The 74 Interview: Colorado Springs Superintendent Michael Thomas on Being a Black Leader Working to Change a White System

Colorado Springs Superintendent Michael Thomas with students (Courtesy Colorado Springs District 11)

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See previous 74 Interviews: Researcher Tom Loveless on Common Core, author Jal Mehta on the value of teaching and Harvard scholar David Perkins on “playing the whole game.” The full archive is here.

When people ask the superintendent of Colorado Springs School District 11 about critical race theory, he takes a beat. Michael Thomas used CRT as the framework for his 2019 doctoral dissertation, titled Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

As such, he knows it’s not a curriculum or an ideology, but a series of questions. And as a Black man whose career has been spent in predominantly white school systems, he’s all too familiar with what can happen when you pose them.  

As Thomas rose through the ranks of the education world, being a leader of color in a white system got harder and lonelier. How, he set out to learn in his dissertation, did men like him “negotiate their racial identity without committing cultural sacrifice”?

For Thomas, it meant putting that identity front and center, as he told the District 11 school board when he interviewed to become superintendent. It was exactly what the school board wanted to hear: They wanted their next leader to both make the district — which serves the city’s increasingly diverse core — more culturally responsive to its families and to stanch a decade-plus exodus of students, that has only gotten worse in the pandemic, concentrating poverty and widening the achievement gap.

Growing up in Minnesota’s Twin Cities with a Black father and a white mother, Thomas experienced racism early and often in schools. The resulting sensitivity to what happens to Black children’s mental health as they try to navigate white school systems propelled him to become first a school social worker, then a principal and later an administrator overseeing equity efforts in schools in St. Paul, Minneapolis and the Twin Cities suburb of Osseo.

In Colorado Springs, he told The 74 in one of a series of stories examining the pandemic’s dramatic acceleration of income inequality and how it is showing up in schools, the district board’s two priorities are inextricably intertwined — if District 11 can become more culturally affirming, fewer families will seek out alternatives and students will become more engaged. 

In this 74 Interview, Thomas talked in depth about roiling Colorado Springs’ waters by asking, for the first time, for data on the differences in student outcomes by demographic subgroup; by using that information to reboot a struggling high school — even as many districts backed off improvement efforts during the pandemic; and about his own George Floyd moment. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

The 74: In the days after George Floyd was killed, you wrote an emotional and personal letter to the Colorado Springs community. You said, “I pray the flashpoint in my home state of Minnesota is what it will take to shift our conversation and drive permanent change, because psychologically, I, too, can’t breathe.” 

Thomas: I shared this publicly for the first time when George Floyd was killed. It was my lived experience as an 18-year-old Black kid in a car with two of my friends, who are also Black, leaving a very wealthy area of [the St. Paul suburb] Woodbury, being pulled over by the police asking what the hell we’re doing out there. I didn’t have a busted taillight, I wasn’t speeding, nothing. Just ‘Get the hell out of Woodbury.’ I was terrified. I am George Floyd. I just happened to live to tell about it.

I felt this was a teachable moment for our students. Yeah, I wear a suit to work every day. I might be a million miles away from George Floyd socially, from what people see. But when you peel all that back, I am frickin’ George Floyd. 

I learned what it means to be Black in America. It doesn’t rub off. Even though I have a Polish-German mom, I couldn’t wake up one day and say, “I’m going to be Polish today.” I know exactly how I will be socially defined. As a leader of color, it’s inseparable [from] who I am. 

I’m not seen as a superintendent, I’m seen as a Black superintendent. If you say, “You know, I don’t see color,” well, that’s part of the problem. You do see color, right? The valuation and the ideology you place around what you see is the first level of problem. Just as much as I see you as a woman, or you see me as a man, see people for who they are. Don’t dismiss it, because when you do you minimize me. No matter what my title is, or my role, my primary identity comes first. Because of my lived experience as a person of color, I’ve had to navigate just to get a space at the table. 

We look at [survey data] from our staff and we can see that in schools with high enrollment of students of color and high poverty, the belief gap that students will actually be on track to go to college is 20 percent to 25 percent lower than schools with fewer students of color and middle to upper class. 

This is my own staff. That’s what they believe about a kid that looks like Michael, and that was my lived experience in school. I was called a n—- by my sixth-grade social studies teacher, I was hit by my fourth- or fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Johnson, because he felt I was lying about having a bathroom pass. I had no college support from my counselor in high school. Nobody saw me. I just had all the negativity placed on me. 

The police chief of Woodbury saw that story [about his letter to the Colorado Springs community] and reached out to me. I got this email and my heart started pounding. Like the whole experience got drummed up of how I felt. But the police chief was saying, “I know I can’t make up for what happened to you years ago. I was probably brand-new to the force, and I want to offer my apology for what happened to you.” That brought some closure to a narrative I’ve had to carry for 30 years. Thirty years I held that in silence.

I was held hostage by that narrative. It’s what I needed to free myself and start having conversations about something that deeply impacted me simply because of the color of my skin. 

Yet here you are in 2021, still the target of the same slurs.

What we’re seeing right now across the country is significant pushback — backlash, politicization, whatever you want to call it — of critical race theory. All of a sudden it’s landing squarely in K-12 education — as if we were pouring acid into the drinking water. Rhetorically, I’m wondering, this has been around for decades, why is it now all of a sudden coming up? 

I highly doubt it will ever be adopted in K-12 curriculum. It’s a collegiate theoretical framework. But I’m getting asked at different meetings, “What is CRT? I saw something on the news about it.” Yes, you saw a 30-second news clip or you googled something that affirmed your already established belief about difference, right? 

I’m criticized for stepping out of my lane as superintendent for making District 11 the first school district [in the metro area] to participate in the Pride Parade. Do you not think we have LGBTQ-plus students in our schools? That we should let them know District 11 is a safe place? You never questioned us participating in the veterans’ parade, or the City of Lights Christmas parade or the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Why all of a sudden are you questioning this parade? 

Critical theory is the umbrella, and you can apply various lenses, you can apply a lens of gender, race, income, sexual status, geography. The notion of criticality is something that we would hope every student, kindergarten through collegiate, is going to apply. Research things. People have their personal values, I get that. Sometimes you might say, “Well, what I learned growing up is not really what I believe as an independent thinker now.” We want our students to embrace criticality; apply it how you want. 

But in this race-based society, race is something that still, in 2021, folks just don’t want to talk about. When we look at data, I always hear, “This is really about income.” Or ,”This is about single-parent families.” Then help me understand how, generally speaking, middle-class African-American students don’t do as well as students from low-income white families. You can see this trend in every school system in this country. Why is that? 

What happened when you asked these questions in your new job as a superintendent in Colorado Springs?

We named the elephants in the room. And people were uncomfortable. Because historically, we’ve never talked about the dirty laundry, if you will.

I asked for a lot of data, and we had all this aggregate data. I said, “How am I supposed to understand how we’re doing if I can’t see subgroups of students?” The response was, “Well, we’ve never broken it out that way.” And this was, what, 2018? I’m thinking, why are we not disaggregating data to a very granular level, so we can truly understand the characteristics of the students that we’re talking about? We need to know the “why,” no matter where they’re at.

Without digging too deeply, we can see with our data metrics that some of our schools are thriving and some are struggling. Are there structural things contributing to that?

Transportation is one clear example. For years, we’ve had a gifted magnet program at several of our sites, but no transportation. So if you lived in the southeast area of the district, where none of the gifted magnet programs existed, and you were a family that was challenged financially, getting your student who was identified as gifted to a magnet program might be impossible. These are structural inequities.

Mitchell High School has the most students eligible for Title 1 funding. I asked, “Why doesn’t Mitchell receive Title 1 aid?” The response I got was, “Because we don’t give high schools Title 1.” I was speechless. It’s like, “Okay, that practice is ending.” Which means everyone else’s Title 1 is going to go down. 

We had what was called a superintendent’s business plan, the equivalent of a strategic plan. Nobody knew anything about it. Like many strategic plans, there were probably 200 things that needed to be done. We’d be here for 10 years to get them all done. It was just insurmountable and not real actionable. I said we need to have a strategic plan that this community can get behind. 

We did significant engagement with our community. Transformation Systems facilitated this process. It was amazing. When you just simply ask, “In our community, what are your values? What do you want to see in schools?” Guess what — [people] actually told us something. I say that kind of snarkily, because what I’m sharing isn’t anything really profound. 

After a year of engaging our community, our board passed an equity policy. With a new strategic plan, and an equity policy in place, and the foundations laid for increased data literacy, we had a recipe to start moving the organization. 

I would wager to say the biggest bad habit the K-12 industry has is that we allow past practice to stifle future innovation. K-12 is so in love with itself, it can’t see any opportunity for doing something different. The status quo? If it’s working, great. But we can see across many decades and many school systems around the country, traditional K-12 public education isn’t working for every student. 

The equity policy passed by your board says you will break with using past practice to make decisions and instead let need guide you. What needs did your community identify?

Just before COVID, we started engaging our community around our academic and facility master plans. How can we improve the infrastructure, the bricks and mortar of our district, which is 107 years old? We have upward of $800 million in deferred maintenance, everything from major structural repairs to simple painting jobs. I just had to ask, “How in the world do we get here?” This didn’t happen in the last 10 years. 

We need to take care of this, because families shop with their eyes first. They’re driving around thinking about moving into a neighborhood and they’re looking at the school and it’s horrible. How can we make sure that when kids come to school, it looks like a great place of learning — safe, welcoming, warm, inviting, bright, versus dilapidated, cracked sidewalks, weeds growing in dirt, no grass. 

I want to make sure that every family knows they have access to a high-quality school in their neighborhood. You shouldn’t feel that you need to go across the district — or to even leave the district. 

Parent choice will always win. To that, we worked with our community to identify, what are some of the key academic attributes that you would like to see? Through that engagement, we developed an academic master plan, with the specialty programming interests for every school that our community said they want to see, being realistic with our tax dollars. 

We need to guarantee a core academic program so we can put to bed the misconceptions that this school in this neighborhood is better than that school in that other neighborhood. The curriculum in fourth-grade math is the same at this school as it is at that school. You shouldn’t have to go anywhere for better instruction. 

This fall, we [opened] up our first online academy. We’re not buying off-the-shelf digital curriculum, which is what most folks are doing. This is a D11 academy, and you’re going to have D11 staff, D11 curriculum. If you’re in that school and you want to go back to a brick-and-mortar school, it’s a seamless transition versus a very different trajectory with online schools that are using bots, teachers from all over the country. 

We are opening up our first dual-language immersion program. In D11, 50 percent of students are of color and about 35 percent are Spanish-speaking, and we’ve not had culturally specific or linguistically specific programming. We are expanding transportation for our Montessori school, which draws kids from all over the city, and transportation to our gifted magnet programs. 

After my first year of being here, we cut our projected student loss by about 40 percent. I attribute a lot of that to our ability to engage our community, to start telling stories about who we are and who we aspire to become. Our families said, “We’re going to choose 11 because they’re responding to our needs.” 

Last winter, you made at least one unpopular decision — pandemic notwithstanding.

Everyone was released from their assignment at Mitchell High School, which for years has struggled academically, struggled with enrollment losses. The school has had a couple of different attempts to develop an innovation plan to help interrupt the outcomes students were experiencing there. But every time one went to the staff for a vote, it failed.

I don’t blame the Mitchell staff solely. We at the district level for years created the Mitchell that we are trying to address today. And it didn’t happen overnight. I had to address central leadership. Certain individuals who are no longer part of the district should have been providing different levels of support to that school. Last year, we allowed the staff one last try to get an innovation plan passed, and it failed by a couple of votes. The board then directed me to take over Mitchell. And, you know, that’s not a fun place to be. 

Staff were not fired — which is the news tagline that sells. Non-negotiable for me was that the work that we’re going to have to engage in at Mitchell is not going to be your normal high school work. It’s going to require extended time, a very different professional development framework, a whole different assessment suite so we have more actionable data to move student achievement. It’s going to involve heavy community engagement, door-knocking campaigns, leaving your classroom and going into living rooms. We’re going to have to do something drastically different if we want to turn Mitchell around.

I’ve been a turnaround principal. My very first tenure as a principal, I inherited a [school in] year four of a five-year No Child Left Behind protocol. It’s not fun. It’s challenging, and you bust your tail. So I said I would not force people to be in a school that’s going to have to be fundamentally different than what they signed up to do, out of respect and to ensure we had the right staff. 

I lost my job as a principal due to restructuring. My third year as a principal at an elementary school, I advocated to move my school from K-5 to a pre-K-3 early literacy campus because that’s what the need was. We were closing another school, and that meant I was going to lose my job because that other principal had more seniority. My staff were furious. I had to tell them, look, as a public educator, you are here to serve the public.

I knew, as did my wife, this is the reality of this role. This truly is my calling, this is my purpose. We were going to be okay, but 90 percent of my families were not going to be okay if we don’t do something. That same mindset is where I’m at today. Mitchell is full of the brilliant leaders of tomorrow. So as unpopular as I know I am for making this decision, Mitchell, I honestly believe, will be a better Mitchell, and the people coming back understand what they’re signing up to do. 

Mitchell is a good proxy for what is to come if we want the broader district to become the premier district of choice in Colorado Springs. I’m not saying every school is going to go through what Mitchell is going through. But certainly we have to be, as one of my mentors used to say, open to outcome, not wedded to it. Which means embrace what is possible, because you don’t know what you don’t know today that you will know tomorrow.

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