From Crown Heights to Harvard, sociologist D. Crystal Byndloss, PhD, remains a crusader for broadened educational access for low-income, high-achieving students. She received the 2015 George Fox Distinguished Alum Award at BFS’ commencement ceremony.
“West Indians, black Americans, and a tight-knit Hasidic Jewish community lived in close proximity to one another,” Crystal recalled. “Korean shopkeepers ran the produce markets that sold Caribbean food products. Yet blacks and whites stayed to themselves, and at times you could feel the tension between the different racial groups. This was during the period leading up to the 1991 Crown Heights riots.” Crystal, today Dr. D. Crystal Byndloss, PhD, entered BFS in the ninth grade and commuted every day from that notoriously storied Brooklyn neighborhood.
She had attended Catholic schools all her life and fully intended on graduating from a Catholic high school but a curve ball came her way. “I admit that I was a bit disappointed when I learned I would be going to a Quaker high school instead,” Crystal said. An older cousin, William L. Brown ’85, was attending BFS and his mother, Crystal’s aunt, convinced Crystal’s mother to try BFS. “Fortunately, it didn’t take long for me to feel at home.” Crystal was soon volunteering–what the school would today call service learning–in the Lower School’s Afterschool program. It soon turned into a paid part-time position. She also dived into what was then known as the Travelers Club in order to see the world.
She credits English teacher Dena Randolph for turning her onto works by African-American and multicultural writers. “I’ve relocated a few times over the years,” said Crystal, “and several of the books I read during those classes remain on my bookshelf. While a bit worn, these are books that I continue to turn to for inspiration.” She also recalls English teacher Ron Patterson as an inspiration. Ron is credited with starting the school’s first formalized service learning program in the early 1980s just a few years before Crystal’s arrival. (for more on this oft-remembered teacher please see the commemorative article here). “I remember Ron encouraging students to find a way to make a positive change in the community because it was the right thing to do.”
Crystal concedes that the school’s Quaker values also directly influenced her career decisions. “As a low-income student, I was always grateful for the scholarship support I’d received from BFS,” she said. The tuition assistance also became an unexpected inspiration for her career choices. “My BFS experience taught me what was possible for low-income students who were granted the privilege of gaining access to a good education…One of my mentors once said to me, ‘Those of us lucky enough to have access to higher education must use our talents, skills and resources, including the networks that we create and develop in these colleges and in our professional lives, to bear on larger societal issues. It’s not enough for us as a community to seek individual success. We’re all responsible for what happens to young people.’ I wholeheartedly agree and have tried to use my knowledge and skills to help others.”
After BFS she attended Sarah Lawrence. Planning at first for a career in academia she went on to Harvard where she completed her PhD in Sociology, but a curve ball came her way. “By that time it was clear to me that being a college professor was not for me,” Crystal said. She did, however, maintain a passion for research. After completing a post-doctoral fellowship at UNC-Chapel Hill she moved back to New York City to become a social policy researcher at MDRC, a major nonprofit that evaluates solutions to reducing poverty and boosting educational opportunities in the United States. “I liked the fact that I would be engaged in research that had the potential to positively change lives.”
Still, academia beckoned, and finally made her an offer that seemed to fit with her ideals: Assistant Dean and Associate Director of an interdisciplinary center at the Temple University College of Education. She eventually returned to social and educational research at MDRC. Today she’s a senior associate in the K-12 Education Policy Area. “My research interests include understanding what works to help low-income, moderate and high-performing students make a successful transition between high school and four-year college enrollment,” she said. “I’m passionate about providing opportunities for low-income students to access higher education.” A few years ago, her part-time high school job in the BFS Lower School came full circle when she was able to visit Horizons at BFS. “It was such a treat to return to 375 Pearl Street and learn about the school’s involvement in providing summer learning opportunities for young students in local public schools.”
One of her career highlights while working at MDRC has been directing the College Match Program which aims to help low-income, moderate and high-performing students apply to and enroll in selective colleges. “The pilot program served 1200 students in ten pubic high schools in Chicago and New York City,” she explained. “Students were paired with trained recent college graduates who provided students with individualized support in the college search, application and choice process.” The program also boosted college advisement in low-income high schools where counselors were overwhelmed and sometimes uninformed about a broad sets of selective colleges as well as financial aid opportunities for high-performing students. “It’s been a privilege to be able to lead a project in which students are encouraged to reach high and are actively supported throughout the college application process,” Crystal said. “It’s my personal hope that the program improves the life chances of the students served.”
As a part of the research, the MDRC recently published the free resource guide for high school teachers and guidance counselors, In Search of a Match: A Guide for Helping Students Make Informed College Choices. “In many ways, I see my involvement in this work as an opportunity to provide students with the type of support I was fortunate enough to be able to access as a BFS student.”
Today, Dr. Byndloss commutes home to the relative tranquility of southern New Jersey, a far cry from 1980s Crown Heights. When she’s not busy working, Dr. Byndloss enjoys baking, the fruits of which she burns off periodically with plenty of exercise. She completed her first half-marathon in 2010. She’s also using her research superpowers to get a side project off the ground which is of great personal importance. “My younger sister has Down Syndrome and she and my mother have inspired me to one day establish an organization that provides respite opportunities for family caregivers of individuals with special needs.”