Impacting the Lives of Diverse Learners through DEI Best Practices:
The Colorado Charter School Institute
"When I founded Social Justice Associates (SJA) after a fulfilling academic career in violence prevention and organizational culture change, my goal was to extend an even greater impact by assisting organizations globally in advancing their harm reduction, equity and inclusion practices.
In alignment with my goal, SJA has been privileged to partner with many innovative organizations across business, education, health care, legal, and non-profit settings to advance their equity and inclusion practices."
In 2021-2022, one of our most impactful partnerships is with the Colorado Charter School Institute (CSI).
CSI’s organizational mission is to foster high-quality charter public schools that meet the needs of their communities and work to close the opportunity gap for ‘at-risk’ students. CSI’s reach is broad, providing guidance and oversight to 42 charter schools across the state of Colorado.
CSI’s oversight of its schools focuses on the outputs—that is, the quantitative evaluation of academic, organizational, and financial school performance—providing schools the flexibility to focus on and make decisions about inputs like instructional strategies, educational programming, internal assessment system, facility selection, and staffing. This focus on outcomes rather than processes allows CSI to be neutral on educational models and maintain a diverse portfolio of schools. CSI’s portfolio offers sixteen unique educational models—including Early College, Montessori, Pregnant & Parenting, Classical, Military, and Project-Based Learning. More recently, CSI approved an indigenously-inspired elementary school serving students on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation. And, in the Fall of 2022, a CSI school with a focus on serving learners who learn differently, including students with autism, ADHD, dyslexia and similar learning profiles is expected to open.
Importantly, these charter schools impact educational experiences for 20,000+ students from a range of diverse backgrounds. CSI’s student body reflects the state, with 50% identifying as students of color, 35% identified as low-income, and 15% identified as emerging multilingual learners.
In 2020, the CSI Board of Directors passed a resolution to use an equity lens in decision-making, leadership, staff goals, and organizational practices and policies. In concert, SJA’s work with CSI involves three initiatives:
DEI Professional Development:
Facilitating conversations to build awareness and allyship skills to mitigate the impact of unconscious bias, microaggressions, and unintentional harms at the individual and organizational levels.
DEI Organizational Assessment:
CSI teams evaluated themselves on six key DEI components to identify areas of strength and areas for investing additional resources:
Leadership (CSI is led in a manner that supports DEI)
Each CSI staff member receives professional development funds to support their growth in an area of their choice, whether it be learning another language, taking a leadership development course, or attending a conference.
CSI created an Equity Specialist position to support work in advancing equity and access within the organization and in CSI schools.
CSI leadership also supports and encourages staff-led activities that seek to advance awareness of DEI topics. For example, over the past few years, many staff have participated in book and podcast clubs, using various forms of media to explore and discuss pertinent topics related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Staff have also participated in national activities, like Authorizing for All, that seeks to address inequity in public education.
Self-management support (CSI provides supports to mitigate the impact of bias and practices and policies that may be unintentionally harmful)
This year, CSI has taken steps to review and revise HR recruitment and retention practices to incorporate additional DEI best practice.
Decision support (CSI provides access to evidence-based information to guide DEI efforts)
CSI has used research and best practice to develop an inclusive communications, meetings, and events guide to support staff as they plan ways to connect with schools and other stakeholders.
Using staff feedback throughout the DEI professional development and best practice, CSI has taken a collaborative approach to developing its organizational DEI strategy. (More on CSI’s DEI strategy development below!)
Team functioning (CSI teams are structured to support DEI)
This past year, as part of its organizational goals, each team at CSI developed an equity initiative to advance DEI within its own area of work. Ranging from revising our charter school application processes to incorporate DEI best practices, to incorporating equity measures in annual school accountability practices, teams have established action plans and monitored progress.
Information systems (CSI uses timely information to track DEI progress)
CSI has engaged all staff in regular pulse surveys to solicit feedback on work environment, culture, and DEI initiatives. Additionally, staff participate in a feedback survey following each DEI professional development session. Feedback from these tools has helped CSI to track progress and inform decision making.
Community linkages (CSI has linkages to key community-based DEI partners)
CSI continues to explore how it defines ‘community’ given that it’s a state agency with schools operating in many different and diverse communities across the state.
One of its first steps has been to join the Colorado Equity Alliance, a collaborative effort from state agencies and community organizations, to create equitable systems in which all Coloradoans have an opportunity to thrive.
DEI Strategy Development:
Providing input on CSI’s DEI strategy and CSI’s existing Equity Initiatives
Since the CSI Board’s 2015 resolution on closing the achievement gap, CSI has made an intentional and continuing focus on equity work.
Over time, our initiatives have shifted to adapt to school feedback and identified needs.
Here’s a quick look at some activities undertaken by the CSI team last year.
For the 2021-2022 school year, each department developed its own initiative to advance equity work. These efforts reminded us that advancing equity within organizations takes many forms but that it’s not the responsibility of an individual or even a department—it’s an organization-wide effort where all staff can actively engage in advancing equity.
The results of the DEI Organizational Assessment have been used to inform the priorities for CSI’s DEI strategy. CSI has been encouraging individual and team input in crafting strategy language. The finalized strategy will be used to guide CSI in development of its organizational goals for the upcoming school year. This strategy will inform organizational goals for 2022-23 school year and beyond.
Dr. Terry Croy Lewis, Executive Director of the Charter School Institute shares: “In a year where the pandemic has quite literally separated us, this work has brought our team together to explore what DEI means within the K-12 education sector, within our role as a charter authorizer, and within our organization. I am energized by our staff’s commitment to this work, the meaningful ways in which each team is advancing equity in their own work, and the actionable ideas for advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion within our organization and school in the coming year.”