Boston Leads the Way to Welcoming Schools

Originally published in Bay Windows, November 13, 2007 (which explains the Massachusetts bias). See also this recent article about a similar initiative in Toronto.

Welcoming SchoolsLGBT parents and educators in the Boston area are the source of one of the most comprehensive new resources for making elementary schools across the country more welcoming for all types of families. It started in June of 2004, when Greater Boston PFLAG called a meeting of educators, social workers and parents, and asked them to collect materials K-5 schools could use to teach acceptance and reduce bullying. Out of this came the idea for the Welcoming Schools Guide, an extensive teaching manual and reference. The team then worked for two years to build the Guide, gathering resources from a variety of organizations, individual teachers and parents.

At the same time, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) was conducting an audit of diversity and anti-bullying work being done around the country at the K-5 grade levels, hoping to assist those efforts. In 2006, they invited one of the original members of the Boston group and head of the editing team, Newton mother Kathy Pillsbury, to their own meeting. Ellen Kahn, director of the HRC Family Project, says “What we found is that the Guide really pulled all the pieces together into one place.” Rather than reinvent the wheel, HRC partnered with the Boston group to make the Guide more widely available. HRC took over formal leadership, but with input and guidance from the original members. Pillsbury still leads the editing team.

HRC incorporated further materials and put the Guide through a review by additional educators and diversity specialists. They got well-known children’s-book author Todd Parr to do the illustrations. Now over 300 pages, the Guide covers topics like family diversity, gender stereotyping and name-calling. It offers educators age-appropriate lesson plans as well as ways to handle “teachable moments,” such as when a student says “That’s so gay.” The Guide also offers information on relevant laws and curriculum standards, annotated bibliographies of LGBT-inclusive books and other media, and additional articles on LGBT parenting, gender stereotypes, bullying, welcoming religious resources and more. While the Guide is inclusive of LGBT families, it is careful to put everything into the context of overall acceptance. “A lesson on name-calling,” Pillsbury notes, “is not just about LGBT name-calling, but on name-calling in general. What’s different is that it includes LGBT words.”

Giving teachers and social workers practice in talking about these topics is a critical part of the Guide, adds Pillsbury. “When someone asks ’What does gay mean?’ it can be because they heard it being used as a put-down, or they could say it if they heard somebody’s dad was gay. So ’How’d you hear it?’ is often the first question. Are you going to talk about name-calling or about a dad being gay?”

HRC is working with only a limited number of pilot schools right now to determine how best to implement the Guide. In order not to taint the experience of students or faculty through media attention, they are not revealing names of these schools, though Kahn says they exist across the country, including Massachusetts. Why the slow rollout? Schools need to know the results will be worth their effort, says Kahn. Measurable data will give it “much more traction.” Faculty in the pilot schools will complete a survey, for example, to measure their baseline knowledge of issues covered in the Guide, and do so again at the end of the school year. HRC will also measure student perceptions of various diversity issues, and even look at their art, music, and writing to see if the new ideas are having an effect.

The Welcoming Schools team will work what they learn back into the Guide as the pilot program expands over the next three years. They will also use them to improve the training of local trainers, a key component of the program. Kahn explains that HRC, though national, doesn’t have the personnel to support all the schools wanting to implement the Guide. Instead, they will train local people and organizations to do the hands-on work. HRC will continue to maintain the Guide and its online supplements, as well as market the program and build national relationships to bring it into more schools.

For now, parents and educators can visit the Welcoming Schools Web site (www.welcomingschools.org) to sign up for e-mail updates and download sample materials. If you really feel there is an opportunity to introduce this in your school, Kahn advises reviewing the samples, then assessing the readiness of your school for such a program. Are any high-level administrators or individual teachers thinking about LGBT-inclusive diversity issues? Are there parents, teachers or community leaders who would be allies? Kahn says that if you think you can implement the Guide next school year in the step-by-step way they recommend, contact HRC through the site above, and they can provide some assistance laying the foundation.

While the Guide is meant for educators, Kahn, a mother herself, knows parents will play a central role in making schools aware of it. “That’s part of the reason we’re investing in making sure it’s an excellent resource and has been tested. . . . If parents understand the importance of being a little bit patient, then we’re going to give them something they’re going to feel really good about bringing into their school communities, and be able to back up with the kind of data and justification and endorsement we think is important.” If she’s right, children in Boston—and around the country—will be the better for it.