Toni Hall: Diving Into Equitable Education

Toni Hall is a former programmer and current IT curriculum coordinator and computer science educator. She thrives when passing knowledge along to other teachers and to kids. She loves the challenges programming presents and the creativity it brings out in her students. But, there's another reason Toni is so passionate about computer science education—it quite literally changed her life.

Humble beginnings

Toni's family lived in poverty—they were focused on survival. Toni remembers sleeping on a couch that wriggled beneath her as she slept. She later discovered that there were mice living beneath the upholstery.

Toni was the youngest in the family. Constantly surrounded by busy family members, she felt lonely and dreamed of a different life. A lot of kids dream of being president or going to the moon; Toni dreamed about central heat and air conditioning. Despite all this Toni says, "We didn't miss meals, we didn't miss birthdays or holidays. We didn't have central heat or air but we were not hot or cold. We had kerosene heater/cast iron stove and window air unit. I actually didn't realize I grew up in poverty until I became an adult."

Toni's parents did the best they could to protect her from the harsh realities they faced, but still, her life wasn't likely to lead where it did, to working in education.

Finding her way

Toni found an escape from her challenges through computers. As a child, she discovered computers through a friend at school. From then on, she took every opportunity she could find to play and learn on them. Sometimes she would set her alarm for four in the morning just to have a couple extra hours to spend on the computer before going to school.

She never imagined she could turn this love for computers into a career. Growing up, college wasn't discussed often. In her youth, Toni thought higher education was only for "rich white people." But, with her father's status as a military veteran, she could attend school for free while also earning money to support her family, so she went.

When it came time to choose her major, she scanned a list of options, unsure what path to pursue. When she saw "computer programming," she was reminded of the hours she had spent on the computer and her choice was made.

Choosing to study computer science was the easy part. College was difficult and Toni often doubted herself. The knowledge that she was supporting her family, including her young son, was what kept her going.

She planned on finishing school once she received her associate's degree. She discouraged herself from continuing with school, convincing herself she had done enough. But, a good friend, who Toni later discovered came from a similar background to her, told her that she should continue on and receive her bachelor's. That encouragement led her to apply for the bachelor's program.

Toni found her way out of poverty and into the computer science world by chance, but she doesn't want other kids in similar situations to have to rely on luck.

Diving into the deep end

Toni is passionate about making sure that all kids, especially students who have a background similar to hers, have confidence in themselves and use that confidence to better their lives. She asks the question, "Where could these kids be if someone was intentional about helping them with their future?" She believes that computer science is an important way to introduce new things to future generations and support them on their developmental path.

Toni compares computer science to swimming. She references the statistic that Black children are 2.3 times more likely to drown than white children and the stigmas that have been associated with that fact. Racist ideologies cropped up like the idea that Black people were physically less capable of swimming. But, swimming has nothing to do with race and everything to do with exposure and support.

The International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education addressed the root of this troubling statistic saying, "A systematic exclusion from public pools and other forms of water activities over time has led to a lack of cultural capital involving aquatics among Black families." Simply put, Black people have not had the same support as others when it comes to swimming. This statistic is changing because of programs that have been put into place to shift the availability of swimming classes and support for all children.

In the book Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing, Jane Margolis connects the dots between swimming and computer science. In CS education, there has been a lack of exposure and support for Black students. We can't expect these students to "dive" into STEM education without our help. Toni says that many Black students who want to learn computer science are stuck in the "shallow end" of the pool because they don't have "the necessary support to dive into the deep end, the money-making end."

If we want more Black people in the STEM workforce, we need to ensure that they have access to STEM education and support. Toni believes that teachers are the key to this shift in the future of the CS workforce. She says that teachers who have cultural and diversity training can impact students positively and change their lives for the better.

Making a difference

Every day Toni helps students discover the opportunities that computer science can provide for them. But, she doesn't stop with students. Toni recognizes the importance of structure, knowledge, and encouragement in the home. She feels lucky that she was able to shift her path and she wants to use her experience to help families everywhere create positive relationships and environments.

To meet these needs, Toni created Family PD, "a personal development initiative that promotes the improvement of five focus areas (health, relationships, education, finances, and setting goals)" in the family. She believes that the same organizational structures that help schools and businesses achieve their goals can be used to create more successful and happy families.

Between her work as a computer science educator and founder of Family PD, Toni hopes to help students everywhere understand that they have the ability to succeed, no matter their background.

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