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Segregation High -- and Lows

Segregation High -- and Lows


The age-old question of assimilation vs. separation hits the Chicago public schools, leaving a proposed high school for gay students lost in the shuffle.

Anyone who says they loved high school is either lying, deluded, or just really, really lucky. But for gay kids who are teased, bullied, abused, and isolated on a daily basis, those four years are more like hell on earth.

Last winter, 15-year-old Lawrence King of Oxnard, Calif., was shot to death by a classmate. And while outright murder is rare, there's still plenty of cruelty to go around. According to a survey released in October by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, almost 90% of LGBT students said they'd been harassed at school during the past year; 60% reported feeling unsafe because of their sexual orientation. These results, the study authors pointed out, have remained basically static since 1999--the first year GLSEN published the survey.

In June, bolstered by these grim statistics, a group of Chicago teachers, administrators, and education experts presented a groundbreaking proposal to the Chicago public school board: A new Pride Campus, affiliated with the existing Social Justice High School, eventually serving 400 to 600 students, would provide a safe and accepting place for LGBT kids and their allies. The public charter school, if approved, would be only the third of its kind in the country, after Milwaukee's Alliance School and New York City's Harvey Milk High School.

The initial reaction was positive, and the proposal moved easily to the next stage of the process: winning the approval of Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan. With his support secured, the proposal faced its final challenge--a referendum before the full school board. And that's when voices began to rise in protest. The gay-friendly mission was too narrow, some said. It was exclusionary, others insisted. Some of the sharpest criticism came from longtime gay activist Rick Garcia of Equality Illinois. "Gay kids aren't the problem," he says. "Teachers and administrators that don't stop the violence are the problem."

Then, a few days before the board was to vote on the matter on November 19, a name change was floated: What if "Pride" were altered to something "Solidarity," for instance. And what if the school included other kids who have been ostracized from the general student population, based on their weight or disability or any other "difference"?

That suggestion was met with anger and frustration from supporters. Shortly thereafter -- less than 24 hours before the board was set to convene -- the Pride/Solidarity proposal was pulled off the table.

Why? According to Shannon Sullivan, executive director of the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, there was "organized opposition to the proposal, which manifested as political pressure on the design team and on the school board members." But David Stovall, professor of educational sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a member of the Pride Campus design team, insists that external pressure didn't sink the plan. The breaking point, he says, came when the school board suggested broadening the school's mission: "It compromised what we set out to do in the first place."

Whatever motivated the Pride/Solidarity switcheroo, let's assume the intention to broaden the school's scope was not nefarious. High school can be a difficult experience for anyone who's even remotely "different," whose life experience doesn't match up to a very restrictive norm.

Does it make sense, then, to provide each of these students, not just the LGBT kids, with an alternative to gigantic schools where teachers and administrators are often so overwhelmed that they can barely keep track of attendance records, much less address the emotional wounds inflicted by students who are either too angry or too ignorant to stop themselves? Or is a school system that separates kids based on ever-finer distinctions simply setting up tiny ghettos of homogeneous philosophies and politics?

Several critics of the Pride/Solidarity proposal, including Chicago mayor Richard Daley, argued that removing kids who are "different" eliminates one of the most celebrated aspects of public school education: exposure to many different opinions and ways of life, which, in turn, ideally leads to the Holy Grail of multiculturalism--tolerance.

But if you ask Tina Owen, the lead teacher and founder of Milwaukee's Alliance School, "tolerance" sets the bar awfully low. "In most schools," Owen says, "GLBT students are fighting for just tolerance." But just tolerance is not enough, she adds: "Here, you get acceptance."

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