Jessie Pocock

As executive director of Inside Out Youth Services and a graduate of Colorado Springs School District 11 myself, I can’t stand quietly by while D11’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts are attacked.

The Denver Gazette and the Colorado Springs Gazette have both published articles in recent weeks that rely less on the facts of D11’s equity audit, and more on the reactionary defensiveness of the district’s straight, white adult constituents.

In my experience as a youth advocate, it’s not generally the students who are failing. It’s the adults and institutions discriminating against them.

According to D11’s audit, huge gaps exist in high-poverty schools. Only 17 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools are rated highly effective, compared to 31 percent of teachers in other schools.

In D11 schools with more students of color, a survey of teachers showed that around 30 percent fewer teachers in those schools expect their students to go to college. If you’re not talking to a student about going to college and helping them prepare for it, then you’re not serving their education. 

Those are the facts, since detractors claim concern with the facts. But here’s the truth: This criticism and the way that it’s being exhibited is a prime example of how racism operates in our community. I was one of the community members participating in the data review for the audit, and I stand by the process.

The equity audit doesn’t just cover race; it’s also about class and students with disabilities. We’re seeing gaps there too. People aren’t discussing this, because their issue isn’t with the audit or the disparities we’re seeing in skills. Their issue is with race. 

The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one. I applaud D11’s DEI department for examining where the system is failing our students, and committing to addressing those failures.

I’m curious if the Gazette considered, in its Oct. 26 article, interviewing the parents whose children aren’t being educated equally, or interviewing the students themselves.

If you ask marginalized students whether they’re getting the same education as their peers, they will tell you they’re not. Now they have the data to back up their experience. Our job as adults is to take action, to change outcomes. That’s what we’re trusted to do, and that’s what we’re trusting our education system to do.

In Inside Out’s hot-spot mapping projects, in which we interview students about safe and unsafe environments, we’ve spoken with young people about the hate speech they hear — overwhelmingly from the adults in their schools, not the youth — and the bullying and violence they endure. Shouldn’t our job be removing every possible barrier to their success? It’s not political to support student success, it’s ethical.

The Gazette made Knox-Miller, director of D11’s equity department, the face of the issue —  but if you want a face for this issue, pick one of the children who are being underserved by the district. That’s what it’s really about: who’s getting an education, who isn’t, and how to fix it.

Knox-Miller has a strong track record of turning around underperforming schools. The café-style presentation (that caused such controversy with the Monday morning quarterbacks in D11) is a commonly used style because it eases people into difficult conversations that are typically polarized. And because she’s an expert, she used a model proven to work.

The people writing letters to the editor and commenting with racist vitriol on Gazette articles aren’t actually angry about the equity cafés. Their fury is driven by racism and sexism.

Here’s what’s true: The No. 1 cause of death for kids aged 10-17 in El Paso County is suicide, and multiracial youth and LGBTQIA2+ youth are more at risk of suicide than their peers. And it’s not because of who they are; it’s because of the stigma and discrimination they face in their schools and communities.

The state’s Suicide Prevention Commission recommends we “Encourage adults, students, and community members to participate in educational opportunities around equity and anti-racism that inform systemic practices, curriculum, development, school policies and interpersonal interactions.”

Equity work is literally life-saving. And in El Paso County we need to be concerned about saving these young people’s lives.

If only we had more adults like Dr. Michael Thomas and Alexis Knox-Miller going to bat for students.

Inside Out Youth Services is a Springs nonprofit that builds access, equity and power with LGBTQIA2+ youth.