This story was cross-posted with permission from NEA Today and its author, Edward Graham.

While most school districts around the country have non-discrimination policies to safeguard their students, Madison Metropolitan School District in Madison, Wisconsin goes a step further. Its policy also covers students’ gender identity and expression as protected rights. But transforming protections into practice can be difficult, and educators wanted a way to ensure that the policy was duly enforced for all students.

“A lot of school districts don’t have [gender identity protections], but that was in our non-discrimination policy,” says Liz Lusk, a school social worker who now works for the district coordinating GLBTQ programs. “So we had the policy, but we didn’t know how to make it a reality in school culture.”

The school district turned towards a national program of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation for help. The “Welcoming Schools” project works with elementary and middle schools to transform classrooms into safe, bully-free spaces for all students, including those for different gender expressions. For the past year, Welcoming Schools, along with a San Francisco-based organization, Gender Spectrum, has been providing training and technical assistance for Madison schools.

“Welcoming Schools was developed by a group of educators, parents and school administrators in the Boston area,” says Kim Westheimer, Director of the Welcoming Schools project at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. “This group originally came together to develop a resource for elementary schools that would be inclusive of the diversity of families in schools, including families with same-sex parents.”

In 2007, the grassroots group behind the Welcoming Schools movement merged its efforts with the Human Rights Campaign Foundation (HRC), the nation’s largest civil rights organization devoted to equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans. That year, HRC piloted the first round of Welcoming Schools in 11 different schools across the country. When educators reported that the project had helped improve the schools’ climates and helped foster better student interactions, it became clear the HRC was onto something with Welcoming Schools.

“Welcoming Schools is so important because all children deserve to attend schools where they feel valued,” says Westheimer. “Research, as well as common sense, tells us that children who feel valued and connected to their school are better able to learn.  Welcoming Schools gives schools resources to help students appreciate what they have in common while celebrating their differences.”

You can read the rest of this post and the find out how the District used the Welcoming Schools program at NEA Today.

Welcoming Schools is a project of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation that offers tools, lessons and resources on embracing family diversity, avoiding gender stereotyping and ending bullying and name-calling in elementary schools.

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