A New Identity: A Chicago Group Redefines its Proposal to Open an Alternative School

Apr 1, 2009

Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
The second time around could be the charm for a small group of upstate administrators hoping to build the first-of-its-kind school in the city of Chicago. It also would be a first for the entire state. They propose opening a school that is friendly to students who struggle in mainstream schools, regardless of their sexual orientation. But opponents say allowing the idea to manifest would only create a new kind of discrimination. 

An LGBTQA-friendly school could be operating in Chicago for the 2010-2011 school year if the Chicago Board of Education approves the proposal. LGBTQA stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning youth and their Allies. 

Last year, the school’s design team withdrew a similar application before a vote took place. Since then, the group has been rewriting the plan and defining what the school is and what it is not. The school, formerly referred to as the Pride Campus and then the Solidarity Campus, would be LGBTQA-friendly. But, they say, it is not a school just for gay kids.

Peter Gi, leader of the metro Chicago area group called the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, says sexuality and gender identity can take many expressions, “and the most common way for people to classify their sexual identity and share it with the world” is by using the term LGBTQA. 

The creation of such a specialized school opens the door for public perception problems, including whether a school is gay-friendly versus gay-only or an attempt to create a more accepting environment for students of all backgrounds and social groups.

John Knight, director of LGBT Projects for the Illinois ACLU, says asking a person about his or her sexual orientation could be considered discriminatory. That is precisely why the LGBTQA-friendly school would not know which students were straight and which were not, says Katie Hogan, design team member and co-founder of the Social Justice High School in Chicago. “The only statistics that will ever be taken” and made available would solely focus on academics, she adds. 

The design team, which plans to submit a second proposal early this summer, comprises community members and faculty at an existing specialized school, the Social Justice High School. That school focuses its curriculum on community service and activism and is located on a campus alongside three separate schools that specialize in world languages, math, science and technology, and multicultural arts.

When education officials noted the success of the Social Justice High School, they suggested that a design team develop another tailored institution. The team eventually landed on the idea of a so-called Pride Campus in response to community concerns about the safety of LGBTQA teens.

The location of the new school, as well as its name, would be revealed at a later date. Members say it’s designed specifically to be an educational atmosphere with a zero tolerance policy for discrimination, bullying and harassment. 

The new school would serve as an educational safe haven for kids who aren’t succeeding in traditional public high schools. LGBTQA teens sometimes fall into that category, but so do students who identify themselves as heterosexual. 

Malon Edwards, spokesman for Chicago Public Schools, says the Chicago Board of Education receives several requests for new schools. “We get very unique proposals,” he says. But the LGBTQA idea is a “first of its kind.”

Hogan, who also chairs the English department at Social Justice High School, says after reading several surveys about the struggles that LGBTQA teens face, the decision was obvious. “We need to do something. If we’re not realistic that there is this whole other population of kids out there that we don’t have services for, then we’re not addressing the truth.” 

The creation of such a school is not an attempt to discriminate, she says. Rather, it’s an attempt to solve a growing problem.

However, Bob Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois in Chicago, believes that isolating young people “based on their sexual identity is a real bad idea.”

“They’re going to call this a public school? We need to take a step back and remember that we are talking about young people who are at a volatile time in their lives,” he says. “Why would we offer a school based on a young person’s sexual identification or behavior? That’s ludicrous.”

Gilligan says opening such a school using taxpayer dollars sends a loud and clear message: “This school isn’t about tolerance. It’s about the promotion of a homosexual lifestyle.”

He adds that members of the Catholic Church family “accept the homosexual person but not the behavior.”

Mike Ryan, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland at College Park, says that private schools and neighborhood schools already separate children from mainstream schools. “People tend to segregate themselves in society, whether it be by race, lifestyle, religion, sexual orientation or, most commonly, by class.” 

Ryan also lectures about homophobia at Maryland high schools and universities. If creating a school that is LGBTQA-friendly helps to eliminate certain problems, then perhaps “it is a short-term solution,” he says.

Every school district in Illinois must have a harassment policy, according to state law. Edwards says that if an instance of bullying occurs, it is dealt with immediately according to Chicago Public Schools’ harassment policy.

Ryan says just because schools have harassment policies on the books doesn’t mean they’ll work. “People often assume too much uniformity about schools. There are many schools where being homosexual is not an issue and many others where it is a major issue. Openly gay students have been prom kings and murder victims. It all depends on the school.”

But the Rev. Wilfredo De Jesus, senior pastor of New Life Covenant Ministries in Chicago, says creating a school for LGBTQA students creates segregation. “That’s not how you treat that problem.” 

He adds that he believes the first step to tolerance begins within a school’s administration, not by separating the bullies from the bullied. “We have a lot of kids in the school system who are being harassed. Say they are a little overweight — are we going to start making schools just for obese kids?”

And once students graduate from a specialized school, he says he worries about how they would adapt to life without safety nets. “These kids are going to grow up and go to college. What are they going to do then? They’re not going to create a college just for lesbians and gays,” he says. “What about when they get out in the real world and are looking for work?”

The proposal, Hogan counters, is not a bid to separate kids, but it can offer an alternative to dropping out of school. Hogan says questions such as De Jesus’ need to be answered. “Our school is not a school that is going to segregate anyone. This proposal is about saying no matter who you are, we want kids to get an education.” 

Ryan says segregation and a solution to helping LGBTQA teens do not have to be mutually exclusive. “The upside is that, in the meantime, it provides students a safe haven for development. The downside of such schools is that a lack of integration will likely lengthen the time it will take for society to inevitably become accepting of homosexuality.” 

LGBTQA teens are more likely to be teased, sexually assaulted and physically assaulted than their heterosexual peers. Some even drop out to avoid the harassment. The results of a 2005 Chicago Public Schools survey and a 2007 survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network show that not only are harassment and dropout rates continuing, they’re increasing.
The toll that harassment takes on those teens extends into every area of their lives, says Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

In addition to other challenges, Byard says students who had been harassed reported a significant drop in their grade-point averages. She adds that making simple changes in an educational setting could have an immediate impact on students.

“It’s interesting to me that people would resist efforts to stop things like name-calling and bullying around the country,” Byard says. “But the fact is, when you reduce the name-calling, the bullying and the harassment, you will see reductions in physical assault and physical harassment. If we deal with it, we can move on with ensuring education for students in every school.”

Renee Rathjen, a student at the University of Illinois at Springfield, says she never experienced harassment when she decided to “come out” to her friends and family. But her friends did. “The locker room is the scariest place for an LGBT student because there’s rumors all of the time that all you’re doing in there is checking out other people,” she says. “I had friends who would do anything not to have to go to gym class or into the locker rooms. They usually just skipped that class or got a doctor’s note.”

Rathjen also is program coordinator of the LGBT office at the University of Illinois at Springfield’s Diversity Center. The experience Rathjen mentions is not uncommon in the LGBTQA community, she says, especially for teenagers.

Hogan says the goal of creating an accepting atmosphere that is less likely to tolerate bullying can, in part, be accomplished by changing the basic components of a school. She says that one of the major differences between the Social Justice High School and traditional public high schools is that “the model of our school is very small and student- and family-centered. Instead of a school with 3,000 students, we have about 100 total currently per [graduating] class.” Enrollment, she says, is capped at 600 students for the new school.

Keeping classes small has worked for the Harvey Milk School in New York City. Though it differs from the Chicago proposal because it is a transfer school, meaning students must attend a traditional public high school before transferring, it also heavily relies on a strong community support system. In addition to partnering with outside neighboring organizations, principal Alan Nolan says, “we look at students in a holistic fashion, as individuals and potential leaders of tomorrow’s society.” 

The Harvey Milk curriculum also embraces diversity by requiring all incoming students to participate in a class that explains the school’s “no hate” initiative. The school has a zero tolerance policy for bullying, and, Nolan adds, any “hint of intolerance” is handled within the guidelines of the New York Board of Education. 

The Social Justice High School in Chicago also uses the surrounding community as a second classroom. Students participate as volunteers in local organizations. 

The new school would offer choices for additional after-school activities. While students spend only a portion of the day in school, what happens when the last bell rings can pose serious dangers. It’s the “not having anywhere to go” problem that gets many kids into trouble, adds Hogan.

The Center on Halsted, a community center in the Chicago neighborhood of Lakeview, has partnered with the Little Village Lawndale Campus and would play a significant role in the LGBTQA-friendly school. 

“They have groups about education, art, health and poetry writing. This particular one is a great one because it’s a place the kids can go to after school and be [involved] with positive activities,” Hogan says.

The new campus would use community resources to mimic the Social Justice High School’s model. For instance, Hogan says she doesn’t know the number of faculty members or teachers that the school could afford to hire, but the design team knows where those teachers would come from.

The Golden Apple Foundation, headquartered in Chicago, rewards outstanding educators and provides rigorous training for college students who plan to become teachers.

“Our partnership with them would allow us to hire award-winning teachers and allow our school to act as a training center for other educators interested in making their schools safe so all their kids can get a great education,” Hogan says.

She adds that the school also could help reach out to another group of students: the homeless.

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless reports that more than 10,000 Chicago Public Schools students are homeless. Alicia Adams-Stanley is coordinator of public and media relations for The Night Ministry, which provides housing, food, counseling and health care to the homeless. Adams-Stanley estimates that of the 10,000 homeless teens in Chicago, about 3,000 of them are LGBTQA. 

Reasons the teens are homeless range from problems at home, mental health issues, substance abuse, pregnancy and “issues surrounding sexual orientation,” she says. 

“We have two choices,” Hogan says. “We can either let it happen, or we can do something about it and have a place for them to go to school and be safe.”

With only a few months before the design team plans to submit the proposal, members have to address one of the factors they say contributed to last year’s failed attempt: lack of education about the school’s intent. In an effort to combat a repeat of last year’s concerns, Hogan says the design team plans to hold multiple public information sessions at local venues. The public would be able to comment on the proposal. Hogan adds that talking to people in person has been most helpful in explaining what the school would try to accomplish. 

In addition to public perception, politics also play a role, says Jason Pierceson, assistant professor of political science and legal studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield. He says that separating students may not be such a bad idea if it means they get through school without having to worry about being harassed or attacked.

But getting establishments to acknowledge the kind of bullying and harassment that LGBTQA teens experience is another issue, he adds. “The reality is that school boards are often fearful of these types of things when they come up. Either they are afraid for political reasons, since members are elected, or they’re afraid they might take the position that these needs don’t need to be addressed directly.” 

Pierceson adds that broad-based anti-bullying campaigns have more often than not been the solution for schools in handling LGBTQA issues. 

Sometimes a short-term solution is the best one, according to Ryan. In this case, a short-term solution would be to “allow such schools to exist.” 

“It would not force all LGBTQA students to go to such schools, but it would provide an option and a potential haven for those who want to attend. In the same manner, it is not required that all black college students attend Howard University or that all deaf college students attend Gallaudet University or that all Chinese people live in Chinatown, but the option exists.”

For now, the design team of Chicago’s potential LGBTQA-friendly school intends for its developing proposal to be an answer for students to get an education without looking over their shoulders. ❏ 

 

In a 2005 Chicago Public Schools survey, LGBTQA teens were: 

  • Two times more likely to be threatened than their heterosexual peers.
  • Two to four times more likely to be treated for an injury from a fight. 
  • Two to four times more likely to be sexually assaulted. 
  • Three to four times more likely to attempt suicide.

 

In a 2007 National Climate Survey conducted in Chicago by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network:

 

Among 6,209 students ages 13-21:

  • 86.2 percent of LGBT students report verbal harassment at school.
  • 60.8 percent of LGBT students said they felt unsafeat school.
  • 32.7 percent of LGBT students said they skipped a day of school because they felt unsafe at school.
  • 44.1 percent of LGBT students reported being physically harassed.
  • 22.1 percent of LGBT students reported being physically assaulted.

 

Illinois Issues, April 2009