The equity lens in Aspen’s public schools
One year after a draft resolution put equity on the Aspen School District board of education agenda, where have we gone? And where do we go from here?
For more than a year, a draft resolution “supporting the development of an anti-racist school climate” in the Aspen School District has been just that: a draft.
The resolution never made the jump from discussion item to action item on the board’s agenda after it was floated last July in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. It acknowledged a number of ways district leaders could address inequities in Aspen’s public schools: centering historically marginalized voices, educating themselves on the impact of racism and discrimination and having honest conversations and listening sessions.
It also established action steps to achieve those goals, largely revolving around a district “equity team,” professional development, student voice and new language about hiring practices. But codifying those steps fell in priority at a time when officials had to first figure out how to reopen campuses.
“We got completely caught up in COVID, really. … We had a lot of other things as our priorities,“ school board president Suzy Zimet said in a Zoom interview. “And I don’t think the board really studied it, because we knew it was a draft, and we knew we would get back to it when we had time, when there (weren’t) so many urgent crises going on that took us away from that.”
The pandemic isn’t over. But the urgency of reopening schools is no longer the dominant conversation: Kids are already back in classrooms for the 2021-22 school year, masked up and in person as of Aug. 25.
And while the anti-racism resolution still hasn’t appeared on a school board agenda for approval, a number of its goals have already been accomplished, according to district leaders and officials.
An equity committee formed last October and is currently developing a mission statement that could be presented to the board in October of this year, committee member and assistant superintendent Tharyn Mulberry said in a Zoom interview.
The approval of an International Baccalaureate curriculum for all students this spring focuses on diverse perspectives and critical thinking, both of which play into that equity goal, according to faculty members like high school art teacher Stephanie Nixon and high school principal Sarah Strassburger.
School board members and administrators just participated in workshops on implicit bias in July with Bill de la Cruz, a self-described “facilitator of belonging and inclusion.” More professional development initiatives are on the way, according to Mulberry.
And the high school is already working to earn a “No Place for Hate” designation with the Anti-Defamation League, according to Strassburger and Mulberry.
The goal is “equitable outcomes” — the idea that every student in the district has the chance “to grow as they need to grow,” district superintendent David Baugh said in a joint Zoom interview with Mulberry and Strassburger.
IDENTIFYING THE NEED
It might seem to some that thinking about equity in the Aspen School District — where only 5% of the student body qualifies for free and reduced lunch and where millions of dollars in donations pour in annually for a district supported by a disproportionately wealthy tax base in a town that is notoriously rich and white — might be a little, well, inequitable.
After all, what does inclusion even mean in a county where exclusivity is sometimes defined by whether it’s millionaires or billionaires invited to the room? What’s the point?
“Let’s be realistic: Just because we live in Aspen that (doesn’t) mean that everybody’s rich and everybody is happy and everybody has everything, what they need,” said Norma Canchola, a bilingual case manager with Aspen Family Connections, during an interview in her office at Aspen Middle School. “We have to see the bigger picture. … Some people have struggles, and we noticed more when the COVID (pandemic) hit, that yeah, it’s a lot of people who are struggling to make it here in Aspen.”
Addressing that big-picture need hinges in part on seeking those “equitable outcomes” that district leaders see as the ideal endgame.
The goal is to improve “opportunity, access and inclusion” across the board, said de la Cruz, who facilitated the July sessions with district leaders and has spent years leading conversations on identifying implicit biases and building “vulnerability-based trust.” The language he uses — outcome oriented, with a focus on positivity — is intentional.
“I don’t use that word (equity) without saying ‘equitable outcomes,’ and here’s why: The word equity all by itself has been so misused, mystifying and used in ways that it was never meant to be used,” de la Cruz said in a Zoom interview.
There’s a pervasive narrative that equity is a zero-sum game — that if one person gains, another loses, de la Cruz said, and it’s a “deficit lens.”
“In most places that I travel around the country, when people think of equity, they think of two things: they either think of race or loss,” de la Cruz said. “If people’s mindset is that all we’re talking about with equity is race, then especially in rural communities where I am, where there’s either little or very or no racial diversity, the question is, well, why do we need to do this? … And if they do join into it through a deficit lens, then it will always be rooted in, ‘something is wrong,’ or ‘something is going to impact my child that I need to be alert for.’”
Opportunity, access and inclusion reframe the conversation, he said.
“I’ve met very few people who say, ‘I or my children don’t need opportunity, don’t need access, or don’t want to feel valued.’ Most people feel like that’s important to them, so it’s a more expansive conversation,” de la Cruz said.
In Aspen, the need lies mostly in socioeconomic differences and language barriers, according to those with boots on the ground. And differentiating resources to meet those needs makes an impact across the spectrum of inclusion, belonging and access, those three tenets of equity that de la Cruz focuses on.
Canchola, the bilingual case manager, sees two dozen or more families a year, many of them Latino, in her work with Aspen Family Connections, a nonprofit based in the school district that provides resources like financial assistance and academic and emotional support.
The organization ensures that families have access to the resources they need, Canchola said. But that still leaves belonging and inclusion to address, a challenge made more difficult by language barriers throughout every aspect of the school system; parents with long working hours have conflicting schedules to consider, too.
Events like “Noche Latina” (a back-to-school information session held in Spanish) and translations of school communications can facilitate inclusivity and help families navigate the school system, Canchola said. She’s currently developing a support group for Latino families and said that she and her colleagues are working on getting more feedback on what the greatest needs are.
“We believe that when the parents get involved in their kids’ education, the kids have more chances, better outcomes to become successful in school,” Canchola said.
The Aspen Education Foundation is also invested in improving those outcomes — quite literally — through funding for a number of initiatives that focus on increasing access to opportunities and resources for students, according to the nonprofit’s executive director Cynthia Chase.
Chase cites the hiring of another post-secondary counselor at the high school as an example of how these resources can actually create equitable outcomes that are so often a part of district conversations. Initiatives tied to that department, like an annual “senior bootcamp” that focuses on college application prep, are part of the work.
“That post-secondary office affords every student, every single one of them, an opportunity to create a path at our high school, and I think that is a real example of equity in the district. It touches every single student in that grade,” she said.
It’s a misconception that the district already has plenty of funding from Aspen’s tax base, according to Chase.
“What I find is, ‘It’s a public school and isn’t free?’ And you know, I think that is… something to overcome, that the education that the Aspen School District provides and is always working to provide in a better way, does not come free,” Chase said.
School financing in Colorado is a tricky equation that combines state support, local taxes and charitable giving from nonprofits. The district’s chief financial officer Linda Warhoe says there’s no “hidden stash, or money tree” available to fund new equity initiatives like professional development or trainings as they come on the table.
Then, too, there is the matter of school climate and culture. A voluntary survey completed by 295 Aspen High School students this spring showed that most students found the school to be a mostly welcoming, mostly supportive environment. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways in which the school could be a more welcoming place, according to Tameira Wilson, a history teacher and equity committee team member.
“In conversations with students, I think they want teachers to be able to identify where they’re coming from,” Wilson said. “And I think there’s a real need to share their story and their experiences, … There’s a real desire from students for teachers to get more training so they can get more understanding of where they’re coming from and just have a better way to meet the needs of the student body.”
These needs aren’t new. But over the last year, district leaders have been spending a lot more time thinking about them than they did before.
The district equity committee, with teachers, school board members and district administration part of the cohort of more than two dozen participants, has met 19 times since it was founded last October, according to Mulberry, the assistant superintendent. The topic of equity comes up on nearly every single school board agenda in some capacity, and each of the two initial sessions with Bill de la Cruz (one with the school board, one with district leadership) lasted at least four hours, de la Cruz said.
Most of the last year has been focused on setting the conversation on the right track: talking, seeking input and setting intents, according to Wilson. The team set three priorities — stakeholder input, professional development and curriculum — and established subcommittees for each, but they are still very much in the information-gathering and discussion stage.
“I think what we discovered really quickly is that we needed a lot more information to adequately tackle the three priorities that we set out last year,” Wilson said in a joint interview with school board and equity committee member Susan Marolt.
A big part of that work involves defining equity — which, well, no one seems to do in quite the same way. Wilson said pinpointing a definition has been one of the challenges in addressing the broad scope of the topic. But even beginning those conversations was “an accomplishment in itself,” Marolt said.
“I think you kind of have to do some grounding first, so that everybody is on the same page and feels comfortable … and it actually does take time, more time than I think people realize,” Marolt said.
It’s still a work in progress, even though trying to define the word was one of the first things the equity committee did, according to Stephanie Nixon, a committee member and president of the Aspen Education Association that represents teachers.
“It never was really determined, because we determined that it does mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. … It’s nebulous,” Nixon said.
There is, however, a general consensus that equity in schools means ensuring every student has access to opportunities, that they feel a sense of belonging, that they feel included and respected.
“There’s some very simple vocabulary: all means all, everyone means everyone,” Mulberry said.
It applies to all sectors of the equity conversation: curriculum, access, student and staff relations. It also marks a “pivot towards being positive” in the way many district leaders talk about equity, even if the goals are still the same, said Zimet, the school board president.
Baugh, too, noted a shift in the way many district leaders are talking about and thinking about equity. Words like “anti-racist” or “anti-homopobic” are no longer part of the vocabulary for many of those involved in conversations about equity in the school district; he said the terms can be divisive at a time when the goal is to bring people together to have those conversations.
“When you start labeling, you start judging, and when you start judging, it’s hard for people to feel like they feel welcome, or that they belong, right?” Baugh said. “When you start using names like, ‘we’re anti racist, you’re a racist,’ that means, oh well, now there’s a pretty solid fault line for us to have to wrestle with.”
Mulberry said it starts with an “idea of mutual understanding;” Strassburger said it involves “remov(ing) the shame and blame that doesn’t get us anywhere.” Zimet sees the positive framing as a way to “take all the negativity and strife out of all of the discussions that will be going on and make us all on the same page,” she said.
Wilson, for her part, doesn’t see it as an either-or situation between “all means all” and “antiracist.”
“I do not see them as being separate — I think that you can have an anti-racist school, and still be inclusive of everyone. … I personally do not fear the language as part of those difficult conversations that we have to have,” she said. “And I think that it’s about how we use the language and how we engage in those conversations that can make or break how included people feel.”
Is there some cognitive dissonance there, to have a draft resolution titled by its efforts to create an anti-racist school climate and officials who no longer use that language?
“Sure — but let’s think about that for a minute,” Baugh said. “When that was first penned and hashed around, kicked around, and eventually was released, it was at a different time, and it was in a very different stage of thinking about the challenges facing the country, right, just after George Floyd was murdered. … I think we’ve all grown a lot since then, and I think we can be a lot more encompassing and specific in addressing these issues.”
It stems in no small part from the sessions that the board of education and administrators had with de la Cruz. “Language matters,” de la Cruz said, which is why he’s so pro-, well, “pro.”
“I have chosen to use language that’s rooted in what I want to see happen … Belonging is the idea that I can be a part of this organizational culture without having to give up a part of myself to do so,” de la Cruz said. “Inclusion is looking at the systems through a critical self reflective lens to see, where are we having successes and creating inclusion, and where are we having areas where we are creating exclusion for certain groups? And it doesn’t take away from the fact that we have historically marginalized groups in our country.”
The district still doesn’t have one solid definition of equity, though the committee will need to pinpoint one soon. In a followup interview, Mulberry said that the committee is likely a bit more than a month out from presenting a mission statement to the board of education — one that, ideally, will include a definition of the term.
What the district does have is more trust and consensus, something that teachers, board members and administrators alike say has improved over the last year.
It’s trust and stronger relationships rather than “technical fixes” that will help the district make progress on a systemic level, de la Cruz said. Adaptability, “vulnerability-based trust,” self-reflection, stronger relationships — those are the key to moving forward in an environment where “people can share who they are and share their stories without fear of being marginalized,” de la Cruz said.
“Technical fixes for the things that we’re dealing with in America are gone,” de la Cruz said, “because there isn’t one person who holds the answer.”
Zimet sees that shift as a sign the district is “moving in the right direction,” she said.
“I think everybody is slowly seeing that we’re going to get to a better place, by doing this, we’re going to all be on the same page,” Zimet said. “I’m pretty confident, and I think we’re getting there pretty quickly. … And maybe I’m being optimistic, maybe there’s more room for improvement than I’m aware of, but I do feel like there’s a warmer atmosphere all around, and I feel that pretty strongly.”
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