Guest commentary: State board of education representative off mark on Aspen High survey

Sarah E. Strassburger
Guest commentary

Students, staff, and the greater Aspen community have all struggled through this global pandemic together. It has not been easy, but it has been rewarding to see that our Aspen High School community has risen to the challenges and persevered despite the myriad obstacles that we have all faced.

We have seniors planning to attend top-tier colleges and universities; 100% of our seniors are pursuing their passions and committing to schools or opportunities that are right for them. We have students working on murals for our walls, rehearsing for the spring musical, planning COVID-friendly homecoming events, celebrating our boys’ and girls’ ski teams as state champions, and a team of seniors and staff are working on prom, graduation, an awards ceremony and a senior Ex Ed. In addition, we have also begun to address equity and inclusion at Aspen High School.

It is our work surrounding equity that has raised the ire of Colorado State Board of Education member Joyce Rankin (R), who represents the 3rd Congressional District, which includes the Aspen School District. An anonymous and optional survey caused this maelstrom.

Rankin has said in an opinion piece recently that “It is clear that the principal and teachers at this school broke the law.” Rankin states that the law is clear: A “school district employee who requires participation in a survey … shall obtain the written consent of a student’s parent or legal guardian … whether the information is personally identifiable or not, concerning … Sexual behavior and attitudes … Religious practices, affiliations or beliefs.”

Again, the survey was not required, nor assigned, as she purports. My heart aches: an educational effort to promote inclusivity for all students has been twisted and manipulated for political purposes.

Aspen High School wanted to collect information from the student body in a completely anonymous survey; this survey was not required and only 295 students out of 550 completed it.

The survey preface states: “We have an AHS Equity Team, comprised of teachers and admin, who have just begun to address the large and complex issue of equity. Through this survey, we hope to gather honest information about how AHS students feel about their individual experiences at school. Equity is about ensuring that all students have what they need to be successful. We are ALL different, but we all deserve to feel respected and valued, and to have the same access and opportunities. Our hope is to use this data to inform our work about how to ensure that we stop inequitable practices and consider biases. We want to invite students to this critical conversation, but we want to really know what students experience first. This form is completely anonymous.”

Please note that the survey says “invite all students” and the questions were meant to give students a space to honestly share their perspective on the culture at AHS, based on their own individual experience. The survey asked students to identify their race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation; each time they were given the choice “prefer not to answer.”

Rankin, in a highly political move, highlighted that the survey asked students to comment on whether AHS is anti-racist or racist; anti-homophobic or homophobic, but neglected to point out that it also asked if AHS was friendly or hostile; diverse or homogeneous; respectful or disrespectful; anti-sexist or sexist; collaborative or individualistic; cooperative or competitive; supportive or unsupportive; welcoming or unwelcoming; and non-elitist or elitist based on their individual and direct experience.

In addition, students were given an opportunity to share their opinions on when they may have felt discriminated against based on disability, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, politics, social class, or height/weight. During a global pandemic, when we are working hard to support all of our students, why is Rankin accusing AHS of wrongdoing and attacking the very notion of equity?

As a parent, as an educator, as an Aspen community member and as a citizen of this great country, there is quite literally nothing in the definition of equity that I would not want for my own child, and thus for all children.

The definition from the National Equity Project that was shared with students and staff is this: “Educational equity means each child receives what they need to develop to their full academic and social potential. As an education community we must do the following in order to make progress towards equity in schools: Ensure equally high outcomes for all participants in our educational system; removing the predictability of success or failures that currently correlates with any social or cultural factor; interrupt inequitable practices, examine biases, and create inclusive multicultural school environments for adults and children; and discover and cultivate the unique gifts, talents, and interest that every human possesses.”

To be maligned by an elected official and a small group of parents bent on making everything political, I say enough is enough. This is not about politics; this is about humanity.

Equity is about the fact that every single human is different, and we must accept the challenge of creating opportunities that allow everyone to open the metaphorical doors they will encounter throughout our country and our world. No child, not a single one, should be denied an opportunity or made to feel other because of differences, whether those differences stem from religion, politics, gender, race, weight, disability, athletic ability or lack thereof, social class and more.

What a cruel world we have created for our future generations where educators working to create a safe and inclusive environment for all students by eliciting their feedback have become the target of a politically motivated and wholly inaccurate campaign that distracts us from the important work we are doing.

The fact that Joyce Rankin decided to publish an incendiary opinion piece without first checking her facts is disappointing to say the least. Our schools deserve better than this.

Though we are still struggling through a global pandemic, we are full of hope for brighter days, ones where we can participate in civil discussions and support all of our citizens, and where we can work together to create a more just and equitable world.

Sarah E. Strassburger is the principal at Aspen High School.