HRC Blog

Back to School: The Impact of Welcoming Schools

This is the second post in our Welcoming Schools “Back to School” blog series. Welcoming Schools, a project of the HRC Foundation, offers administrators, educators and parents/guardians the tools they need to ensure their elementary schools welcome all students and families. With LGBT-inclusive resources on embracing family diversity, avoiding gender stereotyping and ending bullying and name-calling, Welcoming Schools is a first-of-its-kind approach to these topics for K-5 learning environments. This post comes from Kim Westheimer, HRC’s director of Welcoming Schools.

The Welcoming Schools Guide was piloted in districts in three states:  California, Minnesota and Massachusetts. When I tell someone from Massachusetts that New Bedford was one of the first districts that piloted Welcoming Schools, I often get a quizzical look - a look that reads, “New Bedford?  Why not Boston, Cambridge or some suburb with a reputation for liberal politics?”  New Bedford - a city with a population of just under 100,000 - is known for its fishing and manufacturing industry.  For another point of reference about New Bedford, English teachers like to talk about New Bedford as the place where the narrator of Moby Dick began his ill-fated voyage. I first had contact with schools in New Bedford when I worked for the Massachusetts Department of Education in the early 1990s.  At that time, I met Matt Riley, who was then in charge of health programs in New Bedford’s mammoth high school.  He struck me as a man who was committed to doing what’s best for students and for the community – even if it meant going out on the limb with controversial issues. 

Now, as a principal of one of the Welcoming Schools pilots, Matt and many others have shown me that New Bedford is a perfect place for Welcoming Schools. Many in New Bedford are proud of efforts that have taken place in the city to make it more inclusive for immigrants, LGBT people and all who live there. They’ll say there is still much more to do, but there is pride in community institutions: civic, arts and religious organizations. There is a strong activist community that fought for marriage equality in Massachusetts. So it’s not surprising that when a teenager from New Bedford committed a violent anti-gay hate crime in 2006, the town mobilized to address anti-LGBT violence in the community at large and in schools in particular. A task force was formed that included high level school district administrators, educators, civic leaders and community activists. Three elementary school principals, including Matt, attended these meetings and sought out Welcoming Schools as a means to create safer learning environments for students. The schools run by these principals included families that were diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and family structure. The principals all had deep roots in the community – two of them were born and raised in New Bedford.

Now nearly five years since that incident and after three years of the Welcoming Schools pilot, I decided to get Matt’s perspective on the need for and the impact of Welcoming Schools:  

What made you think that Welcoming Schools would be valuable for your school?   My thing was, “How do we make kids feel as though they won’t be judged – regardless of what’s going on in their family?” Kids come to school and 99.9% know that their parents love them. I don’t think it matters who their parents are, they can be two men, two women, a mother and a father, traditional or non- traditional. When kids come to school I have to take off their plate how others will perceive them because of their family constellation . . . Our responsibility is to create an environment where all kids are appreciated. We will nurture [students] socially and academically. We will show and demonstrate that we care about [them]. I’ve had some cases where kids are embarrassed; they won’t invite friends over because their grandparents don’t speak English. Kids use that to taunt them – also in situations of foster care or being adopted. I have a kindergartner with two grandmoms who goes to their house after school. So for us I thought it was important that we at least have discussions with kids in schools that these are now some of the typical family constellations we see and if you live in any of these you are normal.  

How do these issues affect a student’s ability to learn?   A 4th grade child was coming to school here who had to live with his grandparents because his parents couldn’t take care of him. He was embarrassed to tell everyone that was where he was living. He was struggling with, “How do I tell people that I have to live here because my parents can no longer take care of me?” And his grandmother didn’t speak English. It consumed him; he was unable to deal with his academic life because his social setting was so out of control for him. You never know what’s going to be in the way of a child learning. You want to make sure you provide an opportunity for them to talk to you about what is concerning them. When we can talk to them about things that are considered controversial by society, they will understand that anything is open for conversation. I always say [to my staff] at the beginning of the year we have an agenda. We have these standards that we need to have kids meet in order to be promoted to the next grade level. In order to accomplish that we understand their agenda, which doesn’t always include academics, but will include all of the social pieces that complicate their lives.

Have you had situations where students have been targeted because they aren’t fitting into narrow gender roles? Not this year so far.  Last year I had a situation where there were some 5th grade boys were not being very kind to another boy who was not athletic and was an amazing artist. I said, “You guys are good athletes . . . Have you ever looked at this boy’s artwork? He doesn’t make fun of you because you can’t draw. If you would learn to appreciate his strengths when you do a really difficult school project he can help you out.” The situation changed. This boy also had lots of support from girls in the class who loved to hang out with him.  

How has Welcoming Schools helped your school in relation to family diversity and gender?   The Welcoming Schools training helped teachers become more comfortable and confident . . .they are now willing to have ongoing discussions. Simply the fact that we are talking about this allows kids to know that if they ever had a situation they can talk to adults about it. If you broach the topic with kids they’ll feel it’s ok to talk about it.   In the case of staff, [it’s been helpful to] raise their awareness about the fact that kids do struggle with these issues. I’m hoping that when we share this info with teachers even though it might not be in their own value systems, that they won’t judge people, that they are open to the circumstances under which children are living.

I’ve heard you talk about growing up Catholic and being an alter boy when you were young. Has using LGBT-inclusive materials been a conflict for you? If the idea of spirituality is to treat everyone as you want to be treated then I want to stay with that. I don’t want beliefs that someone’s behavior is a sin or wrong to get in the way of making this school safe. I think that people have a certain set of skills and things to offer that can make a community a great place to live. I don’t think their sexual orientation should influence those contributions.

What advice would you have for another principal who wants to implement Welcoming Schools?   With Welcoming Schools there has been dialogue at the school level, at the task force level, the individual level and the community levels. In the process [of implementing Welcoming Schools], allowing for dialogue is extremely important –it allows for people to get accurate information and clear up misperceptions about the entire project. This is about making schools safe, about making schools a welcoming place, about making kids welcome, regardless of what’s going on in their lives.

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