Growing up in Harlem, in New York City, Kia Widlo paid little attention to the university located just 20 blocks south of her family’s apartment. 

“I didn’t really notice Columbia and its value to our city,” says Widlo. “I’ve since realized how incredible it is as an institution, but also how few people from the Harlem community actually go here. That’s a problem that speaks to the inequities of public schools in New York City.”   

To help change that picture, Widlo joined Teach for America after earning her undergraduate degree at Tufts University, launching her classroom career at a Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) academy in New Orleans. Five years ago, she helped found KIPP Star Harlem College Prep Elementary School, and has since served as a kindergarten through second grade Math Content Leader at the charter school. In 2017 she was honored with the Harriet Ball Excellence in Teaching Award.

Widlo salutes KIPP for promoting a culture that encourages faculty to collaborate on best practices. “We learn from each other and from other KIPP academies,” she says. “But I realized there was more I needed to learn and I craved what was out there. I knew in the back of my head that I needed to seek out something more in terms of different educational philosophies and practices.” It was that yearning that at last led Widlo herself to the university that had always lurked on the periphery her life. “So I sought out Teachers College.”

Graduate Gallery 2019

Meet some more of the amazing students who earned degrees from Teachers College this year.

Widlo has continued to teach at KIPP while pursuing her TC master’s degree in Early Childhood Education/Special Education, so she’s had ample opportunity to directly apply what she’s learning. For example, influenced by Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education Haeny Yoon’s belief in the connection between childhood play and learning, she’s devoted energy to observing KIPP students’ interactions outside the classroom.

“I learned more from watching my students outside class than I would through any assessment,” she says.

Widlo has been sharing such approaches with her KIPP colleagues, so perhaps it’s not surprising that this fall she will become a dean at the school. It’s the latest success in a long journey that has been enhanced by a much shorter one:  “How lucky am I that TC is a few blocks from where I work and where I grew up?”