Out and proud

At LGBT conference, a push for student leadership

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students from Aurora's Rangeview High School ate lunch during a break at a weekend gathering of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and straight youth. The annual event hosted by LGBT advocacy organization One Colorado focused on student leadership.

Natasha Fircher’s Gay-Straight Alliance helped her come out to her parents.

The same student organization at Rangeview High School in Aurora stopped Odessey Granger from hurting herself.

And if it wasn’t for the safe place the GSA provides Torrell Jackson, the leader of the organization, he believes he’d fall into self-destructive patterns, get in trouble, and break the law.

“The GSA teaches you, you can turn to other people,” Jackson told Chalkbeat Colorado last week during One Colorado’s fourth annual GSA Leadership Summit.

The daylong workshop at the Auraria Campus, hosted by the state’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocacy organization, aimed to build relationships among the state’s various gay-straight alliances. More than 150 middle school, high school, and college students gathered to learn, share ideas, and brainstorm how to improve their own school-based organizations.

In particular, this year organizers hope students left with the skills necessary to organize and campaign to run for a student leadership position.

For LGBT students, showing up to school, let alone running for an elected office, can be a difficult task with additional roadblocks. Advocates believe, and students profess, GSAs help students overcome those social and emotional obstacles to perform better in school. Now, One Colorado hopes the organizations can develop good students and active leaders.

“I was very nervous,” said Drew Turley, the Community College of Denver’s student body president, referring to his own campaign during a  lunch work session. “I had conversations with members of all the different communities on campus — all I ever got was encouragement.”

Commerece City Democrat State Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, the youngest state senator and one of eight openly LGBT lawmakers in the General Assembly, told participants he and his family still get “funny looks” from constituents.

“We’re different than straight folks,” he said. “That’s OK. You shouldn’t be terrified to ask for support.”

As part of the summit, One Colorado is offering small grants to students who want to run for an elected office.

“We hope the summit allows students to have the platform to develop into the people they want to become and to be able to contribute to their community,” said Lauren Cikara, One Colorado’s safe schools manager.

In her role, Cikara coordinates services for more than 100 GSAs across the state. She also carefully monitors school districts and their anti-bullying policies.

Lauren Cikara on why GSAs are important

Colorado’s General Assembly in 2011 passed one of the most progressive anti-school bullying laws in the nation.

The new law, Cikara said, provides teachers and school administrators the ability to stop bullying and hopefully turn the situation into a teachable moment.

Coupled with the state’s existing nondiscrimination laws that include sexual orientation and gender presentation, Colorado is often considered on the forefront of such policies.

“It all goes hand in hand,” Cikara said.

But as of the end of the 2013-14 school year, only 64 percent of school districts have updated their own guidelines to become compliant with state law.

While rural Colorado schools make up the lion’s share of districts that have not updated their polices, several school districts along the front range still lag behind, Cikara said.

Denver Public Schools, for instance, only updated their policies last school year. Separately, the Denver school system has expanded its GSA network from eight in 2011 to 40 this school year. According to Paula Keenan, who leads the district’s LGBT task force, 22,000 Denver students have access to a GSA.

“For the first time we have momentum in the middle schools,” Keenan said during a discussion of making schools more inclusive.

Students who participated in the same discussion encouraged teachers to make their curriculum and lessons more inclusive.

“Teachers’ lessons are more heteronormative than you think,”  a student said. “All queer kids see during school is examples of straight couples. It would be so awesome if some examples on homework included same-sex couples. Teachers just don’t understand how LGBT students feel.”

Torrell Jackson on what his GSA is doing this school year

Poverty in America

A Memphis woman’s tragic death prompts reflection: Could vacant schools help fight homelessness?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Graves Elementary School in South Memphis has been boarded up since its closure in 2014. It's one of 10 vacant school buildings in the city.

The death of a Memphis woman sleeping on a bench across from City Hall in frigid temperatures unleashed a furor of frustration this week across social media.

As Memphians speculated how someone could freeze to death in such a public place, some pointed to limited public transportation, one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and entry fees to homeless shelters. The discussion yielded one intriguing suggestion:

About 650 Memphis students were considered homeless during the 2015-16 school year, meaning their families either were on the streets, living in cars or motels, or doubling up with friends and relatives.

At the same time, Shelby County Schools has an adequate supply of buildings. The district had 10 vacant structures last fall after shuttering more than 20 schools since 2012, with more closures expected in the next few years.

But what would need to happen for schools to become a tool against homelessness? Some cities already have already begun to tap that inventory.

Shelby County Schools has been eager to get out of the real estate business, though it’s not exactly giving away its aging buildings. In 2016, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the school system should “repurpose some of these buildings and … anchor some of these communities and rebuild and refurbish these communities instead of tearing stuff down.” The conversation was part of Memphis 3.0, the city’s first strategic plan since 1981 to guide growth for years to come.

District policy allows for “adaptive reuse” to lease vacant buildings for community development including affordable housing, community centers, libraries, community gardens, or businesses. A change requires a community needs assessment and input from neighborhood leaders and organizations before the school board can vote on a recommendation.

But proposals to transform schools into housing haven’t emerged in Memphis.

The Memphis Housing Authority, which oversees federal dollars for housing development, has a two-year exclusive right to purchase two former schools near downtown. But talk has focused on using that space for an early childhood center, not housing, according to High Ground News.

Under state law, districts must give charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded, serious consideration to take over a closed building.

That has happened for some Memphis schools, but high maintenance costs for the old buildings are a major deterrent. They also present a significant challenge for any entity looking to convert a structure into a homeless shelter or affordable housing.

Of the district’s 10 empty school buildings, most have a relatively low “facility condition index,” or FCI rate, which measures the maintenance and repair costs against the current replacement cost. The higher the number, the less cost-effective.

*as of October 2017

The idea to turn vacant school buildings into livable space is not new. Across the nation, some communities have found workable solutions to address the excess real estate.

In Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization transformed an empty four-story elementary school that was frequented by trespassers and drug users into housing for 37 homeless veterans and low-income seniors. The $14 million project, led by Help USA, took advantage of federal dollars set aside to house homeless veterans.

Last summer, leaders in Daytona Beach, Florida, pitched in $3.5 million in public funds to help a local nonprofit convert an elementary school into a homeless shelter. Despite pushback from neighborhood residents, the plan secured a unanimous vote from its county council.

In Denver, school officials proposed turning an elementary school into affordable housing for teachers to combat expensive living costs and rapid gentrification. That idea is still up in the air, with some residents lobbying to reopen the building as a school.

Detroit is riddled with empty school buildings. Developers there are buying up properties to repurpose for residential use as they wait to see what the market will bear. The city’s private Catholic schools have seen more success in transforming old buildings into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building because they are smaller, easier to renovate, and don’t have the same deed restrictions as public schools.

The same appears to be true in Baltimore, where a nonprofit group converted a 25,000-square-foot Catholic school into housing for women and children. The $6 million project, completed last month, uses federal housing vouchers to subsidize rent.

In Memphis, the community is still assessing what resources need to be tapped in response to this week’s tragic death.

“Simply dismissing this as a tragedy will only allow us to continue to absolve ourselves from the apathy and selfishness that allow people to go unseen,” said the Rev. Lisa Anderson, a Cumberland Presbyterian pastor who is executive director of the city’s Room in the Inn ministry.

academic insurance

Children’s Health Insurance Program is on the brink. Here’s why that matters for education

The fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program is in Congress’s hands — and children’s education, not just their health, may be at stake.

Congress passed a temporary extension of funding for of CHIP in December, through some states will run out of money shortly. The end of the program would come with obvious potential consequences, as CHIP, which covers approximately 9 million children, gives participants more access to health and dental care.

There may also be a less obvious result: Research has found that access to health insurance helps kids perform better on tests and stay in school longer.

A 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources, found that expanding Medicaid in the 1980s and 1990s increased students’ likelihood of completing high school and college.

“Our results indicate that the long-run benefits of public health insurance are substantial,” the researchers wrote.

Similarly, an earlier paper shows that broadening access to Medicaid or CHIP led to increases in student achievement.

“We find evidence that test scores in reading, but not math, increased for those children affected at birth by the increase in health insurance eligibility,” researchers Phillip Levine and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach wrote.

In short, research suggests that when kids are healthier, they do better in school. That’s in line with common sense, as well as studies showing that children benefit academically when their families have access to direct anti-poverty programs like the earned income tax credit or cash benefits.

(Even if CHIP ends, affected children might still have access to subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act or other means. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that will be more costly in the long run.)

Congress appears likely to vote on a bill this week that includes a six-year CHIP extension, as as well as a temporary spending measure to avoid a federal government shutdown.