What It’s Like to Teach at One of America’s Least Racially Integrated Schools

Angela Crawford has taught English at a Philadelphia high school for 23 years. Not many veteran black teachers like her are left nationwide.

Angela Crawford / AP / Hulton Archive / Getty / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: Editor’s Note: In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. In recent years, that number is closer to just three years leading a classroom. The “On Teaching” series focuses on the wisdom of veteran teachers.

On a late February afternoon, Angela Crawford, an English teacher, stood in front of about three dozen Philadelphia educators—mostly young, black women—as they all swapped stories of small victories and challenges in their classrooms. Dressed in a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt and slim black slacks, Crawford, at one point, reflected on what has helped her remain resilient while working in some of the nation’s least resourced and most segregated classrooms for 23 years.

“Black women are caretakers of everyone else but ourselves,” she said. “You need daily rituals for your mind, body, and soul to stay in this profession. No one is going to move me from my daily workout and sleep. Block out weekly time for yourself: sit in silence, read for pleasure, buy yourself a nice dinner and flowers. That’s how I will have energy tomorrow to honor, listen, and uplift my students.”

As a veteran black teacher, Crawford is an outlier in her hometown of Philadelphia—and in the country. Just 24 percent of Philadelphia’s public-school teachers are black, down from a third in 2001, in a district in which 53 percent of students are black. That mirrors a national pattern: Between 2003 and 2012, a net 26,000 black teachers disappeared from American classrooms, while the overall number of teachers grew by 134,000.

Crawford has observed firsthand the rise and fall of black teachers in the city. When she was a student in Philadelphia in the ’70s, the city’s schools were desegregating and federal and state governments were pouring extra resources into buildings serving black students to compensate for a long history of racial exclusion. A decade before that, black students and educators in the city led one of the largest youth walkouts of the civil-rights era, which resulted in more integrated schools, more black teachers, and the addition of African American history to the school curriculum.

Today, Martin Luther King High School, where Crawford has taught since 2014, is highly segregated: Ninety-three percent of its students are black and only 1 percent are white. It’s one of roughly 6,700 schools nationwide in which 1 percent or less of the student body is white. And it’s also in a state with one of the country’s most unequally funded education systems: Pennsylvania ranks near the bottom of the country in the state share of education funding, making districts such as Philadelphia reliant on property taxes to fund its schools, which deepens the inequities between rich and poor districts. Pennsylvania is also one of 14 states that send more money to their wealthiest districts than their poorest ones.

As fellow black colleagues have left the profession, Crawford has doubled down on organizing as a way to improve the quality of education for her students. She is a member of the racial-justice committee of the Caucus of Working Educators, a local chapter of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers union. The group brings together teachers, students, and parents calling for the recruitment and retention of more black teachers, fewer police officers, and anti-racist training for teachers.

Crawford and her fellow organizers have been pushing back against the presence of police officers at schools, metal detectors and body scanners for children, punitive rules, and classrooms focused on standardized tests—which they believe lead teachers to behave like police officers rather than educators. While such approaches are meant to improve the safety of students, studies have linked them to increases in harsh disciplinary tactics and out-of-school suspensions, which disproportionately affect black students. “This climate is dehumanizing and creates obstacles to forming the kind of relationships that promote intellectual engagement,” Crawford said.

As a result, Crawford often tells young educators that sometimes they must resist policies they consider pedagogically inappropriate in their classroom. Crawford insists on foregoing worksheets and multiple-choice questions geared toward state tests in favor of assessments that she views as more rigorous and relevant for success in work and life: open-ended writing, speaking, listening, presentations, and performances.

As an adolescent, she earned the nickname of “professional student” for always carrying around half a dozen books in her backpack—most of which came from her home library. Crawford’s mother spent much of her time and limited money building a large library, with books from authors such as Marcus Garvey and James Baldwin. “Everything I learned about black history and culture before college came from home,” said Crawford, who spent most of her school years in predominantly white Catholic schools. “In our home, the most common directive you heard from my mother was, ‘Go read a book.’”

That bookishness led to success at school, but didn’t inoculate her from jeering classmates. In her elementary school, Crawford was one of just three black students in the building. These were some of the toughest years of Crawford’s childhood, filled with racist slurs and abusive comments from classmates about her big, thick-rimmed glasses. In third grade, Crawford’s teacher told her that she wasn’t smart enough to be in her school and should consider finding another one.

By sixth grade, Crawford was plotting her first act of protest. “I don’t like how you are treating me,” she told a teacher. “I’m not coming back.” Soon after, Crawford’s mother transferred her to another Catholic school with more black students.

In the last year of middle school, Crawford transferred to the majority-black neighborhood school. There, for the first time, Crawford experienced both high academic expectations and a sense of belonging as a student. At E. Washington Rhodes Middle School, Crawford had her first experience with veteran black teachers in the classroom. “These women put on their best clothes to school every day: stilettos, dresses, beautiful coats,” she told me. “They loved their jobs. They loved the kids. And they pushed you to do your best work every day in a disciplined, no-nonsense way.”

Around this time, Crawford decided that she wanted to become a teacher, so that she could help create the kind of classrooms that allowed her and her black classmates to thrive in school. She noticed that veteran black teachers—and many of their white colleagues who learned from them—ran rigorous, well-structured classrooms, but also got to know their students’ personal lives and intellectual interests. They knew when a student needed a push, cheering up, or help calming down. They knew how to organize adults in the school and enlist help from a student’s community to ensconce each child in a supportive web of high expectations and warm relationships. “My college counselor reminded me of my grandmother,” Crawford said. “These women were your mama, auntie, disciplinarian, coach, and your biggest cheerleader.”

In 1997, after becoming the first in her family to graduate from college, Crawford returned to E. Washington Rhodes Middle School as an English teacher. By then the school had fewer black teachers, but most were still veterans who coached younger teachers and established a school climate of high expectations and relationships that resembled familial bonds. Crawford’s alma mater still had arts and music programs, many student clubs, a library, a gym, and a robust maintenance staff to keep the building in pristine shape.

Two decades later, because of school resegregation and chronic budget cuts that have accelerated in recent years, most of those student clubs and electives have largely disappeared. Martin Luther King High School has no library. The school employs twice as many school police officers as it does counselors, and students have to pass through metal detectors before entering the school. As pressures to deliver higher test scores have increased, public displays of individual student outcomes on multiple-choice tests have replaced the student essays and art that used to adorn many classroom walls.

With so relatively few veteran black teachers, Crawford feels a unique responsibility to show her African American students that their lives, interests, and culture really do matter. Behind Crawford’s desk, underneath a large “Education Is Liberation” poster, are pictures of black icons that students read in her classes—James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Angela Davis, and Octavius Catto, a local anti-segregation organizer and teacher murdered for his activism in 1871. In Crawford’s English classes, she includes many historic texts by black authors to highlight the intellectual and cultural contributions of African Americans, as well as narratives of black triumph over racism.

Crawford told me that culturally relevant content promotes students’ engagement in their work and reduces the number of disaffected students—and the reliance on suspensions as a way to manage them. Most importantly, Crawford believes that black authors help students develop an understanding of why racial disparities persist—even among black students earning high test scores or living at the top of the economic ladder—and help kids see how critical thinking through writing can challenge the power structures that maintain such disparities.

“Ms. Crawford finds books that connect to our lives,” says a senior in one of her classes who is not being identified by name since he’s a minor. “In other English classes, we read textbooks, and study metaphors and similes from copied articles. Here, we study ideas, learn our history, and prepare for the real world.”

Crawford told me that her generation of educators is fighting to continue this tradition centered on black culture and relationships—at a time when the need for such support has only multiplied. Today, Philadelphia struggles with higher rates of poverty than when Crawford was a student in the ’70s, and schools have become more segregated since Crawford began teaching in 1995. Half of Philadelphia’s poor residents are black—and 29 percent of them live in racially isolated areas of concentrated poverty, many in West and North Philadelphia, where Martin Luther King High School is located.

Her students often have a lot to deal with outside of school: Gun violence and public brutality are rampant, as are foster care and homelessness. “Some of the things our children face today, I would never have had to deal with as a kid myself,” Crawford told me. “Many of my students have witnessed their friends being shot; some live with grandparents because their parents struggle with various hardships; others are homeless.”

Right below the portraits of Dr. King and Angela Davis, Crawford keeps a memorial box for the names of her students’ lost family members and friends, surrounded by electric candles and African mud cloths—which Crawford uses as symbols of the resilience and creativity of people in the African diaspora. Recent studies suggest that caring relationships—rather than reactive punishment, such as out-of-school suspensions—can help buffer children and teens against the long-term health effects of chronic stress and trauma.

“At the beginning of the school year, I tell students, ‘If you want to pay homage to someone, put their name in the basket,’” she said. “I want them to know that if they are hurt, angry, or grieving, I understand that and will create space for that. When students feel that they won’t be judged, that they can bring their full selves—intellectually, emotionally, spiritually—they are much more likely to trust the learning process and take intellectual risks.”

This article is part of our project "On Teaching," which is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Panta Rhea Foundation.