Aspen School District adopts diversity, equity and inclusion statement |

Aspen School District adopts diversity, equity and inclusion statement

Implementation is next step to foster belonging and growth in the classroom

Bill de la Cruz speaks with the Aspen School District Board of Education as board members Stacey Weiss and Christa Gieszl listen at a meeting on Tuesday, April 5, 2022.
Kaya Williams/The Aspen Times

The Aspen School District Board of Education officially adopted a diversity, equity and inclusion statement Tuesday and it will guide efforts to help all students grow and feel like they belong at school. The board unanimously approved the statement nearly two years after a draft resolution on equity first came into the fray.

“The Aspen School District Board of Education (BOE) recognizes that there may be conscious and unconscious biases impacting our students’ ability to achieve their full potential,” the statement reads. “We are committed to eliminating barriers to creating a welcoming and inclusive culture in which every student feels valued and accepted.

“It is our intention that all students, regardless of how they identify or are identified, can grow and thrive,” the statement continues. “The BOE is committed to this work. We hereby task our administration, teachers and support staff with creating such a climate.”

Tuesday night’s meeting involved a fair deal of wordsmithing and conversation with Bill de la Cruz, a mediator and facilitator who specializes in belonging and inclusion and has decades of experience in the field of education. (District leaders and staff have worked with de la Cruz on several occasions since last summer in conversations about equity.)

The board opted for the umbrella term of “all students regardless of how they identify or are identified” rather than a list of identifiers in an effort to be inclusive in the language.

Earlier versions of the statement mentioned “race, linguistic diversity, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical and learning disabilities, political and/or religious beliefs,” but de la Cruz noted that all lists run the risk of excluding someone who doesn’t fall into those categories or falls into several different categories.

“No matter how big our list is, because of the intersectionality about how people identify, you’re always going to miss somebody, because one person could encompass many of these, plus something else,” de la Cruz said.

District leaders were broadly in consensus about the language within the statement and its intent to ensure all students get the opportunity to grow and thrive.

But the board was divided on what to call the statement, given the ongoing challenge of defining the word “equity” in local and national conversations about the topic.

Here in Aspen, there’s a general consensus that equity means ensuring every student has access to opportunities and feels a sense of belonging, inclusion and respect, and the board uses it to refer to all students’ ability to grow and thrive. But outside of the boardroom, President Katy Frisch said, it’s a term ripe for misunderstanding.

“My personal feeling on the word ‘equity’ is that it has become very politicized, and very misused, and so I think when people hear that, outside of having listened to our conversation, they might think it means something else than what we said here,” Frisch said.

Other suggestions for the statement included a “Value and Acceptance Statement” and “Differentiation Statement.”

But misinterpretation would be bound to happen no matter which words the board chose, de la Cruz said.

“No matter what you use you’re going to have to define it,” he said. That will take community outreach, but based on the time he has spent with district workers this week, de la Cruz said he believes that’s a task staff will get behind.

“You have a lot of people in this district who work on behalf of our students that are willing to have this conversation here and in the community, to say, ‘Here’s what we mean by this,’” de la Cruz said.

Board members Stacey Weiss and Christa Gieszl also noted that the public would very likely associate the statement with diversity, equity and inclusion efforts regardless of the name; better to call a spade a spade (and define a spade) than leave it up to others, they suggested.

“I think, to me, that’s like going with what is already probably going to happen and then owning it and being proud of it and saying, ‘This is what it means to us,’” Weiss said.

Aspen students took to the streets in June 2020 to protest the killing of George Floyd.
Maddie Vincent / Aspen Times archive
Two years in

Equity work started in the summer of 2020, when the Board of Education drafted a resolution “supporting the development of an anti-racist school climate” in the district in response to the murder of George Floyd and the surrounding conversation about equity.

The document took shape by July of that year but was never adopted; district officials have previously said that they needed to first tackle the challenge of reopening campuses during a pandemic.

Still, the district has implemented some of the action steps detailed in the document by developing a district equity team and offering professional development that centers on inclusion and honest conversations about difficult topics.

Bill de la Cruz led sessions with administrators and board members last July and also worked with the Board of Education — and boards from across the state — at the Colorado Association of School Boards conference in December. He was onsite at the district for a few days this week leading sessions with district leadership, teachers and support staff and attended Tuesday night’s board meeting to provide guidance on the statement and implementation.

With the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion statement now in effect, implementation is the next step. That work will take root in the district’s strategic plan, which the board approved earlier this year, and in district policies now under review.

To do that, de la Cruz recommended a skills-based approach that will develop what he calls “relational leadership,” with a focus on principles like empowerment, purposefulness and an adaptive orientation around the process as much as the product. He also emphasized accountability measures that are “respectful and compassionate,” centered on growth and learning rather than “gotcha” moments.

Some principles of the model are already in place in the International Baccalaureate Curriculum, an existing equity team and in professional development, district leaders observed at the meeting.

Moving forward, the district will need to allocate time and budget resources to ensure that equity work continues off the page and into classrooms.

Superintendent David Baugh said at the meeting that officials developing the professional development calendar and next year’s budget will take that into consideration.

Implementation will be an ongoing process involving assessment and adaptation as the district evaluates its current practices and moves forward.

“I think the most challenging part of this work is to be really critical of a system that so much of your heart is into,” de la Cruz said.