Proposed ‘Gay High School' Changes Focus

Pride Campus planners never shied away from touting one of Chicago's latest proposed high schools as a haven for gay youth seeking refuge from sometimes hostile traditional classrooms.

But under mounting pressure from ministers and gay activists alike, the name has changed and focus broadened to create a school that would be one of the nation's largest to serve any students who've fallen victim to bullying and harassment.

If approved by the country's third-largest school district Wednesday, the Social Justice Solidarity High School would join several smaller U.S. campuses aimed at serving students who have been tormented for everything from their religious beliefs to their weight.

It's a less explicitly gay version of a plan first presented to Chicago's board of education in October by schools chief Arne Duncan, whose name has been floated as a possible Education Secretary under President-elect Barack Obama. The Social Justice High School: Pride Campus was to open in 2010 and eventually serve 600 students, about half of whom were expected to identify as gay.

The Solidarity plan has the same timeline and enrollment goals, but a different mission.

The Pride Campus mission statement to serve "the underserved population of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning youth and their allies" has been replaced by one that offers protections for students regardless of "orientation," but doesn't mention sexuality.

Instead, Solidarity school aims to address "citywide concerns over violence, bullying and harassment."

The new language echoes the mission statement of Milwaukee's Alliance School, where lead teacher Tina Owen said staff have been successful in attracting -- and protecting -- a wide range of students, from those who identify as "Goth" to teens with disabilities.

"They find it to be a place where they can be themselves," Owen said. "It's a safe place."

But even without a mission statement aimed directly at gay youth, about 60 percent of Alliance School's 125 students identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered.

Not surprising considering students nationwide say sexual orientation and gender identity are two of the top three reasons behind bullying and harassment. Appearance is No. 1, according to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

A 2007 GLSEN survey of more than 6,200 middle and high school students found that 86 percent of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered students experienced harassment in the past year because of their sexual orientation and 60 percent felt unsafe at school.

In the same survey, 33 percent reported skipping a day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe, compared to 4.5 percent of a national sample of secondary school students.

"Harassment is the rule, not the exception, if you're an LGBT student," said Kevin Jennings, founder of the New York City-based GLSEN.

Still, Jennings and others had argued that including language about sexual orientation in the Chicago school's mission statement wouldn't have precluded an inclusive campus.

"This is an education issue, not a political issue, not a gay rights issue," Jennings said. "As a former teacher I can tell you ... a student who doesn't feel safe cannot learn."

Chicago's school board had been slated to vote on the Pride Campus proposal in October, but the vote was delayed as school officials and organizers heard from ministers, gay activists and conservatives opposed to segregating gay students.

"If we're going to have a separate high school, let's put the bullies in the high school, not the (gay) kids," said Rick Garcia, political director for the gay rights group Equality Illinois.

The Rev. Wilfredo De Jesus of New Life Covenant Church on Chicago's West Side said ministers' message to CPS was "don't segregate, tolerate."

"The gay community has fought so long to be inclusive and now you're going to isolate them," De Jesus said. "This is not sending the right message."

Mayor Richard M. Daley didn't support plans for the school. He said last month that it would amount to segregating children.

Other conservative critics argued that gay teens aren't the only ones being bullied and that taxpayer dollars shouldn't be used to provide a one-sided education on such a controversial topic.

"It does require that Arne Duncan and the Board of Education come to some conclusions about the nature and morality of homosexuality, and it calls for the public to subsidize those conclusions," Laurie Higgins, director of the division of school advocacy for the Illinois Family Institute, said of the original Pride Campus proposal.

And while Duncan had given Pride Campus his blessing, even Mayor Richard Daley, a longtime advocate for gay rights, had questioned the wisdom of categorizing students.

"A holistic approach has always been to have children of all different backgrounds ... in schools," Daley said recently.

Officials said Duncan was not available to comment, but Chad Weiden, who would be Solidarity High School's principal, said in a statement that planners have considered all concerns in bringing it to the board Wednesday.

"This would be a public school, and we put it through a public review process to make sure it has the broadest base of support possible," Weiden said.

Meanwhile, teens embraced the idea of being surrounded by sympathetic peers. Fredrick Reid, a 19-year-old CPS alum, said he lost friends after coming out at his South Side high school, but also found true ones.

"All I ask for was respect," Reid said. "Most kids at this new high school will get that respect."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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