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Gay high school planned
by Amy Wooten

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An LGBTQA Chicago Public Schools ( CPS ) high school has been proposed and, if given the green light, the school would join the likes of New York's Harvey Milk High School in becoming a national model in providing a welcoming, safe education for queer and questioning youth and their allies.

The Greater Lawndale Little Village School for Social Justice submitted the proposal to the CPS Office of New Schools for a Social Justice High School-Pride Campus. This project has been in the works since spring of this year. If approved, Pride Campus, a voluntary public high school that would implement a college prep curriculum in all subject areas, would open in 2010. It would serve LGBTQA ( lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, questioning and allied ) students from all over the city.

CPS will announce its decision by the end of October. Until then, a CPS community hearing will be held Sept. 18 at the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted. There, the public can learn more about the proposed school.

Bill Greaves, director and community liaison of the City of Chicago Commission on Human Relations' Advisory Council on LGBT Issues and a member of the proposed school's design team, told Windy City Times that the community forum will be the 'last hurdle' in the process. The CPS Office of New Schools has already twice interviewed the design team, made up of veteran teachers and administrators, a member of About Face Theater, CPS Office of Student Development staff and others. On Aug. 26, the delegate principal, Chad Weiden ( the current assistant principal at the Greater Lawndale Little Village School for Social Justice ) , was interviewed.

A location for the Pride Campus has not yet been chosen, and the team has pledged to work with CPS in finding an appropriate location.

Greaves said the design team is currently looking at several locations, but it is his 'personal hope' that the campus will be centrally located, such as the South or West Loop area, so that students can have equal access to it from all parts of the city and come and go safely. Greaves said that his model is Jones College Preparatory High School in the South Loop, which has the largest GSA ( gay-straight alliance ) in the city, in large part because of its location.

Those involved in the process have made it clear that they believe such a school is a necessary option for LGBTQ youth and their allies to have, but certainly not the only solution when it comes to making CPS schools safer.

'I think it's important this isn't seen as a sole solution to LGBT inclusion in CPS schools, but one of many solutions,' said Joe Hollendoner, director of Broadway Youth Center. Hollendoner is a member of the proposed project's advisory board, which includes several key members of the local LGBT community as well as the executive director of New York's Hetrick-Martin Institute, which is home of the Harvey Milk High School.

Harvey Milk is a voluntary public high school in New York. It's open to all students, but is a safe haven for LGBTQA students, especially those who are at-risk and have experienced extreme levels of violence and harassment. A majority of the students are African-American or Latino. The school was founded in 1985, but opened as a public high school administered by the New York City Department of Education in 2003.

A 2006 report by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network ( GLSEN ) found that 35 percent of Illinois students reported that sexual orientation is the most common reason students are harassed or bullied at school. Nearly the same number of Illinois students said the same for gender identity.

In the same report, almost 75 percent of Illinois students said they heard other students make anti-gay remarks, such as 'faggot,' and 83 percent reported hearing phrases such as 'that's so gay' or 'you're gay.'

Other studies have found that LGBTQ students are more likely to miss school because they feel unsafe and are more likely to report physical violence than their heterosexual counterparts. LGBT students are also more likely to report attempting suicide.

According to Hollendoner, even though CPS and others have tried to improve Chicago schools for LGBTQ students over the years, not all students experience a welcoming and safe environment. For example, 50 LGBTQ youth have enrolled in BYC's general educational development program since last year. Many of these youth dropped out of school because of the violence they faced.

'We are happy to provide that opportunity, but it's a sad state of affairs when these kids are so afraid that they drop out,' Hollendoner said.

Hollendoner praised CPS for all the work it has done to help improve school life for LGBTQ students, but believes an LGBT high school is a necessary 'structural intervention.'

'Here at BYC, we hear stories from youth of how horrendous their school experience is,' Hollendoner said.

He wants CPS and the community to continue its hard work of ensuring LGBTQ students are safe, and sees the proposed school as really being an opportunity for youth who have dropped out or face extreme violence.

Those involved in the process believe that not all people, even within the local LGBT community, will support such an endeavor. When New York's Harvey Milk High School came to be, there were individuals, even in the LGBT community, who thought that the school was a form of segregation.

Hollendoner disagrees, and sees the proposed school as one of many options Chicago LGBTQ students and their allies should have access to.

'I think it will benefit queer and straight students alike, as well,' Hollendoner added.

Greaves also feels that an LGBT high school is a necessary option for students.

'I feel that this is not an either/or situation, but an additional resource for students in our community,' Greaves told Windy City Times. He said that the Pride Campus could become an alternative for students who feel isolated at their current school.

'We don't look to this as an alternative to CPS making all schools safe,' Greaves said. 'In fact, we hope this venue will further the process by providing a venue where policy and practices supportive of LGBTQA students can be formulated and spread throughout the rest of Chicago Public Schools. Those practices and policies would be put in place by the participation of LGBTQA students.'

Greaves added that ideally, the school would not be specifically for LGBT students, but parents and allies, as well. He said that they envision enrollment to mirror participation in About Face Youth Theatre, which is about 40 percent LGBTQ and 60 percent straight. In fact, About Face Theatre's education director, Paula Gilovich, is also a member of the school's design team.

Stacey Horn, board chair of the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance ( ISSA ) , said that her organization commends CPS for its non-discrimination policy and support for GSAs, but there is still more work that can be done so Illinois can really become a model state. 'We are committed to systemic change,' Horn said. 'We hope CPS will continue towards systemic change, along the line of the path they are on now.' Included in this change are policy, curriculum development and teacher training. ISSA also advocates a statewide safe school policy.

The CPS community hearing is Thursday, Sept. 18, 6-8 p.m., at the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted.

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