WHEN HE SPEAKS, there’s a passion in Jonathan Crossley’s voice that could move even the most complacent to action. It’s a passion that hasn’t gone unnoticed—it’s why he was named the 2014 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, the youngest educator to hold the honor, at the age of 26. It’s why, the following year, he was brought on as the “turnaround principal” for Baseline Academy, a reconstituted elementary school that was previously the lowest performing in Little Rock, where he hired and trained 40 new teachers in two months. It’s why the work he’s doing at Baseline was recently featured in the Netflix documentary Teach Us All about the fight against racial and socioeconomic segregation plaguing educational institutions across the nation. It’s why he recently announced his candidacy for a seat in the Arkansas House of Representatives. But if you ask Jonathan, he’s just getting started.
On Core Values: We coach, and we have discussions around our core values as a school. Our core values are pretty simple, and everybody knows them: family, leadership, empowerment, progress and student-centered education. If we make any decisions at this school, and they don’t align with those five core values, then we’re making the wrong decision. We know it. Adults know it. And kids know it. And that is what’s been the catalyst for the change that we’ve seen here.
On Becoming An Advocate: I was thinking about my father, who failed one grade level and then, when he was in high school, was pulled out of school to help his father pay the bills. My mother struggled academically in school, and I think about all the reasons why that was. Then I think about what made me successful and the support that I had there, but still how tough it was to navigate being the first in my family to go to college. Then I think about all the kids I taught in Palestine, Arkansas. They need an advocate. They need somebody to stand in the gap of hopelessness and bear witness to that, and have a backbone strong enough to advocate and fight for what’s right.
On Meeting People Where They Are: We do the work of teaching reading, teaching writing, teaching math, and that’s vital and changes the trajectory for students, because when they achieve at a higher level, they have access to different resources. That is certainly part of it. But for me—and this is my leadership philosophy—if you’re not willing to meet people where they are and provide them with transparent relationships and support, then you’re missing the mark on what it means to be human.
On Moving the Needle: I think if we just kick the can down the road, and we just let the status quo evolve over the next 10, 15, 20 years, it’s not going to look that much different than it does now. Well, I’ll be 30 next year. I’ve got a long time to help move the needle. It’s time for me to put my money where my mouth is and fight. Like. Hell. To make sure that all of us receive a high-quality education, that all of us have access to a better future and a better tomorrow, so that the American dream that I was able to experience can be accessible to more and more and more and more people. We act like the American dream is dead. It’s not. But we are killing it with our divisiveness, and it’s time to call a spade a spade and quit it.
On What’s Changed Since Teach Us All Was Released: There’s been a little bit more exposure, I would say—people emailing, people calling. But for me, what has changed has been … nothing. We come to work every single day to do the work that we said we were going to do. And if we were doing any of it dependent on a film crew being here, we’re not really doing the work. Is it hard? Yes. Is it worthwhile? Yes. So what’s the next step? Let’s figure it out together.
To learn more supporting the school-integration movement, visit teachusallfilm.org.