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US (KY): UK alum honored with award for excellence in agricultural youth education

University of Kentucky alumnus and Carter G. Woodson Academy agriculture teacher Jacob Ball was recently recognized with the national Milken Educator Award — honoring exceptional educators across the country for their innovation and excellence, including a $25,000 unrestricted cash prize.

Often called the "Oscars of Teaching," the award empowers recipients like Ball to continue inspiring their students to pursue teaching as a career.

As a boy growing up on his family's small farm in Culvertown, Kentucky, Ball's passion for agriculture began years before his teaching career. In high school, Ball enrolled in agriculture courses and participated in his local Future Farmers of America (FFA) club. He was also selected for the Governor's Scholars Program, which opened scholarship opportunities and doors at in-state public universities.

UK alumnus Jacob Ball's student Tyren Harris (to his left) ushers his teacher toward the front of the gym as the news starts to sink in. The whole room is cheering for this new Kentucky Milken Educator. Photo courtesy of the Milken Family Foundation.

"I knew that I had an interest in agriculture. After taking a few visits, I knew that UK was the place for me," Ball said. "The opportunities offered, along with how it felt like home, made it an easy decision. I was 100% all in with attending UK and the College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment."

After earning his bachelor's degree in agricultural education in 2011 from the Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment, and later an education specialist degree from UK College of Education Department of Educational Leadership Studies in 2018, he pursued his two loves: agriculture and teaching.

"The University of Kentucky has been one of the most important factors to my success in the classroom and my career," Ball said. "When I graduated, I was prepared with the skills necessary to get me started in the classroom. I still use my experiences from UK to explain concepts to students. The network that I established in UK helped me build my contacts across the entire agriculture industry, which provides opportunities for my students outside of the classroom."

One of his former professors, Lu Young, Ed.D., said Ball exemplifies the qualities of a Milken Award winner in everything he does.

"As a student in our ed leadership program, he always strived for excellence and brought his full commitment to developing as a leader — always keeping the best interests of his students in mind," said Young, associate clinical professor and director of professional preparation programs in the Educational Leadership Studies department.

"Jacob was an outstanding student and has grown into an outstanding educator, as this award shows," said Justin Bathon, Ph.D., JD, associate professor and chair in Educational Leadership Studies. "In particular, his dedication and clarity of purpose were always apparent to us. Thus, it is no surprise that after years of dedication to serving students, such recognitions follow. As Jacob highlighted in his acceptance speech, we share the call for more men to consider teaching as a career, and we would hope they exhibit similar characteristics to what Jacob demonstrates on a daily basis."

Ball currently teaches agriculture to sixth-12th graders at Carter G. Woodson Academy, which primarily serves young students of color, remaining committed to opening the world of agricultural careers to his students in the classroom.

His curriculum includes a focus on minority contributions to agriculture. For instance, Ball's students created an Agriculture Wall of Fame, recognizing the contributions of Hispanic and Black farmers across the United States.

Ball brings a spirit of creativity and innovation to everything he does in the classroom, from challenging his students to create agritourism facilities using Minecraft to creating a hydroponic farm to grow lettuce and sell at local restaurants and grocery stores.

And his students are benefiting from his ambitious standards in the classroom. Six have received full scholarships to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in recent years, and 100% of his students passed their end-of-year exams last year, compared to just over half the year before.

Ball's learning experiences for his students also go beyond the classroom. He helped to create a Junior MANRRS (Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences) chapter in partnership with UK and established the school's FFA group.

Last year, his students participated in 140 various agriculture projects across the state, logging an impressive 3,000 hours of real-world experience and culminating in the trip of a lifetime for nine of those students who traveled to Ireland for the Agriculture in Ireland summer tour.

Ball believes that agriculture is the most important industry in our society. As people become more removed from the farm, agriculture teachers must innovate to find ways to connect and educate students about agriculture careers.

"FFA and Junior MANRRS are leadership, professional development organizations that build career skills within students while connecting and engaging them in agriculture," Ball said. "These organizations directly connect students to careers in agriculture at a younger age and can set them on a path to enter this industry."

Furthermore, Ball added that these extracurriculars can help take his students' agricultural education experience to another level and help them pursue careers in the industry. Mia Farrell, associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion at Martin-Gatton CAFE's Office of Diversity, agrees.

"Mr. Ball ensures that his students are exposed to a plethora of opportunities, specifically in Jr. MANRRS," Farrell said. "Carter G. Woodson Academy's Jr. MANRRS program is producing present and future leaders because of the commitment and dedication to young men of color. Mr. Ball continues to pour into these young men, ensuring they know what opportunities are available, whether they want to continue their education or go into the workforce once they graduate."

Ball's surprise recognition last month was attended by Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Jane Foley, Ph.D., Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, and Kentucky Interim Commissioner of Education Robin Fields Kinney.

"When you visit a classroom like Mr. Ball's, it shows just how much he goes above and beyond what is expected of him in a way that inspires his students to do the same," Kinney said. "Mr. Ball is more than just a teacher; he is a true advocate for his students and is a pillar of support within the school community."

"Mr. Ball's contributions to the field of education and agriculture are truly commendable. Through his instruction and guidance, he has not only expanded the horizons of his scholars but also made a significant impact in promoting diversity and innovation in the agricultural industry," Coleman said.

"Jacob Ball gifts students with a rich, real-world agricultural education, deepening their appreciation of its impact on many facets of everyday life," Foley said. "With a combination of hands-on activities, daily reflection and deep inquiry, and partnerships with organizations and businesses, Jacob's message to his students is clear: Pathways to successful careers in agriculture are possible, tangible, and open to all. Congratulations, Jacob, and welcome to the national Milken Educator Network of Excellence."

The Milken Educator Award is not a lifetime achievement honor. Recipients are sought out early- to mid-career for what they have achieved — and for the promise of what they will accomplish given the resources and opportunities afforded by the award.

In addition to mentorship opportunities and an unrestricted cash award bestowed by the Milken Family Foundation, Ball will join other exceptional educators across the country for the all-expenses-paid Milken Educator Awards Forum in Los Angeles, where they will network with their new colleagues as well as veteran Milken Educators and other education leaders about how to broaden their impact on K-12 education.

The first Milken Educator Awards were presented by the Milken Family Foundation (MFF) in 1987. Ball is the second and final recipient in Kentucky this 2023-24 season, joining a growing group and network of professionals working to shape the future of education.

"The Milken Award would not have come without the partnerships and opportunities for students that I have established over my career," Ball said. "I love being involved at UK and serving on the Ag Alumni Association Board. I want to serve the university that gave me so much and set me on a path to be successful in agriculture education."


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