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Teacher’s real-world lessons drive students to succeed

Students one nudge away from dropping out will go to teacher Rodney Ball’s class but skip all others.

Students such as Boulder City High School senior William Lassley, who was failing most of his classes through last year. He wanted to quit and pursue a GED diploma. After much persuading, Lassley stayed in school and became Ball’s star student.

“How’d I connect with him? Through cars,” said Ball, the auto shop teacher and often last line of defense for struggling students who aren’t athletes or academics. “They’re gear heads.”

For his ability to reach students, the nine-year teacher and former auto mechanic of 30 years with a history in the stock-car racing circuit is being named the Clark County Educator of the Month for November.

Ball was nominated by another Boulder City teacher and chosen by a panel that includes members of the Clark County School Board, the Public Education Foundation, Teach for America and private school representatives.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal and Sierra Nevada College sponsor the program.

All monthly winners will be honored at an end-of-the-school-year banquet, where an Educator of the Year will be named.

Ball’s classroom, a three-stall garage, is anything but ordinary.

Students come in and go to class as if they are on the job.

Last week, two boys walked over to the front end of a 1997 Ford Escort. The back half of the car is gone beyond the steering wheel, but it runs just like a regular car.

A panel of toggle switches allows Ball to create any number of problems that students must diagnose.

“They’re going to find it,” Ball says after providing the students with a little guidance on identifying a fuel pump problem.

He is of the opinion that a teacher should be a “facilitator” and give students a little direction and then a lot of freedom to figure out a problem, which can end in a broken car part.

“Sometimes you have to do it wrong to learn how to do it right,” he said.

During one class, Ball stopped to check on Lassley, who was replacing the water pump and timing belt on a four-door Acura. The car was raised to shoulder height on a lift.

“He’s off and running,” said Ball, who wouldn’t trust any other student to do such a job alone.

“This is so much fun. In the end, there’s learning going on. That’s all you can hope for. It’s as much a life-skills class as an auto class.”

Ball sees his shop as the beginning of students’ careers, whether it’s automotive or something mechanical, surgical. That’s why he brings in the most current technology possible.

Students such as Lassley see it the same way. That’s what kept him in school, Lassley said.

“Mr. Ball showed that everything we learn has a purpose,” Lassley said.

Ball annually brings in representatives from Wyoming Technical Institute, Universal Technical Institute, College of Southern Nevada and other higher education institutions.

Lassley wants to be a diesel mechanic. His plan: Graduate high school and attend Universal Technical Institute in Phoenix.

Principal Kent Roberts said Ball benefits from the “real-world applicability” of auto shop not immediately evident in core subjects such as history, math or English.

“You don’t have to convince students of its importance,” he said.

But Ball makes the most of that advantage, Roberts said.

“These kids just love him to pieces,” said Roberts, noting that Ball’s automotive students tend to improve in their other classes as well, which has much to do with students wanting Ball’s respect.

Ball was much like his students in 1975 when he was a junior at Rancho High School. By senior year, he worked part time as a mechanic, taking only two courses and considering dropping out of school to work full time.

“I was in the same boat as these guys. I get it when they say, ‘I got to work,’ ” said Ball, who tells them, “‘Calm down. You have 11 years in this thing.’ They just don’t see that.”

Ball graduated high school and was an auto mechanic and machinist for more than 30 years before getting his teaching credential.

He sees much of himself in 18-year-old Lassley. And he has much faith in Lassley.

“He’ll succeed,” Ball said.

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.

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