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Dr. Michael Thomas steered D-11 through the coronavirus pandemic. 

The superintendent of School District 11 is calling for significant changes in the district’s approach to education, including incorporating lessons from the Covid 19 remote learning and increased focus on the district improving its performance.

In a wide-ranging interview , Dr. Michael Thomas addressed the staffing controversy at Mitchell High School and said it is as important to change the “adult culture” in education as the student culture of “two thumbs” technological sophisticated students. He also addressed the need for education reform and the push to educate every student, regardless of background. 

Thomas is scheduled to take part in the Southeast Express and KOAA Coffee Connect panel “Education and the Future for our Youth: Southeast Educational Reform and Progress” at noon July 28 at the Chinook Center. He will be joined by Regina English, vice president of the Harrison School District 2 Board of Education,; Maurice Henson, vice president of operations for the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Pikes Peak Region; Brittney M. Stroh, executive director of Atlas Preparatory School, and David Prosper, co-founder and CEO of Shepherd Revolution Leadership Academy.

Education reform has historically been a controversial topic. For some it means improving a system that is not meeting expectations, and for others it means dismantling public education through expanding charter schools and voucher programs that take funds from neighborhood schools. 

“From my vantage point as a superintendent, education reform is about transformational components within education,” said Thomas. “This is not to get rid of traditional K-12 systems, but it is about addressing the true intent of public education, and that is to ensure that students have everything they need to be ready for college, career and life readiness.”

For Thomas, public education is due for some reform. 

“I’ll say this, a little tongue-in-cheek, K-12 education as an industry is in love with itself,” he said. “It’s been in love with itself for decades, and because of that it’s so hard for us to accept any level of change, because this is what we’ve always done. 

“I’m asking people to think differently because of who is before you today are fundamentally different young people than they were during the common school movement when we first started public education with Boston Latin [the oldest public school in the United States]. We can’t expect that the learner profile is the same. That’s the biggest challenge as an industry. Localizing it to District 11, again, we’re part of that problem — we love ourselves — and we’re afraid to step out of the box.” 

Education reform in the third-largest school district in Colorado Springs also means confronting social and economic obstacles for students. 

“Our biggest challenge right now, like many other systems, we have very predictable inequitable outcomes for certain students based on demographic features, zip code, financial ability, emotional or physical abilities,” said Thomas.

“We can predict who is going to do really well and who is going to struggle. I’m really proud that our board is leading in the region with a comprehensive equity policy that we passed over a year ago, and our actions are aligning to it. We’re in this big, politicized, anti- [critical race theory], anti-talking-about-any-kind-of-differences movement right now, which is very unfortunate.

“To talk about differences doesn’t mean to uplift one group of students at the expense of another, it’s really about bringing every student into the full perspective. We won’t allow, here in District 11, a student to be written off just because of their income level, or their LGBTQ status, or their skin color, or their zip code. Every student, we take you as we are and we’re proud to serve you.

“When we talk about equity, in the most basic terms, it’s about giving students what they need to be successful. When we don’t do that, we can just accept what we’re getting right now. If we don’t like it, let’s do something about it. That’s what we’re proud about in D11, we’re actually doing something about it.”

Thomas and District 11 have been the subject of heavy criticism over recent decisions to release all staff members at Mitchell High School from their assignments and require them to reapply for positions the high school. The move was inspired by Mitchell’s status as a priority improvement school under the Colorado Department of Education’s school performance framework for the last four years.

“My biggest thing, when I’ve turned around schools as an elementary principal and as a junior high principal, it was the adult culture that needed to be reset most,” explained Thomas. “As the adults in that building, we set the tone in expectations for how students will thrive. Just like a family, if parents are fighting all the time and kids are growing up watching that, it is detrimental to their development and their own interpersonal relationships.

“The same goes for us as adults in schools, we’re like the parents. If we’re not on the same page, kids sniff that out in a second. If we, ourselves, can’t admit we’re the issue? I can’t blame poverty, or the color of your skin or the composition of your family, but I can blame us. We have to do something within our control. How we show up needed to be different in Mitchell. 

“What I was going to be asking of staff at Mitchell, quite honestly, was to commit more time, engage in deeper professional development, go through some significant equity-based training, possibly work on weekends, and look at different curricular frameworks. All of which, many of these staff, when they came to Mitchell, none of this existed. They said yes to a whole different Mitchell. I can’t force someone to be in a place of transformation when it’s not in their heart to be a transformational leader.”

And more change is on the horizon. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools have had to implement sweeping changes that have had a profound impact on education. 

“Think about a wildfire that happens,” said Thomas. “When new growth comes it can transform an entire forest. K-12 education needed to be rocked off its feet. I think COVID really shook us enough to wake people up. It brought to light a lot of things that were living in the shadows. We saw all the gaps. We saw the lack of responsiveness. We saw the lack of community engagement. We saw all of that, but what COVID did, it magnified it and brought it to the entire public — with many of our families watching live every single day with remote learning — to the importance that K-12 education plays in the local economy. When we shut down, it decimated the city. It highlighted the importance of the work we do in K-12 and where we can drastically improve.”

Thomas says some of the changes made during the COVID crisis will be with us for a while. 

“We’re going to continue to see some level of hybrid [learning] or online instruction,” he said. “Whether it’s through our Spark Online Academy that’s opening this fall as a K-8, or some levels of hybrid because teachers found that this approach, similar to multiple sensory techniques of engaging students, hybrid is just another one of those senses. We learned that for students, this is their language. This generation was born with cell-phone thumbs. If we can’t continue to offer that I think we’re going to lose students, in some form or fashion.”

For Thomas, education reform in D11 also involves paying attention to the district’s community. 

“We live in a very diverse community where we’re almost 50 percent students of color and 50 percent white students,” he said. “Of our students of color, our Spanish-speaking population is like 35, 38 percent. We have no intentional programming to address one of the largest demographics in our entire district, outside of white families. We’re very proud to be opening up our dual-language immersion program with Spanish being our focus, to do both the linguistic and cultural heritage learning of Spanish-speaking communities from all over the world, bringing in teachers who are native speakers. That’s something at Rogers Elementary that we’re very excited about.” 

Heidi Beedle is a former soldier, educator, activist, and animal welfare worker. She received a Bachelor’s in English from UCCS. She has worked as a freelance writer covering LGBTQ issues, nuclear disasters, cattle mutilations, and social movements.