May 24, 2018

Affirming Students’ Identities: Supporting LGBTQ+ Students and their Peer and Adult Allies

The LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, and more) Inclusive Schools initiative was one of ten initiatives selected for EdVestors’ 2018 School Solutions Seed Fund cohort.  Five Boston high schools, in partnership with the Boston Public Schools (BPS) Office of Safe & Welcoming Schools, reached out to EdVestors to provide support to both school staff and to students to create more inclusive, welcoming, and safe environments for students identifying as LGBTQ+. The following is an exchange between Alison Stevens, EdVestors’ Senior Director of School-Based Investments, and Danielle Murray, BPS Safe & Welcoming Schools Specialist.

How does the Boston Public Schools’ (BPS) approach to creating LGBTQ+ inclusive schools compare to other districts?

BPS is on the forefront of the work that schools and districts are doing to support and affirm LGBTQ students.  BPS has strong policies to support and affirm all students, and they are pairing that with practices that look at instructional equity for LGBTQ students.

Research from GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) has found that there are four interventions that help create safer school climates for LGBTQ students:

  1. Developing safe and affirming anti-bullying/harassment school policies for LGBTQ students.  BPS leads the way in this area and is consider a national model.
  2. Ensuring students can identify allies in their community.  Through the staff training program called “Out for Safe Schools” teachers in BPS can complete trainings to develop the skills and approaches to support LGBTQ+ students and earn an ally badge.
  3. Ensuring LGBTQ students have access to Gay/Straight (or Gender/Sexuality) Alliances (GSAs).  Thirty-two out of 34 of our high schools have GSAs in high schools, and several middle schools are forming them as well.
  4. Providing LGBTQ youth LGBTQ inclusive curriculum in their classes.  The focal point of this grant from EdVestors is helping schools to expand experiences for students in this area.  The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is among a few states leading the nation in LGBTQ inclusive curriculum. Boston Public Schools is piloting some of the State’s LGBTQ history curriculum units this coming fall and pairing them with professional development opportunities for teachers.

Another initiative that BPS has undertaken is the Welcoming Schools program.  At BPS the Welcoming Schools program provides K-5 educators with professional development, suggested books and classroom activities to support LGBTQ and gender inclusive classrooms.  By beginning these supports in elementary schools, BPS is committed to creating safe and affirming spaces for LGBTQ students at all levels.

How are the five participating high schools approaching the LGBTQ Inclusive Schools professional development opportunity?

All five schools – Another Course to College (ACC), Boston Green Academy, Boston International & Newcomers Academy, Charlestown High, and New Mission High School – went through a process with their Gender-Sexuality Alliance (GSA) advisors and GSA members to identify the needs for professional development in their school.

Schools chose professional development on a range of topics, from building staff’s knowledge of terminology and understanding of gender identity, to providing teachers with LGBTQ+ inclusive curricular materials and teaching guides. One 6th through 12th grade school with an existing high school GSA worked with middle grade teachers to define what a middle school GSA would look like.

In all our schools we saw an enthusiastic response from teachers and educators when given the opportunity to gain more skills for this work, and to have access to resources that deepen the work of LGBTQ inclusivity.  One teacher commented how the professional development “help[ed us] think about how gender and sexuality shape students’ daily experiences in school and in life.”

What are you hearing from students about the impact of this work?

The responses from students have been extremely positive.  In addition to supporting LGBTQ+ students in GSAs, we organized a Summit for all BPS schools in May.  The BPS LGBTQ+ Summit brought 175 students from 25 schools together.  These students came together to find strength in their community and to develop the power in their collective voices.

I had the opportunity to visit with several schools following the Summit, and to hear how important this event was to students across the district.  One seventh grader, whom I vividly remember for his carefree laugh at the Summit, spoke to me a few days later.  He said, “I’ve never felt like that before. I’ve never been in a big group where I could totally be myself.”