Educators and Youth-Serving Professionals Find Hope In HRC Foundation’s Welcoming Schools Program

by Jose Soto

Today’s political and social landscapes are presenting complicated and harsh realities for not only LGBTQ+ students, but the educators and youth-serving professionals entrusted with their personal and educational development. For almost 20 years, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Welcoming Schools program has strived to establish inclusive classroom and learning environments which are affirming of LGBTQ+ identities.

Earlier this year, the program launched its annual report, which outlines the program’s enduring success and impact on educators across the country in support of LGBTQ+ youth from preschool through high school. Through LGBTQ+ professional development trainings designed specifically for those working in education, the program uses an intersectional, anti-racist lens dedicated to providing actionable policies and practices for educators, helping to ensure school communities have access to the critical tools necessary to embrace family diversity, prevent bias-based bullying and support transgender and non-binary students.

One of these educators is Lisa McNeill, an assistant principal at Washington International School in Washington, D.C. McNeill helps lead a staff and faculty which has benefited from our Welcoming Schools trainings.

McNeill’s school started partnering with our Welcoming Schools program back in 2021. Having identified the need for a gender and identity-inclusive policy at her school, McNeill and her school pursued a partnership with Welcoming Schools. Since then, she, along with the school’s principal, Lynda Miller, has been fostering environments that not only support LGBTQ+ students, but also help their educators and youth-serving professionals better support these students as well.

It was about not only establishing a policy, but making it actionable,” said McNeill. After having participated in trainings from our Welcoming Schools program, McNeill said the entire school staff and faculty had an “increased foundational knowledge” on how to handle and address situations involving LGBTQ+ identities and circumstances.

We now have the trainings and the tools to make each of our classrooms inclusive,” said McNeill.

Having those strategies and mindset to create environments where students feel included has been incredibly beneficial. As a [school] community, one of the core values we instill in our students is open-mindedness. Our faculty and staff are bringing with them very different experiences. Having an understanding of these [LGBTQ+] topics that Welcoming Schools brings, being open to it, you can see a cultural shift, you can see people’s wheels turning. You can see that the staff understands the importance of kids seeing themselves reflected back in our school, in our curriculum. You can then see it in the way that the staff and faculty interact and talk with students, something as simple as not saying ‘girls and boys, line up,’ but making it an agreement to even change our language to be more inclusive. We get behind all of these efforts as a school community.

Our Welcoming Schools annual report highlights findings from our National Survey of LGBTQ+ Teens, in partnership with the University of Connecticut, which suggests that 46% of LGBTQ+ youth rarely or never feel safe in one or more school contexts. Furthermore, 62% of LGBTQ+ youth have been bullied at school due to sexual and/or gender identity.

Sustaining the trainings and lessons provided by the Welcoming Schools programs starts with our leaders,” said McNeill. “We’ve been, from the beginning, 100% supportive of the trainings, ensuring that we’re doing our part. It's not something that we simply say we’re doing. It’s about taking what we’re learning and applying it to our classrooms. A huge part of that was transforming our appraisal system. Our core leadership team members are all behind it. It’s at the forefront of their minds as they're thinking about curriculum, about resources. We make it an expectation for everyone [to receive these trainings] and that’s major.

During this year’s state legislation season, over 520 discriminatory state bills were introduced in legislatures across the country – marking the greatest number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced ever.

Many of these state bills focused on curriculum censorship, as is the case with Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” bill which restricts teachers from talking about LGBTQ+ identities and subjects.

More than 100 similar curriculum censorship bills have been introduced across 25 states.

Furthermore, many of these state bills directly target LGBTQ+ youth, namely transgender and non-binary youth, in forms of bathroom regulation bills or sports bans. This, obviously, impacts the personal well-being of many LGBTQ+ youth and potentially stomps their educational development.

Through the Welcoming Schools trainings, McNeill says, she and the leadership team at her school have been able to “empower children and youth to be inquisitive.”

We are consistently encouraging our students to be inquirers,” said McNeill. “To ask questions about what’s happening outside of these walls, in the real world, and what action we can take at the school level and within our communities. Our students don’t live in a bubble. They do hear the news and they do come back with questions.

McNeill credits the Welcoming Schools trainings for helping to better equip the faculty and staff at her school to build “better thinkers” who have the right “research and communication skills” to “shape their communities and the world in a way that reflects how they envision it to be in a very positive and inclusive way.”

Naturally, as it would be with the adult staff and faculty who were not yet familiar with LGBTQ+ identities, McNeill said that many questions have been raised. She assures, however, that at the heart of each discussion are the students and a personal investment to continue learning and growing.

Personally, I feel much more knowledgeable about LGBTQ+ identities, especially in my role as assistant principal,” said McNeill. “I not only feel more comfortable supporting my students, but also my staff — supporting all of them in creating an inclusive community. Welcoming Schools has played a role in that by just being intentional about the importance of this work, why it matters.

The annual report highlights the many developments and successes of the program this year, which serve as a beacon of hope for educators and youth-serving professionals like McNeill, especially amid the discriminatory bills aimed at LGBTQ+ students in certain states.

Even before formally partnering with the Welcoming Schools, just seeing the videos and testimonials about the program, hearing from the students, I feel like there is hope to be taken from that,” said McNeill. “I’m excited and hopeful, but I agree that, sometimes, things do seem bleak, but we’re taking all the steps in the right direction to spread awareness and knowledge. What the Welcoming Schools program also provides is hope that things will get better in time.

Lisa McNeill, Assistant Principal at Washington International School in Washington, D.C.