- Dustin Glatz, with assets from Shutterstock.com
Keith Barnes grew up on the south side of Chicago, far from a school that offered college prep programs for high school students.
But even as a teen in the 1980s, Barnes knew education would unlock the door to success, so he committed to traveling an hour and 15 minutes one way to school.
“I had to take two city buses and a train ride to get to a neighborhood where my school was located,” he says. “I would go there because it was a college prep program, and I was fortunate enough to get the education that got me into college. A lot of kids in my neighborhood weren’t as fortunate.”
The lack of educational opportunities near his predominantly Black neighborhood put him at a disadvantage.
“If schools in your neighborhood aren’t well equipped to give you a top-notch education and you don’t have an environment conducive to learning, that’s where the inequality comes,” he says.
That was a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees ago, and Barnes now serves as executive director of Pikes Peak Community College’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program. His goal is to tear down the barriers that many people of color face.
The recent deaths of several Black people at the hands of police, including George Floyd, who was killed after being pinned to the ground by a Minneapolis police officer, inspired protests worldwide, including in Colorado Springs. Along with COVID-19’s disproportionate effects on communities of color, it’s a confluence of events that has caused many to criticize the inequity built into many of the nation’s institutions, notably education.
Racial bias has been embedded in American society and culture for 400 years. A discrimination-free world won’t happen quickly, but there are signs that local K-12 and college officials — some of whom, like Barnes, have experienced that inequity first-hand — are leveling the playing field by adopting diversity programs and policies.
Though schools across the country have paid large sums to settle racial discrimination cases in recent years, not many cases have surfaced in this region. That doesn’t mean they don’t happen. Consider:
After failing to comply with a 2010 Department of Justice order, Falcon School District 49 reached a new agreement in October 2014 to “take affirmative steps to eliminate and prevent racial harassment and discrimination in schools.” D-49’s Director of Culture and Services Louis Fletcher says in a statement the district met the agreement’s criteria, and the DOJ released the district from monitoring in 2017.
In 2010, a federal jury awarded $303,178 to Colorado Springs School District 11 teacher George Christopher Ash, who’s Black, who alleged racial bias in 2007 when the district hired less qualified teachers for jobs for which he applied.
In 2011, D-11 settled a case for $120,000 in which Joe Christopher Earls, who’s also Black, alleged a “pattern and practice” of racial discrimination in hiring, promotions and disciplinary actions.
Those D-11 cases predated the arrival of Superintendent Dr. Michael Thomas, who says he doesn’t have to look very deep to find racism, especially in a district where 50 percent of students are people of color, of whom 20 percent are Black.
- Courtesy District 11
- Dr. Michael Thomas
“Every district I’ve been in, concerns around racial differences and treatment has always been a conversation that has found its way to my radar,” he says in an interview with the Indy.
“It shows up when you see disproportionate outcomes,” he adds. “Graduation rates, lack of identification in gifted and talented or advanced-placement courses. That’s how you begin to see it show up. It’s endemic to every K-12 system you look at across the country.”
Thomas, who arrived here two years ago from Minneapolis Public Schools, where he held multiple positions, including chief of schools and chief of academics, leadership and learning, holds a string of degrees, including a doctorate in educational leadership.
It’s hard to imagine that in the 1980s, up until he was in fourth grade, he was placed in a special education program. A teacher recognized his abilities and allowed him to join other students, but it left Thomas with the enduring understanding that “not everyone in K-12 believes that all kids can learn.”
He also understands that living in poverty can block educational success due to what he calls “structural deficits that disproportionately affect families of color.”
Those deficits include lack of health care, adequate housing, food, transportation and learning tools, such as computers.
“K-12 has always been the front on which we wage the social warfare,” he says. “Drugs, poverty. It seems to be the arena where everything socially is trying to be addressed and solved, because we have a very controlled environment that could potentially change outcomes long term.”
The problem is, teachers want to teach, he says, but instead confront an array of needs beyond the three R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic); D-11 tries to do its part.
“If ‘Michael’ is homeless, [his] math teacher needs to work hand in hand with the social worker to bridge any deficits he experiences due to his homelessness,” he says. “Moving forward, the global conversation that’s happening around the issues that are emerging from the death of George Floyd are conversations that should have happened 200 years ago.
“We’re leaning in as a district. We see every kid. We hear every kid, and we’re here to serve every family,” he adds.
The first step, he says, is to identify and have conversations around racial bias and not simply dismiss it as a fact of life.
That’s why Thomas wants to inject the discussion “into instructional space” and decided to replace To Kill a Mockingbird, the 1960 Harper Lee novel about racial injustice in the 1930s South, with The Hate U Give, the 2017 book by Angie Thomas about a 16-year-old whose two worlds — her poor neighborhood and that of her upscale prep school — collide when she witnesses a police officer fatally shooting her childhood friend.
Relevancy is what he’s after, he says.
As young people are inundated with conversations over race, including politicized perspectives, families and staff can create “safe spaces” to accommodate meaningful conversations, Thomas says.
“It is important for K-12 to reflect the communities in which they serve, so we must intentionally seek to diversify our staffing,” he says in a follow-up email. “This allows students to see themselves in those who are facilitating their learning and helps create deeper relationships because their experiences/voices may be more understood. Research shows this is critically important in grades 3-5 and correlated to higher retention/graduation rates, especially for students of color.”
Regardless of how these interactions are carried out, Thomas promises the district’s tenacity.
“Will it [racism] be solved in my lifetime? Probably not,” he says, “but D-11 staff are committed to the long-term fight.”
- Courtesy Harrison District 2
- Woody Longmire
Woody Longmire grew up in the deep South, Atmore, Alabama, known for being the birthplace of boxer Evander Holyfield.
There, Longmire sat at the back of the bus, was routinely called the “n” word and wasn’t permitted to eat at the restaurant where his mother worked. The town became majority Black for the first time in 2010, but for Longmire in the 1950s, it was a hotbed of racism.
Sixty-seven years later, Longmire helps students of color find a path to college from Harrison District 2, which has the highest percentage of students of color of any other local school district. There, he serves as director of the College and Career Readiness Department.
About 23 percent of students in D-2 are white; Hispanic students comprise 52 percent and Black students, 13.4 percent. The district’s Code of Conduct is published in both English and Spanish on its website.
Despite holding five degrees — two associate degrees, a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees — Longmire still experiences microaggressions and outright racism (see sidebar). In the last year, he was accused of being “an angry Black man,” because he asserted his opinion on a district matter, he says.
He was stung by a reprimand but has hung in there. “You don’t change a community by leaving a community,” he says.
He and other Harrison officials focus on giving students a leg up through programs that prepare them for success. One program identifies middle school students who can tackle high school courses. Then in high school those students move toward finishing their graduation requirements while also enrolled in classes at Pikes Peak Community College.
To aid in their success, Longmire says teachers check in every day with students in the program, and study halls are offered where students can seek help.
All college classes in the concurrent enrollment program are taught at high school buildings until senior year when students then can attend PPCC classes on campus, while also participating in extracurricular activities at their high school.
In 2019, the Dakota Foundation and the Legacy Institute funded the Dakota Promise Scholarship, which provides a full-ride, two-year scholarship to PPCC for every Harrison graduate who maintains a 2.5 GPA during their junior and senior years. The program pays for everything, Longmire notes, including transportation, books, tuition and sometimes food. With the financial barrier removed, students of color who otherwise couldn’t afford it can prepare for a career or earn credits toward a four-year degree.
“We graduate students who are college and career ready,” Longmire says. “We are a diverse population, predominantly Black and Hispanic. We try to hire staff who understand this population.
“We have fairs where our Human Resources staff goes to Atlanta, to California and can offer contracts on the spot,” he says. “But at the end of the day, there is a shortage of African American teachers.”
Which has led to another program in Harrison. “We will pay for them to get their degree if they agree to come back and teach for us,” Longmire says. “One young lady wants to be a kindergarten teacher, another a math teacher. You’d be surprised at the number who are interested in doing this if they had the opportunity.”
Longmire says he’s happy to see young people in the streets campaigning for justice for Black people. “The young folks are saying now, ‘We’re not taking this anymore. We’re educated and we have the right to be treated with dignity and respect like anybody else.’”
For that, Longmire is thankful. “They are truly here to replace us,” he says. “So I make sure they get the education they need. They make up 100 percent of the future. If we don’t treat them right now, they are destined to repeat what we do.
“I feel comfortable sitting in the back and letting them drive,” he says. “The future is looking pretty bright with these kids.”
- Courtesy UCCS
- Andrea Herrera
Andrea Herrera’s heritage is Cuban on her mother’s side. She was conceived in Havana but born in Philadelphia after her parents fled in 1959 as Fidel Castro’s regime took over.
As a Cuban-American, she’s felt the sting of discrimination.
“Finding housing was difficult, in addition to the overt discrimination and racism we experienced,” she says. When she moved to Colorado Springs more than 20 years ago, her son was “automatically placed in an ESL [English as a Second Language] class and automatically placed in the group for lowest-achieving students before he was tested and before anyone had even met him. We assumed it was because of his surname.”
Her son, who’s bilingual, later achieved a 4.0 grade point average in an International Baccalaureate program, proving those educators wrong.
Meantime, Herrera was hired at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs where she helped establish ethics and social equity programs. She now serves as its associate vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion.
Among her challenges is raising awareness among students, faculty and the community of the discrimination that permeates the culture.
“Racial discrimination that occurs isn’t as overt as you might think,” she says. “It’s more the people who aren’t educated about their own implicit bias, because of stereotypes they uphold without being aware of it.
“Say someone says something like, ‘If Black people only worked a little harder, the American dream is open to everyone.’ A statement like that is ignoring the historical reality of racism that makes access to that dream much harder for one person compared to another,” she says.
While UCCS is seen as more affordable and accessible to local students who don’t have to live in a dormitory or drive a great distance, the UCCS student body has few Black people. The percentage of African American undergraduates has inched up from 3.6 percent in 2014 to 4.25 in 2019, the most recent data available, below the community’s 6.2 percent Black population but only slightly lower than the state’s 4.6 percent. Hispanic students comprise 19.1 percent of undergraduates, a 24 percent increase since 2014. That’s higher than Hispanics’ 17.7 percent in the community; the state’s population is 21.7 percent Hispanic.
The percentage of minorities represented, however, falls in graduate school — 3.9 percent are Black and 12.3 percent are Hispanic.
Herrera focuses on developing self-awareness to combat biases — to help students and faculty understand that “my history and experience is not the same as yours.
“The most fundamental thing is educating people about the self and then about others,” she says.
While such diversity training isn’t a required course, many faculty and students avail themselves of opportunities at UCCS to “get a deeper picture” and that includes confronting ability, gender, race, class and sexuality, with race at the center of that wheel, Herrera says.
“I don’t have the power to mandate or require anything, but because of the goodwill of people on campus, we’ve deployed some initiatives,” she says. “Training, curriculum, even just the environment, in terms of whose names are on the buildings.
“It’s like a birdcage,” she adds. “If you only look at one bar, you think the bird can fly out. But a birdcage is held together by all these bars. It’s that tension of all these pieces together that keeps some people down and pushes other people up.”
She notes that institutions across the United States that do require diversity training are making the most progress toward inclusion.
UCCS faculty members have flocked to diversity and inclusion training, Herrera says, which then gets conveyed to students in their classrooms. “When students take their courses, they get it,” she says. “If 90 percent of your faculty does it, it’s going to enter their classrooms. You don’t need a diversity course to get that. If faculty is trained, it will enter their curriculum. Then it enters every space of the campus.”
UCCS, she says, struggles to find money to fund scholarships for people of color and other marginalized groups, but programs have been developed to help those in need.
“We have students who are homeless, who are food deprived,” she says, noting dining services on campus offer meal cards, no questions asked, so a disadvantaged student can get a good meal.
“People are very well aware of the students we serve and the challenges they have,” she says. “If a student doesn’t have a book, there’s consciousness around trying to make the materials for courses more accessible.” That includes a special fund that provides students laptop computers.
Herrera’s constant interface with discriminatory practices doesn’t dampen her spirits, though.
“Although I sometimes feel fatigued and disheartened, I am hopelessly optimistic and always try to remain empathetic when I respond to these incidents,” she says. “I mostly feel that these incidents open up the possibility to challenge peoples’ stereotypes, educate and learn.”
As for her son, she’s proud he became a top academic achiever, but she’s more gratified he grew up to be “kind and gentle and loving, a feminist, an amazing father and husband [who] stands up for the rights of others.”
- Courtesy PPCC
- Keith Barnes
Besides having to make extraordinary efforts to attend a good prep school in Chicago, Keith Barnes has been called names based on his race. In one case, the situation was made worse when his employer just let it slide.
While working as a customer service rep at a telebusiness as a young adult, Barnes says a customer called him the “n” word because she disagreed with his service recommendation.
“I reported the incident to the leadership and demanded that they drop her as a customer,” he says.
His bosses’ reaction? They downplayed it, saying it’s no different than being called any other bad name. They then boasted about their recent hire of an African American man as a corporate vice president.
“After they gave me their final decision not to drop the customer,” Barnes says, “I resigned from my position the following week.”
But why should Black people and other minorities have to choose?
Barnes says he believes only those institutions that attract minorities will survive and flourish, because minorities comprise the fastest growing demographic, not only here in El Paso County but across the nation.
“For our survival it requires we look at these special populations,” he says. “How do we best serve our institution and how do we best serve our community, and that community is increasingly becoming larger with Hispanic population growth.”
At Pikes Peak Community College where he leads diversity programs, staff have strong ties to the Black community through churches and their families, he says.
“There are a lot of factors that contribute to it long before they get to our campus,” Barnes says. “Look at the K-12 system. Some students go to schools that haven’t prepared them for the collegian experience, and now they struggle. That has impact on their success, and it’s our responsibility to help those students.”
PPCC’s data actually is more reflective of community demographics than those of UCCS.
Black students have represented from 7 to 9 percent of the student body over the last decade, while Hispanic students have seen dramatic growth — from 12 percent in 2009 to 21 percent in 2019.
But take a look at retention rates, and the picture is less rosy.
Black students have some of the lowest rates of returning to school the following year, ranging from 48 percent in 2008 to just under half in 2018. Hispanic students’ retention rates fell from 60 percent in 2009 to 53 percent in 2018.
PPCC has shifted from remedial courses to bring students up to par to a “co-requisite model,” he says, that places students in, say, a college math class but with simultaneous supplemental instruction, important for an open-enrollment college where all those who apply are admitted.
“It’s a byproduct of a system where disproportionate numbers of people of color are not in a system that is preparing them for the jobs of tomorrow or the collegiate experience,” he says.
That won’t change, he says, until communities invest in resources and infrastructure to assure everyone a fair chance. “That’s the racial factor,” he says.
One such investment is being made through PPCC’s participation in the Dakota Promise scholarship program. “When we come up with these initiatives,” Barnes says, “we can combat those racial inequalities.”
Another inherently racist factor is when a school district’s class sizes are larger than experts agree can meaningfully serve the students. One district serving a high percentage of minority students might have 35 kids per class, whereas a more affluent school district keeps class size to 20. “That’s inequitable,” he says. “That’s not fair. The remedy is you build more schools and hire more teachers so the students in the depressed neighborhoods get the same quality education.”
Faculty members at PPCC are trained in “culturally responsive teaching,” which helps them understand who is in their classrooms, how they learn and how to help them find the best path to success, he says.
Drawing students from across the nation, not just the region or state, the Air Force Academy, too, faces challenges over race.
- Courtesy USAFA
- A classroom at the Air Force Academy
Roughly a decade ago, a cadet climate survey found that 20 percent of minorities reported they had observed or experienced racial discrimination. The Academy wasn’t able to produce the most recent climate survey.
In late 2010, the Academy hired the school’s first diversity officer, a position that then-Superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould called “crucial.”
But Adis Vila, a native Cuban, lawyer and scholar who speaks four languages, left in June 2013 without fanfare.
Now retired, she tells the Indy via email, “These are troubled times in our society. The United States Air Force Academy ... can and should set an example in creating and promoting an inclusive organizational culture where ALL cadets can reach their highest potential.”
Saying she’s proud of her work at the Academy, she urged its leadership to continue recruiting diverse cadets, faculty and senior leaders, and to “focus on changing systems, processes, and behaviors that detract from creating an inclusive organizational culture.”
Over the years, the Academy has tried to diversify the Cadet Wing, but the Class of 2020 fell short. Of the 967 who graduated, 671 (69.4 percent) were white; 72 (7.4 percent) were Black, and 96 (9.9 percent) were Hispanic.
Compare that to the undergraduate college student population nationwide, as reported by the Census Bureau in 2018, the most recent data available: 52.9 percent white; 15.1 percent Black and 20.9 percent Hispanic.
The Academy did exceed the nationwide figure of 7.6 percent Asian by graduating 91 (9.4 percent) Asian cadets this year.
One strategy the Academy has used to add diversity and fortify sports teams involves the Academy’s Preparatory School, which admits students, including minorities, who fail to post qualifying scores required of direct Academy appointees. Generally speaking, those minority candidates have graduated from the Academy at higher rates than enlisted personnel and recruited athletes, however.
But some can’t overcome their hardship backgrounds. One example, related in 2013 by then-prep school Superintendent Col. Kabrena Rodda, involved a female Native American candidate. She grew up without power and lived a mile from fresh water. Though she stood at the top in her Navajo Nation high school class, graduated from the prep school and was considered “smart” and “very tenacious,” Rodda said she didn’t capture an Academy appointment.
“The quality of instruction she was exposed to [in high school] was not sufficient for her to be successful at the Academy,” Rodda said.
One of the more high profile examples of racism came in fall 2017 when, an investigation revealed, a Black cadet candidate scrawled “go home n...r” on white boards of five African American candidates, his included, and later left the school.
The incident prompted newly arrived Superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria to lecture the Cadet Wing in a speech that went viral.
- Courtesy Air Force
- Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria
“If you can’t treat someone from another race or different color skin with dignity and respect,” Silveria said, “then you need to get out.”
Through the years, Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, has sparred with the Academy over its perceived favoritism of fundamentalist Christianity. Weinstein says that environment carries racist overtones for people of color who adhere to religions such as Hindu, Islam and Judaism.
After the prep school incident, Weinstein says, he heard from numerous parents of students of color about other examples of racism but the students were afraid to come forward.
“It’s not just your view of God,” Weinstein says. “It’s often tied to skin color, where you were born, and your ethnicity.”
In November 2019, researchers published a study in American Economic Journal: Economic Policy regarding the acceptance of Black people by Academy cadets.
The study noted that Black people comprise only 5 percent of student populations at the top 200 higher-ed institutions in the United States, compared to 16 percent of college-aged Black adults nationwide.
The question the study sought to answer: By lowering standards to admit people of color to diversify student bodies, would the Academy or another institution cause “members of the majority to change their subsequent behavior toward the minority”? In other words, are race-conscious admissions policies socially desirable?
Using Academy data, researchers found that white male cadets exposed to “higher ability black peers” in their freshman year were significantly more likely to pair with a Black roommate in their sophomore year.
But the study also found that exposure to a “marginal black peer” with low high school academic achievement had no effect on subsequent racial relations.
“This provides evidence that increased diversity does more than change self-reported attitudes; it also leads to meaningful changes in future behavior,” the study concluded.
- Nat Stein
- Rosemary Lytle
Rosemary Lytle, president of the NAACP Colorado Montana Wyoming State Conference, is not impressed. She finds the study lacking in understanding of why institutions seek to establish diversity.
“This appears to be about social policies — the kind that were designed to keep Black people from living next door to white people, being seated in the corner office or marrying someone of another race,” she says via email.
Affirmative action policy, she adds, wasn’t adopted “to help the ‘majority’ feel good personally about people who are considered ‘minorities’ — it’s about removing the barriers and opening wide the door so that everyone benefits from what only diversity and true inclusion can bring.”
David Mullin, a former Academy instructor who teaches economics at UCCS, called the study’s results “troubling.”
“First, why is it that white cadets should be the judges of accepting African American cadets?” he says. “Second, why is there an emphasis using high school grade point averages (GPAs) as the measure of ‘higher ability’ when it has been athletic not academic achievement as the distinguishing admission characteristic for many African American cadets who went through the prep school? You are effectively admitting them on one criterion and judging them on another.”
Mullin, who’s conducted research of sexual assault cases at the Academy for years, also notes that in 2012-2013, 80 percent of sexual assault reports came from female minority cadets, even though Asian and African American women are each less than 2 percent of the total Cadet Wing.
More recently, images of an Academy freshman in blackface posted on social media several years ago came to light.
“Senior leaders are aware of this inappropriate social media activity,” Silveria said in a statement provided to the Indy.
“Racist statements or actions by anyone at the Academy, to include current cadets, are not condoned, supported or tolerated in any way here at the Academy,” he continued. “Even though it was determined that this cadet’s post was from 2017, prior to her applying to the Academy and on an account she closed prior to her becoming an incoming cadet, the cadet has been counseled by her Commander and publicly apologized Friday on her Twitter account.
“The Air Force Academy is an institution that takes cadets from all corners of America and, while we receive the best America has to offer, our curriculum of character and leadership development is designed to make them better, to include in the areas of dignity and respect, which are also key USAFA leadership focus areas at all levels.”
The renewed focus on Black Lives Matter and the racism that undermines equality has animated not only demonstrators, but people across the community to become better-schooled in minority issues.
Just ask Regina Walter. Her Diversity University, a week-long course that addresses bias and outlines a path to empower change, has drawn hundreds of enrollees since the Black Lives Matter movement was reinvigorated by Floyd’s death.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she at first canceled this summer’s sessions, but after the string of deaths of Black people at the hands of law officers caused protests to explode into the nation’s streets, she changed her mind. She will host two sessions, but will still have a waiting list of 400, she says.
A white woman, Walter might be viewed as an unlikely advocate for minority rights, inclusion and acceptance. But her own personal experience drove her to right the avalanche of wrongs dealt to people of color daily.
As a magistrate judge in El Paso County in the 1980s, she found she’d fallen into the discrimination trap and didn’t even recognize it.
It took a conference in 1995 on disproportionate minority confinement to sound the alarm.
“Three days into the conference I realized if you were a Black male youth and were brought to a detention center on crack cocaine charges, I assumed you were a dealer,” she says. “You didn’t get a substance abuse evaluation and you didn’t get released. But if you were white, you were a user and got treatment and got out of detention.”
Roughly 10 years later, she launched Educating Children of Color (ECOC), a nonprofit that strives to provide career opportunities, self-empowerment and leadership skills to children of color, while also teaching parents how to hold schools and kids accountable and educators how to teach kids “who don’t look like them.”
The ECOC group hosts Diversity University, SAT prep classes and an annual summit, which brings noted speakers to Colorado Springs and awards scholarships and laptops to high school students. The goal is to dismantle the cradle-to-prison pipeline for children in poverty and children of color through education. Walter’s co-presenter is Dr. Regina Lewis, a Black woman who teaches at PPCC.
Among its supporters: Colorado College, El Paso County Department of Human Services, El Pomar Foundation, the Castaways Foundation, Pikes Peak Community College and several others.
About the enthusiasm for her programs, she says, “I think people are fired up. People want to know how to be part of the solution.”
Those who take her classes gain knowledge of the history of systemic racism in this country, an understanding of their implicit bias and how it impacts their decision-making. They are also encouraged to make a plan on how they’ll address their individual biases and systemic racism within their organization.
Implicit bias permeates society, such as when witnesses in a trial describe Black men as taller and heavier than they actually are to paint them as a threat, or when they add three years to a Black girl’s age, or when Black youths get punished in a classroom 2.5 times more frequently than their white peers.
“For a judge, are you sentencing this defendant based on this crime, or based on your history of other people who look like this person?” she says. “It’s just the way we see things, and what we think is real without really questioning and knowing it.”
Her sessions give clients an added bonus: “Relationships with people who are different than them, so they can start believing other people’s truths.”
For Walter, Herrera, Thomas and hundreds of others committed to assuring people of color receive the same opportunities as white people, leveling the playing field means waking up to insidious racism. It’s a silent thief that often does his work undetected, but nonetheless robs Black people and other minorities of opportunities, of a chance, of basic fairness in the classroom.
As Barnes says, “What we have are equity gaps.”