Chris Ballenger found a brand new culture when he moved to Smyth County from Oklahoma and he and his family are loving it.
Ballenger took on the post of assistant superintendent for instruction in Smyth County Schools on July1 and has been spending his first months learning his role.
Born and raised in Oklahoma, Ballenger and his wife, Christine, a licensed clinical psychologist from Asheboro, North Carolina, had often come to the East Coast for family visits and vacations. Christine, who was practicing at an Indian Healthcare Center in Tulsa when she and Chris met, wanted to move closer to her mother who was suffering from Alzheimer’s so Chris started applying to positions in the east.
“One day we were driving through Galax and she wanted to show me the mountain house her dad had lived in along the New River,” Ballenger said. “It was beautiful. We headed west on the back roads, hit 81 and stayed in Bristol. She asked if I’d thought of looking for work in Virginia. So I started applying and got interviews like the one in Smyth County.”
Ballenger said his wife got her license in Virginia and is looking at places to practice. She will focus on women’s mental health. She had a private practice in Oklahoma.
The family, which includes two children, lives in Sugar Grove.
“I love it,” Ballenger said of Smyth County. “The people here are very welcoming. They have open arms and lend you a hand. ‘How can I help you?’ ‘Call me if you need me.’ You don’t hear that often. It’s just people helping people. The lady we bought a house from was so helpful. She and her family cleared the house out in a weekend so we could move in. And she lives next door so we have a great neighbor.”
The Ballengers have a son, Tabor Kistler, who is a freshman at Chilhowie High School, and a daughter, Hannah Ballenger, who attends Chilhowie Middle School.
“I let them choose their new schools,” he said.
In Jennings, Oklahoma, Ballenger had served as superintendent since 2004 and he also taught physical education and mathematics, was a coach, athletic director and dean of students. He helped coach his children’s teams – football, basketball, baseball, softball – because the schools were small in his area and teachers had to help out wherever possible. He also served as a volunteer fireman for 13 years.
“It’s a new experience for me sitting on the sidelines,” he said of his children’s sports activities. The population where they lived before was around 800 with 220 to 250 students in grades pre-K to 8. “It was not uncommon for parents to get involved coaching,” he said.
It was a close-knit community, he said. “My children were the fifth generation to attend that school.”
Ballenger said the transition to a much bigger school division has been challenging, and he likes being in a place where people know each other and help each other.
With the lowest educational funding in the nation due to continuous cuts, Oklahoma is struggling with meeting even the basic needs, he said. The way funding there works, to keep districts level, the poorer areas get more state funding because of less local funding and it is just the opposite for the wealthier districts.
As assistant superintendent for instruction, Ballenger will be working in curriculum and leadership in the Smyth County Schools.
“I am learning as I go,” he said. “I am here to support teachers and staff development. I appreciate Dr. Carter (superintendent). He’s showing me the ropes coming from a smaller system to a larger one. I look forward to a good working relationship. He’s been very supportive from day one.”
Ballenger is also working to bring in programs he is familiar with such as AmeriCorps on which he is writing a dissertation.