Crystal Braswell is the kind of person who will call you “sweetie” just minutes into meeting you for the first time, but only in that rare way that makes you feel like you’ve known her your whole life. It’s part of what makes her one of the pillars of the community at Cloverdale Middle School in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she’s been assistant principal for four years. When someone can see and hear people the way she does, community always follows.
She also knows what it’s like to need school to be home—better than home, even—for a student. Raised by her grandparents, Crystal was told early and often that a call home from school would not be welcome. “I wouldn’t say that I had the worst childhood, but it wasn’t the best either,” she says. “They were the kind of grandparents who really just provided basic needs, so I was always on my best behavior. But I felt like I was missing something. Where I received it was in my school building.”
What was missing was the luxury of warmth and stability. At school, she got it from the science teacher who would let her set up his lab before the day started, when her classmates hadn’t arrived yet but she was there, dropped off early and needing somewhere to be. She got it from the attendance secretary who would write her a $25 check as a reward every time she made the honor roll. She got it from the countless other adults throughout the building who would talk to her and help show her the way.
“What I decided is that I wanted to be that for students,” she says, reflecting on her choice to become an educator more than twenty years ago. “I wanted to give back what was given to me.”
Ministering to kids in a community where racism is routine
“It’s really been more like a ministry for me than a job,” Crystal says, speaking of her work. She knows that for the children at Cloverdale, front page news about another police killing of an unarmed Black man is not shocking. “Our students and their families are affected by those kinds of death more often than people have conversations about,” Crystal says.
She also acknowledges that the world outside her school doesn’t seem in a particular rush to vanquish hate. Not enough has changed since the Little Rock Nine were kept from entering Central High School by the National Guard in 1957, as she explains in the video below.
Responding to the death of George Floyd
When George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, protestors filled streets from Portland to New York, Buenos Aires to Berlin. The public discourse on policing in this country began to change, and educators started exploring anti-racism and ways they could make their practice more equitable. But at Cloverdale, there wasn’t a big shift. Staff were already ahead of the curve.
In 2018, Cloverdale leaders began efforts to put healing and resilience at the heart of everything they do. That’s when they partnered with Mike Ruyle at Solution Tree, who helped them develop a school wellness wheel. It balances wellness, learning, and college and career literacy. “We want to make sure everything a child needs is addressed,” Crystal explains. “But we’re also trying to make sure that our system doesn’t further traumatize a student or a teacher or a leader.”
As part of the work, teachers have been completing professional learning on trauma-informed practices and culturally responsive teaching. MAP® Growth™ interim assessments paired with Mindprint’s formative cognitive testing are also helping Cloverdale educators understand both what students know and how they learn. “With the wellness wheel, we really want people to be well when they leave Cloverdale. We want them to have the tools they need to navigate whatever life deals them. Because while we can’t be there all the time, we can give students the tools they need to be successful,” Crystal says.
Helping other schools move forward
In “Americans are determined to believe in Black progress, whether it’s happening or not,” Yale University professor Jennifer Richeson makes an observation that likely makes many squirm: we, as a country, underestimate the ubiquity of racism. “Since the nation’s founding, its prevailing cultural sensibility has been […] of America’s inherent goodness,” she says. “Despite our tragic racial history, Americans generally believe that the country has made and continues to make steady progress toward racial equality.” She describes our conviction that this progress is linear, uninterruptable, and inevitable. Not only is that not true, she says, but—and this is the crux of it—“Thinking this way won’t make the future better.”
A year after the death of George Floyd, the police officer who murdered him is behind bars. That is progress, yes, but it offers no guarantees about tomorrow. We cannot become complacent and must continue to take arms in the battle to root out hate in our school systems. As overwhelming a task as that can be, Crystal advises that it can begin with one very simple first step: better understanding yourself.