni from age 18 to 23 for five years to support them with their college and career readiness path… It’s not about test scores. It’s about actually moving up economic deciles and our graduates having hope and making life plans.”
In this episode of Learning Can’t Wait, Hayley’s guest is Morty Ballen, Senior Vice President, Global Academics for Christel House International.
A global children’s charity, Christel House transforms the lives of impoverished children by breaking the cycle of poverty, building character, and instilling respect and self-sufficiency. Christel House provides robust K-12 education, complemented with health care, nutritious meals, guidance counseling, career planning, family assistance, and College & Career support.