Penn Charter's helmsman bows out

He was one of the youngest people named to such a job and shepherded the school through decades of sweeping changes.

Posted: July 09, 2007

While Philadelphia was celebrating the nation's Bicentennial in July 1976, Earl J. Ball III was a 33-year-old educator trying to get used to the idea that he was the new head of the William Penn Charter School.

Ball recalls sitting in his large new office on the private school's leafy campus in East Falls and staring at the framed document on the wall that William Penn had signed in 1689 authorizing the creation of the first Quaker school in colonial America. He had just left his job after four years as assistant headmaster of the Park School in Brooklandville, Md.

"I remember sitting here in July of 1976 and it was sort of quiet here and thinking 'What am I supposed to do? How do I do this?' " Ball, 64, said in a recent interview.

Ball figured it out. Until he retired last week, Ball led Penn Charter for three decades through a changing educational landscape that included making the school coeducational, increasing the racial and economic diversity of the student body, and expanding the role of the arts. In the process, Ball, who had been one of the youngest people ever named to head such a prominent K-12 school, became a respected leader and a quiet force in Quaker schools and in private education in this region and beyond.

"Earl Ball is a senior statesman in the industry and highly regarded," said Patrick Bassett, president of the National Association of Independent Schools in Washington. "He knows the kids, knows the community, knows the alumni, and is beloved by the community. . . . We wish we could clone him."

Students, colleagues, faculty and parents described Ball as a thoughtful, kind and patient educator and a good listener.

"He meets with every senior to just talk to them to find out about their experience at the school," said Ben Katz, 18, Sam Katz's youngest son and an '07 graduate. "He is running an entire school and going to meetings all over the place, and he takes time for every individual."

Social-studies teacher Sarah Sharp said: "I think he has a tremendous appreciation of what each individual teacher can bring to the school and really likes to . . . enable you to do more of what you do best."

Penn Charter and Germantown Academy have been athletic rivals for more than a century, but Jim Connor, head of Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, said he turns to Ball for advice.

"He is a very wise person, a very gentle person, but also a very strong person," said Connor, who once took a graduate class on educational leadership that Ball taught at the University of Pennsylvania. "And he is just a lot of fun to be with. . . . He seems to really enjoy his work, and that's contagious."

Although Ball is highly regarded in education circles and has been involved in the East Falls community, he is less known elsewhere.

"He's very self-effacing," said James P. Gallagher, president of neighboring Philadelphia University, who sent his two sons to Penn Charter.

"Earl is not in the business of promoting Earl," said Gallagher, a member of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission. "He's in the business of promoting his students, so in that sense he probably isn't as well known as he should be. But I can tell you that people who know him revere him."

Ball announced in February 2006 that he would retire at the end of June 2007. He said he knew it was time to retire.

"I always felt there would come a time when I would know it was right, and it seemed right to me," Ball said. "We were at the end of a cycle."

The school had implemented academic and strategic plans for the campus and was winding up up the largest capital campaign in its history. In five years, Penn Charter raised $47 million, including funds for a new performing arts center that will have a theater named for Ball and his wife, Pam, a beloved math teacher who also retired.

Ball gave the board plenty of warning so there would be ample time for a national search. He was ecstatic when the search settled on Darryl Ford, the head of Penn Charter's middle school for 10 years, to replace him. Ford is the school's first African American head.

Penn Charter spent much of the 2006-07 school year saluting Ball. Students and staff wore blue-and-yellow "Thank you Earl" buttons, and the message was repeated on banners that hung on campus for weeks. Quaker educators from across the country traveled to Penn Charter in mid-April to join the school community for a Ball tribute and to hear Harvard University education professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot talk about respect.

"His idea was to just have everybody come together to hear a speech and not make it all about him," said Diane Bass, cochair of the Penn Charter parents' organization.

During the academic year, there were plenty of "lasts" on campus: an emotional last faculty meeting, the last Quaker meeting for worship, and the last time Ball handed out diplomas, to about 100 seniors.

"It was poignant," Ball said. "I was determined that the graduation should be about the graduates and not about me."

Pinned to his academic robe was a button he had made that read: "Thank You Class of 2007."

Ball is proud of what the school has accomplished.

"When you sit some place for 30 years you see a lot of evolutionary changes," he said. "The most dramatic here was the coeducational movement."

Ball oversaw the arrival of the first girls on campus in 1981. He has seen minority student enrollment grow from 8 percent to 24 percent. The students also are more economically diverse. Penn Charter awards about $4 million in financial aid each year, and about 30 percent of students receive some aid.

"I have no illusions about my contribution here," Ball said. " . . . I have always felt that teaching is the central part of the school and the job of people in positions like mine is to create the most positive environment for teaching."

In the spring, Ball and his wife moved from the school-owned house adjacent to the campus where they had raised their two sons to a new home in Conshohocken.

For years, Ball has been on the board of the White-Williams Scholars, a nonprofit that helps high-achieving public high school students in the city. He hopes to become involved in mentoring students.

His major concern at the moment is where to spend the Tuesday after Labor Day. He and his family will be somewhere other than in Philadelphia - probably either Maine or on the Chesapeake.

"Since I was 6, there's never been a year when I haven't been going to school," Ball said. "So something different has to happen."

William Penn Charter School

Founded: 1689 under a charter signed by William Penn authorizing the first Quaker school in colonial America.

Enrollment: 900 students K-12.

Tuition: Ranges from $14,250 for kindergarten to $21,900 for grades 9-12.

Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or at

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