When Alexis Knox-Miller was appointed Colorado Springs School District 11’s first director of equity and inclusion in July 2020, she knew she’d be breaking new ground: D11 is the first district in the region to have an equity policy.
She was ready to take down barriers to learning, and tackle the challenges of identifying schools and student communities for whom equal treatment remains an unrealized goal.
What took Knox-Miller by surprise was the degree to which speaking frankly about equity problems in the city’s Southeast can raise tempers and voices at public meetings. When her office introduced American Institutes for Research findings on the key drivers of inequality in D11 — the result of a districtwide equity audit — at a Sept. 30 community café, Knox-Miller realized the job would take a thick skin: Even teachers might sometimes come in conflict with district goals.
Knox-Miller has lived in the Springs since her military family moved here in 1993 from Fort Ord (a U.S. Army base in California, which closed in 1994), and she graduated from Widefield High School seven years later.
As an undergrad at Colorado College, she planned to become a civil rights attorney, but her careful reading of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. steered her toward education. She knew, too, that working 15 hours a day as an attorney would dramatically limit her time with her newborn baby.
After graduating, Knox-Miller quickly moved from her first post, at a charter school, to become a second-grade teacher, then a teaching coach at Henry Elementary, then dean of students at Mitchell High School, then assistant principal at Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy. Knox-Miller appreciated the activist bent Superintendent Michael Thomas brought when he took the reins at D11 in July 2018, and eagerly applied for the new equity post, even though it was defined just as COVID-19 shut down the school system.
Knox-Miller sat down to talk to the Business Journal the day after the contentious Sept. 30 meeting.
When did you decide you wanted to go into education?
As an undergraduate, I thought that I wanted to be a lawyer, but I took a class at CC my junior year called “The Law and Social Justice.” I really learned a lot from that class, but particularly that the changes I wanted to see in this world were not going to be legislative. We had to figure out how to create more tolerance and empathy, and that depends on the knowledge producers getting to the kids before the world corrupts the way they think about the environment around them. It obviously takes all kinds of people to help drive change, but I always was aware of those who the system was leaving behind. CC made everyone go through 20 hours of class time before being accepted into their teaching program. I volunteered at Ivywild, when it was still a school in 2003, and sat in a fifth grade class. When I saw the abject poverty, the experiences of the students there, I knew I wanted to go where I was needed. It wasn’t just an abstract idea of changing the world through teaching, but seeing the real kiddos who could be impacted. I can’t knock the legislative work being done by others, but I remember Dr. King’s quote: ‘You can’t legislate the heart of man.’
Speaking of Ivywild, did you see its fate later on as an example of the way school districts can make decisions on consolidations and closures without giving due thought to the less fortunate?
I was young and dumb at the time, so that wasn’t even on my radar — but I find that now I am talking all the time with parents in our district about just that sort of thing. When we closed Ivywild and Wasson schools, the concentration that it created is part of the reason we are dealing with some of the educational gaps, and the voids that are left in the communities as well. We might not think of the aftermath of a closure until many years out, and say, ‘Oops, we left a void here.’
How did you shift so quickly to coaching and then to administrative roles? Was that a conscious effort from the beginning?
One of my first true ‘homes’ as a teacher was Scholars to Leaders Academy, a small charter school. Unlike charters that took cream from the top, this charter had a mission of taking those who weren’t making it — almost like an alternative-campus school. I got to work with a visionary, Carolyn Gery, who believed in serving the whole child. For example, Dr. Gery severed the charter’s relationship with District 11 because she wanted a better focus on providing nutrition, and worked with a distributor providing organic foods, Revolution Foods. We also became an expeditionary learning school so that students could receive background knowledge of the world around them through field work, not field trips. The way Gery thought about underserved communities taught me that this was what bold leadership looked like. But that charter closed in 2014, because we couldn’t keep our test scores up.
I had to learn the local culture when I took a second-grade teaching job in District 11. I also learned the importance of having kids learn about more than their neighborhood. I remember one girl asking me on a brief walk if we were walking to Pikes Peak — she had no concept of distances. We helped the students make little guide books to the city, and took them places like The Antlers hotel and Money Museum. We concluded the year at Wilson by taking the cog railway up the peak to show the kids what the local environment was like. It was an amazing experience, but when a coaching job opened at Henry, I knew that was what I really wanted to do. The principal taught me how to intervene when students aren’t performing up to grade level. In the years he was there, we moved Henry from a troubled school to a distinguished school, by leaning into the intervention process.
Did you fully understand the difference at the time between coaching and mid-level administration?
Not fully, and I didn’t understand the politics of the district either. In terms of power dynamic, I didn’t have any! I learned how to massage folks, get them to agree without making demands. I just expected teachers would be eager to take advice, and some were like, ‘Nope. Uh-uh. Prove to us you know what you’re talking about.’ I then participated in the inaugural year of Aspiring to Leadership, a program for those wanting to move into principal roles. And that told me I was ready to move into admin. As I began interviewing, I showed schools how I knew data and protocols, and the feedback I got was, ‘Yeah, but you really don’t know how to deal with angry parents. You should spend some time as a dean.’ So I spent a year as a dean at Mitchell, my first experience with Title I. Some of the kids there had familial experiences that just broke my heart. One kid, a very tough student always getting into fights, was always missing fifth period, and he came to my office and privately broke down crying. He said, ‘That’s math class and I just can’t do math.’ That’s when inequity became real to me. He was a junior in high school and we didn’t realize his gaps. Being dean at Mitchell didn’t teach me much about angry parents, but it taught me that there are students out there who are really struggling, for whom school is not a priority, and our safety nets are not working.
There was a longstanding assumption in many school districts that you just push struggling students through the system, maximize the per-pupil operating revenue every year, and too bad if they can’t read. Do you think D11 and other districts have come a long way since then?
I think a lot of this was swept under the rug until very recently. When Dr. Thomas came on as superintendent in 2018, I was very impressed listening to him speak. We haven’t made a lot of inroads into kids receiving opportunities, but the way we look at data and think about discipline has changed. When Dr. Thomas changed the name of Student Discipline Office to Student Support and Engagement Office, that’s a big deal. This was at a time when I was at Swigert and I did not realize that positional authority does not bring people on board. There were many problems in Swigert’s English Arts program. We had a lot of work to do in assuring that the coursework was rigorous. I’ll just be honest: My team hated me, they were not receptive to what I thought was necessary. I told them, ‘You don’t have to like me, but trust the process of following the data and not just pushing students through the system.’ Swigert made big improvements overall the next year, due to improvements in English Arts. I was on a high going into the next year, but I found a lot of pushback as a Black woman and a Black leader. Teachers were making fun of my appearance, and using the ‘angry Black woman’ trope. I felt microaggressions every day. I was ready to leave the school district.
And this was when the new position arose?
I heard about a draft for a new office in D11, and people were telling me to hold on, it might be ideal. In any event, there would be an equity policy. I called Dr. Thomas and told him I needed some mentorship. I needed to learn how not to become bitter. We had a long conversation and he told me to hang on. Initially, the post was for an assistant directorship in a new equity office. After I applied, they put it on hold due to COVID, then changed the title of the position to director. As it turned out, he chose me, though the job was not created with me in mind. I was informed at the end of May 2020 that I got the job. This was just after George Floyd had been murdered. The world sort of felt like it was falling apart everywhere. Then in the first year, July to July, we didn’t get much feedback at all — we implemented policy, but heard nothing but crickets.
Were there advantages to coming into the post in 2020, the year of Black Lives Matter and COVID?
Well, people all of a sudden thought it was sexy. But what happens when it’s not anymore? As a Black woman leading this work, there will be jabs that will come once talk of equity and inclusion isn’t quite as sexy as it was. The equity policy of the district was signed on May 27, 2020, not due to George Floyd or anything else, but because it was the right thing for D11 to do. Eventually, the controversy came — not to the level of districts fighting over Critical Race Theory, but it came. Think about it: We’re asking people to change mindsets and beliefs, and that’s very hard! Last night, addressing community members at the café was very hard, hearing people apply deficit thinking to communities because they’re poor, or to single moms just because they’re single moms. We have to hear racist pseudo-scientists come out and say, ‘There are no equitable outcomes in nature.’ There are people within the D11 community that have legitimate questions about the process, but I also think there are outside actors who come to meetings with an intention to disrupt the work. They know we are not teaching CRT, so they are effectively messaging this to stop the equity work.
What was the process for putting the audit together?
We hired the American Institutes of Research, but it took nearly a year to get off the ground. We had a panel of people to help, and hired AIR because they had 70 years of experience. Their process takes me out of it, and brings in the community through ‘co-interpretation.’ They began with simple systemic questions, then asked for all relevant fiscal and enrollment data. But co-interpretation, not the data itself, was the meat and potatoes. They set up focus groups and then pulled together 40 people for the co-interpretation process. We had city employees, members of the Hispanic Chamber, clergy — everyone — and the group made the findings, not AIR itself. AIR took the findings and broke it into themes, and worked with the community on root cause analysis, and wrote a resulting report. I thought, perhaps naively, that the way in which the analysis was carried out would get people to trust the data.
All of the findings reflected national trends pretty well. The only place that didn’t was in special education, where we are quite proud of our efforts. We would like to replicate the process in special ed within other areas. One of the primary findings is that student gaps are significant both within schools and between schools. This implies organizational inequity and instructional inequity. By examining schools with many people of color, many English learners, many free-and-reduced lunches, or even just in the southeast side of town, you will have gaps as large as 40 points in high schools. Most of the other findings point back to this primary finding. Concentration of underserved communities, driven in part by school choice, leads to more inequity. We have a thousand students leaving Mitchell every year, for example. And that leads to lower test scores and lower achievement — if they were staying, Mitchell would be a different school. You have lesser experience among teachers in the tougher schools, because teachers are experiencing burnout. But then there is also not parity in teacher education. Our teaching staff itself in not very diverse. Many white teachers display teacher bias that impacts equitable outcomes.
People think I’m trying to segregate. That’s what they said at the community café. But schools in the southeast have teachers who don’t think the students will go to college, think the students are prone to violence, think that parents don’t care. And that finding was the stab in the heart. How can we hold high expectations of students when we don’t think highly of them or their parents or where they came from? We will have to talk about culturally responsive teaching, and it will make many teachers uncomfortable.
Are there lessons here other districts can learn?
We’re in discussions with District 3, and they may be using AIR, but I don’t think we’re doing anything that special. Some cities are leaps and bounds ahead of us. The important thing is to stick with the data. We’re following a protocol that makes sense, and best practice in equity. Personally, I will keep at this program for a while — but it is hard, and I can’t pretend it doesn’t have a cost. If you asked me the night of the community café, I would have said I’m not doing this anymore. But you couldn’t come into this thinking it was just going to be a job. When we send babies out who can’t read, write, or do math, we’re sending them to early deaths, health concerns, jail. So I cannot avoid working in this realm. Justice, fairness and equity are core to my own beliefs. And I could not condone policies that disadvantaged any children within a school system.