Working to foster an LGBTQ-friendly environment in high school

Nearly all the staff at Kensington Health Sciences Academy attended the "Queering the Classroom" workshop.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Rose West was always honest when her students asked her a simple question: “Ms. Rose, who’s your husband?”

“Just letting y’all know – I’m gay,” West would respond. “I’m married to a woman, you know, I’m happily married. … I’m still Ms. Rose. I’m still the same person.”

When she asked her students how they felt about that revelation, they opened up and shared stories about their LGBTQ family members. One student sought West’s advice about what to do if a brother was beaten up for being gay.

West, a classroom assistant for special education students at Kensington Health Sciences Academy, is part of a team that aims to foster a LGBTQ-friendly campus climate. She co-founded “Love for All” last year, the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance open to staff and students of all sexual and gender identities.

Last week, West and her colleagues participated in a workshop titled “Queering the Classroom Through Everyday Actions” as part of their back-to-school training at KHSA. From teachers to paraprofessionals and maintenance staff, almost all of the school’s employees attended.

English teacher Maddie Luebbert led the session. Having grappled with their own gender identity, Luebbert hoped to “give educators some tips on how to make [the school] a more welcoming and supportive environment for LGBTQ students.”

During the workshop, Luebbert outlined three strategies that educators could use in the classroom: “The first is to interrupt and correct any homophobic or anti-queer language any time you hear it.

“The second is to introduce LGBTQ people or topics in your curriculum as early and often as you can. And the third is to not be afraid of taking risks with students by sharing stories or answering questions.”

KHSA was one of the schools that Superintendent William Hite was scheduled to visit Monday for the first day of school, along with the city’s chief education officer, Otis Hackney. One of the city’s 12 community schools, KHSA has a focus on social justice in health care.

In an interview after the workshop, participants shared ideas about how to create a better school environment for exploring issues of gender and sexuality. Paul Prescod, a social studies teacher, plans to include discussions on the evolution of gender in his history classes.

“I’m teaching world history, so we could incorporate that as how different cultures in different times view gender so differently and talk about how gender is not just a fixed thing,” he said.

Even small, simple gestures can be significant for young people. Rachel Newman, a social sciences teacher and co-founder of “Love for All,” described her experiences with a student who was unsure about what gender they best identified with.

The student told Newman that “they were on the fence about their gender. … They weren’t particularly comfortable about their assigned gender, but they hadn’t decided if they were going to do anything about it.

“They said, ‘I have one name I use when I’m feeling one way, and one name that I use when I’m feeling another way.’ Newman proposed that she call the student by their first initial for the time being, and the student agreed.

“That’s a little thing that I can do to make their life easier,” she said.

Staff members believe that maintaining an LGBTQ-friendly campus requires ongoing effort and engagement with the entire school community.

After the success of the first workshop, Luebbert hopes to conduct follow-up sessions throughout the school year to keep colleagues up-to-date.

“It’s always something that needs to grow, develop, and be refreshed because the students we teach are always changing,” Luebbert said.

West said that for some students, the school serves as a refuge from a hostile external environment, and so educators need to offer a listening ear.

“I have stayed after school with kids, and I just sit there and talk to them for hours at a time … because I know once they walk out of this door, they’re not going to have that,” she said.

Newman feels that the support she gives her students stems from a deeply personal place – she was once in their shoes.

“We had students last year who were having problems with their parents, one whose mom was telling her that she was wrong in the eyes of God and that she was going to hell,” Newman said. “It was so reminiscent of fights that I had with members of my family.”

West and Newman’s Love for All alliance has big plans for the year ahead. It aims to recruit more students because most of its previous members have graduated. Also on the agenda are a variety of events, including afterschool trips to the William Way LGBT Community Center and tie-dye workshops in time for Philadelphia OutFest, an annual celebration of LGBT identity.

Although the KHSA administration is welcoming toward LGBTQ individuals and their activities, Luebbert says that this is not necessarily true at all schools.

They said that one of their colleagues at another school was “belittled” by the principal for highlighting the District’s policy that allows transgender students to use “restrooms that correspond to their gender identity.”

“On that local level, the experience could be super-negative, uncomfortable, and unsafe,” Luebbert said.

Prescod said that the schools where he previously worked seemed more indifferent, but not outwardly unfriendly, toward LGBTQ individuals as compared to KHSA.

“The administrations I’ve had, they didn’t seem hostile if teachers or students came out, but they didn’t necessarily do anything proactive,” he said.

West and Newman described how Nimet Eren, KHSA principal, has been especially supportive of the LGBTQ community on campus.

“Ms. Eren really has stepped up,” West said. “A situation happened with me and a staff member. I took it straight to the principal. … I was very upset by what [the staff member] said to me and the way they treated me, and [Eren] got right onto it.”

Newman said, “We are extremely lucky in this school. This is now a school where the teachers are encouraged to share [stories about] themselves.”

As more students gain exposure to different forms of identity on social media, Luebbert encouraged educators to talk to them about these differences.

“[Social media] is where kids get a lot of their first taste of different identities,” Luebbert said. “That’s why it’s helpful for adults … to start probing those questions, like ‘What does this mean? What does that mean? Who is this?’”