Diverse City

Unless you have been living under a rock, you’ve heard about the “mutual separation agreement” between Superintendent Dr. Michael Thomas and Colorado Springs School District 11. The whole community knows it’s a sham and has expected the announcement of Thomas’ “agreement” since the board became a conservative majority after last November’s elections. 

This is a shameful, almost point-by-point copy of Douglas County School District’s playbook as that district’s board ousted its superintendent Corey Wise, just weeks earlier. Yes, since conservatives lost the presidency in the 2020 general election, they have instead turned our local school boards into reality TV of Jerry Springer proportions. The saddest thing: Dr. Thomas’ departure from D11 is a blow to our students who are most vulnerable. For instance, Mitchell High School had been failing consistently for 15 years; Dr. Thomas has only been superintendent going on four. The academic failures of D11 did not start on his watch. 

Addressing inequities in education and how they were harming those students was one of the reasons Michael was hired. He was willing to reveal that which had long been swept under the rug. Sure, many before him knew the truth and had been working to support those students, but calling out those inequities and how they were systematized across the district — along with what needs to be done to address them — was a truth that ultimately cost him tremendously. In August, the nonprofit, nonpartisan education news site The 74, reported Thomas was “astonished to learn that the district used only aggregated averages of all students, rather than specific information about different subgroups. As soon as the data was broken out by race, disability, English-learner status and poverty, disparities became apparent. And as Thomas identified and called out student inequities, he received anonymous hate mail. 

He didn’t back down. He delivered. He formed an equity and inclusion department, appointing Alexis Knox-Miller as its director. They hired the American Institutes for Research (AIR), a nonprofit that conducts behavioral and social science research. And after a process that included quantitative and administrative data collection, as well as survey and focus group data collection, AIR reported their findings to D11 in June of 2021. The truths laid bare in that report give us the opportunity to create solutions that work for all students, not just some.

Dr. Thomas has been pushing through since he got here. The district was consistently losing students and had more than its fair share of schools monitored by the state due to low academic performance. However, before he could get his footing in reversing those trends (keep in mind, two of Thomas’ four years of service were during a deadly pandemic), the board made its rash decision. But this will by no means mark the end of Dr. Thomas’ career. He will share these experiences with the next district he leads. 

I had the pleasure of meeting Michael when he first arrived in Colorado Springs in 2018. He talked about the struggle to close equity gaps and I’m struck by how prophetic his words were. “... [You] have to have the courage to name it and speak to it. It’s there, but nobody wants to talk about it. They’d rather pretend it’s not there [maybe] because the accountability or the guilt or shame that surrounds [it] is so intense that they would not be able to get beyond that,” he said.

It’s hard to swallow that D11’s elected board members are actively fighting against student achievement, and fighting hardest against those who needed Michael the most. The district’s choice to separate from Dr. Thomas reflects the will of the relatively few voters who turned in their ballots. This board was put in place by a minority that is organized in ways the majority opposition is not. It’s going to take an educated and united community effort to fix this.