Kyla Crawford- common thread

Clearing Pathways to Success for Black Boys and Educators of Color

“If I’m serving Black boys in a classroom, then everybody else is getting served too,” says Kyla Crawford, a teacher and librarian in Tukwila, Washington. Crawford, who graduated in 2017 from Antioch Seattle’s Master of Arts in Teaching program, is passionate about educating underserved and overlooked populations. This passion is her superpower—the tool she uses to create access and opportunities for Black boys and, thereby, for all the other students who her teaching reaches.

Crawford says that when students are empowered to recognize their value, they get a glimpse of who they can become. She is actively serving Black boys in a classroom setting, engaging them, and meeting them where they are. And she’s also working to bring change and greater equity at Antioch, by serving on its new Committee of Community Advisors.

It’s a mission that came out of Crawford’s life, her upbringing, and her own experiences in the American educational system. These experiences, which might have discouraged someone with less grit and moral imagination than Crawford, have instead made her even more devoted to her work. Crawford is determined to create equitable change for the Black boys she works with.

Access and Opportunity: The Power of Education

Crawford grew up in Los Angeles. Her parents divorced when she was young, and afterward Crawford, her mom, and her two older brothers moved around quite a bit—though not always by choice. A whirlwind of evictions took them from apartment to apartment, with no real sense of stability.

While they moved many times, Crawford attended only three schools from kindergarten through high school. Education was her constant—the one steady thing she could hold on to. This was partly because her mother valued education so intensely. Crawford’s mother had extensively researched schooling before her kids were born. As Crawford says, “My mom was able to place us in progressive private schools on full scholarships.”

Later, Crawford went to live with her surrogate grandparents in Gardena, California. There Crawford had the best of both worlds when it came to developing relationships and friendships. Her friends and classmates in school were mostly affluent and white, while her relationships outside of the classroom were with Black kids and other people of color.

Crawford couldn’t help but notice the blatant differences between her own experiences in the classroom in comparison with the classroom experiences of her neighborhood friends. “In private school,” Crawford explains, “our educational experience was hands-on. There was access and opportunity, field trips, lots of cultural exposure and experience. We had a say in who our teachers were and got to develop much of our senior curriculum and senior community projects. Choice and critical thought were everywhere.”

That was not the case for many neighborhood friends. “I watched boys of color around me [be] harassed by the police. My brother got harassed often on the way to school: police checked his backpack. My darker-skinned brother got openly profiled, was wrongfully accused of a crime, and did almost ten years in prison.”

Crawford found these disparities and injustices intolerable. She felt an inner calling to confront them. One day she asked one of the young men she saw cutting school why he wasn’t in school. He told her, “My school is broken. They tell me I ain’t nothing. Old textbooks, leaky buildings. I can be out here making money.”

This led to a key insight for her. The young man was trying to create upward mobility for himself, and this meant getting outside of school as early as possible. To the young man, school was a dead end.

Path to Law Intercepted by a Need to Educate

This realization of educational inequity led Crawford to her passion for advocating for access and opportunity for boys of color. This, she realized, was the way she could make the biggest impact on her community. “Resources will follow,” Crawford says, “but there must be pathways toward access and opportunity first.”

After high school, she attended Spelman College in Atlanta to study pre-law. She was intentional: she wanted to become a lawyer. But soon she came to see that the need for teachers was far greater. Crawford explains, “Although I could serve Black men and men of color in the system as a criminal defense attorney, I needed to intervene much earlier. I needed to start at the root.”

While she was in college, Crawford started a family, giving birth to twin boys. She ended up leaving Spelman to parent her children. Eventually, she enrolled her boys in preschool while she studied to become a teacher. She had already earned 60 credits in pre-law, but she was much more focused on this new career.

“I was always in love with it,” Crawford says. “I loved mentoring and working with the younger girls in my school. I used to pretend to teach in the summer, taking out my old schoolwork and reteaching the lessons in my room.”

She received an Associate’s Degree in Elementary Education and started teaching in preschool and afterschool programs. Law still is and will always be a passion in Crawford’s life—but education calls the loudest for her attention. Crawford was deeply impacted by “watching those experiences with my brothers and seeing how much police involvement, whether in or out of school, dictated where our Black boys ended up.” As she says, “I needed to see how incorporating mentorship and support in a school setting could have a positive impact.”

Creating Access Through Legislative Change

After working hard as a paraeducator—someone without a teaching credential who assists and is supervised by a more experienced teacher—Crawford eventually began searching for the right school at which to complete her undergraduate education. In 2009 she was accepted into Antioch Seattle’s BA completion program. At Antioch, Crawford had a wonderful learning experience and completed her degree in 2013. “I loved the majority of my classes,” she says. “I fell in love with the teachers. The core faculty was supportive, and the pedagogy was rooted in social justice.”

Coming out of her BA, she “laddered” into the Master of Arts in Teaching program at Antioch Seattle, which meant that the final twelve units for the BA counted as the first twelve units of the MA in Teaching. Despite her enthusiasm for finishing this degree, it sometimes was overwhelming trying to juggle parenting along with being a paraeducator and, on top of it all, studying for her rigorous classes. Crawford twice left the program; the second time she left with just 23 credits remaining to finish her degree.

That was when she received a call from the outgoing chair of the MA in Teaching program, Kelly Vancil. He was adamant he wouldn’t leave his position leading the program until they found a pathway for her to finish her degree. He did everything he could to find a way for Crawford to continue.

Eventually, Vancil found ways to work around the current system that would allow Crawford to complete those remaining 23 credits that stood between her and finishing her graduate degree. Through this program, says Crawford, “I could get my practicums done, work, and study all at the same time.” She graduated with her MA in Teaching in 2017.

It was a big success for her and for the program—and it proved that an intensive residency approach could be successful. “In many ways, this validated the ability for Paraeducators to become a teacher through alternative career pathways,” Crawford says. Vancil was at the time serving on a legislative committee for the Washington State government that was working to clear pathways for paraeducators to complete degrees and get certified. He ended up nominating Crawford to serve on a sub-committee, and they each worked to influence legislation to make it possible for future alternative career pathways for paraeducators to be created in the state. Crawford got to see firsthand how activists and committed politicians changed laws and cleared pathways for others to pursue and advance their careers as educators.

Meanwhile, in her own life, Crawford had finally completed school and attained her teaching credential. Her pathway to being a professional teacher was clear.

Dual Role as Teacher/Librarian

Today, Crawford works as a Teacher Librarian at Thorndyke Elementary School, in Tukwila, a southern suburb of Seattle. This role is innovative and requires real flexibility, but operating in dual spaces is nothing new for Crawford. She spent her childhood navigating between her predominantly white educational experience and her multiplicity of people of color (POC) neighborhoods, affecting positive change in both spaces. Operating in dual roles as a teacher and as a librarian is comparatively not so hard.

When she got the job, it seemed like a radical idea to serve as a librarian without studying for a library certification, yet she found a way to make her transition seamless—by leaning into the educational aspect of her role. An early class she designed and taught at the school library was a mini ethnic studies course for elementary kids.

“I have always wanted to create my own curriculum,” Crawford explains. This role as a librarian offered the perfect opportunity to flex her skills as an innovative teacher. As she says, “There is no set curriculum for librarians. You can teach what you want as long as it meets standards. There’s a sense of freedom in that I can move from a white-centered lens and address inequities and discrepancies.”

Today, Crawford bases her curriculum on calendar holidays and themed months that occur during the school year. “Latinx Heritage month starts off the school year,” she explains, followed by Indigenous Peoples’ Day at Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King Jr. day in January, and so forth.” Activities for grade-schoolers include guiding her students as they create slides and presentations around the subjects of whatever culture is being emphasized that month. Students are creating their own materials, adding to the richness of the library. Says Crawford, her students “take those slides and turn them into a book that is displayed in the library for other students to read.”

Crawford piloted these projects first in her classroom. Now she implements them in the library, and it ended up being a huge hit with her students. It combines the elements of the library with technology, research, reading, and more. Crawford says that the kids find the work exciting because they see themselves in the projects and become more engaged. Students have taken their assignments beyond the classroom by making slides centered on their own identities and families. This instills a sense of pride in their culture and heritage.

The Tukwila School District is the most diverse in the country, with students speaking over 80 different languages. “There is a high immigrant population, high poverty, high homelessness,” explains Crawford. But those difficulties are exactly why she’s excited to do her work. “I am exactly where I want to be with the kids I want to impact,” she says. “I try to provide as much access and opportunity as I can to expand, instead of limiting their world view. Even when I don’t have the funds to go on field trips, we bring the world into the school.”

Assembling the Committee of Community Advisors

This desire to bring opportunity to those who most need it has brought her back to Antioch, now in an advisory role: she is a member of the Committee of Community Advisors. This committee supports the Master of Arts in Teaching program, headed by Heather Hebard, and the Alternative Route to Teacher Certification program, headed by Julia Daniels. This committee consists of education partners in local schools, community leaders and activists, advocates for immigrants and refugees, leaders of local community-based organizations, and Antioch alumni who work in communities that the program hopes to better serve. For Crawford, this position gives her a chance to influence a key teacher training program and help future educators develop their skills for anti-racist teaching practices.

In her journey as an educator, Crawford has seen again and again the burden of being Black in a predominantly white space. This was the case at Antioch Seattle. She was the only student of color in her MAT program cohort. This not only created difficulties for her but also meant the program was not serving its community as well as it could be. There is a profound need for educators of color, but teacher training programs have not always succeeded in enrolling, teaching, supporting, and mentoring those populations. In addition, there is a need for programs to offer a multicultural lens to all of their pre-service teachers.

Because of this history and these needs, Rachel Oppenheim and Caryn Park established the Committee of Community Advisors (CCA) at Antioch back in 2018, with Crawford as one of its founding members. The CCA is supported by an Advancing Equity Grant from Washington State’s Professional Educator Standards Board. The purpose of the CCA is to help mentor teacher prep candidates in the MA in Teaching and Alternative Routes to Teacher Certification programs. The CCA works with students in the programs to deepen knowledge of self, strengthen relationships with local communities, build awareness of implicit biases and develop conviction towards anti-racist teaching practices. Crawford says, “We need to examine what community looks like outside of a school building. Sometimes teachers don’t live in the communities they serve. To build relationships, educators should meet families where they are and spend time where they are.”

The CCA is made up not just of teachers but also phenomenal leaders of community-based organizations and activists who work in and around schools. The grant money supporting the program goes towards stipends and honorariums for the cohort of members that make up the CCA. “One of the main ways predominantly white institutions express the value of expertise is through money,” explains Crawford.

CCA is vital because of this solid community of support and its wealth of knowledge and varying perspectives. “Black folks are not a monolith,” says Crawford. “White people aren’t either. There needs to be a plethora of perspectives that can offer support.”

Crawford is spearheading the work being done with the CCA by facilitating and organizing with MA in Teaching faculty and mentoring degree candidates of color. The CCA is key in creating pathways of access and opportunity, including mentorship.

Crawford hopes that the CCA will become a model for other schools. As she explains, “Until racial equity in candidates in higher education programs begins to reflect the student populations they’re going into the world and serving, the CCA will be needed.”

Moving forward, Crawford would like to see an expansion of teacher prep programs in public schools. “Our hope is to sustain and build out the CCA,” Crawford says. “We now have an ‘Educators of Color’ group, led by Emily Tran and Caryn Park, and [it] consists of Antioch faculty, alumni, and CCA members. It’s a safe space for members to just be.”

When she thinks about what she wishes people knew and would do, Crawford sighs. There’s so much yet to be done. “Help promote and encourage programs like this,” she says. “Support, recruit, encourage candidates to go into teaching. Also, if teaching is not your cup of tea, consider mentoring teachers and teacher candidates… [And] support CCA programs and create opportunities for BIPOC teachers to be supported and valued.”

These actions are ways of being proactive—clearing pathways to access and opportunity that will enable successes for both students and educators of color. It’s important work, work our future depends on. Crawford and the rest of Antioch’s CCA are deeply devoted to it. Hopefully, their work and story will ripple outward and inspire other activists to help bring justice into the classroom.

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Antoinette Wiley

Antoinette Wiley

Antoinette is an MFA candidate in fiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. This movie buff and foodie based in Cleveland, Ohio, also performs as a singer, editor, writing coach, and occasional movie extra.

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