Crystal Byndloss ’91 didn’t take a sociology class until she was a Sarah Lawrence senior. “Then I realized I had been secretly studying sociology all along,” she says. “In all of my classes, I wrote conference papers about things like race, poverty, inequality and education.” With her passion named, she began applying to graduate schools; a year after that first course in sociology, she was at Harvard, working on her Ph.D. in the subject.
In graduate school, Byndloss narrowed her focus to public education, determined to collect hard data on a topic often defined by hearsay and hyperbole. “Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, our schools are more segregated than ever. I wanted to understand why,” she says. Her doctoral thesis examined historical education reform movements led by parents of color. She was particularly intrigued by the Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversy in 1960’s Brooklyn, when poor African- American and Puerto Rican parents fought for community control of their school district, demanding that the white bureaucracy address the needs of their students and rehabilitate their schools—schools that were not only failing, but segregated. At the climax of the historic conflict that ensued, the teachers went on strike for several weeks, shutting down the entire school system.
Byndloss thinks that we can learn a lot about our current educational dilemmas from the community control movement. “Many of the issues they faced then are the same ones we’re facing now—like parent involvement in schools, teacher accountability and multicultural education,” she notes.
Byndloss went on to study the current manifestations of these problems as a researcher at Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, where she worked for several years. In one research project, schools in the Mississippi delta were trying to engage parents in the classroom as part of a reform effort, but the teachers had a hard time connecting with them. Byndloss found that the parents’ reluctance to visit the schools was caused not by lack of interest, but lack of money: Many of them couldn’t afford to take time off of work during the day, nor to hire a babysitter for their other children at night.
This is the kind of information that Byndloss wants to put to use in her new position as an administrator at Temple University in Philadelphia. She is now both assistant dean of the College of Education and the assistant director of the Center for Research on Human Development and Education (CRHDE), where she is in charge of strategic planning. “In my last job, I did the research. Now, I can decide what research needs to be done,” she says.
After years of studying how social forces affect parents, students and teachers, Byndloss has the chance to make practical changes in the system. Temple University collaborates with the local school district to operate six public schools in the neighborhoods surrounding the main campus, and Byndloss’s departments are highly engaged in this work. The College of Education places student-teachers in the schools, trains teachers in literacy education and helps design individualized curricula for students with special needs, while CRHDE assists with technology and research. “It’s very exciting to collaborate with the local community,” Byndloss says. As an active participant in the university and in the public schools, she’s proving the main point of her years of research: “Educational institutions don’t exist in a vacuum—it’s important to consider the larger context.”
—Suzanne Walters M.F.A. ’04