While most school districts around the country have non-discrimination policies to safeguard their students, Madison Metropolitan School District in Madison, Wisconsin goes a step further. Its policy also covers students’ gender identity and expression as protected rights. But transforming protections into practice can be difficult, and educators wanted a way to ensure that the policy was duly enforced for all students.
“A lot of school districts don’t have [gender identity protections], but that was in our non-discrimination policy,” says Liz Lusk, a school social worker who now works for the district coordinating GLBTQ programs. “So we had the policy, but we didn’t know how to make it a reality in school culture.”
The school district turned towards a national program of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation for help. The “Welcoming Schools” project works with elementary and middle schools to transform classrooms into safe, bully-free spaces for all students, including those for different gender expressions. For the past year, Welcoming Schools, along with a San Francisco-based organization, Gender Spectrum, has been providing training and technical assistance for Madison schools.
“Welcoming Schools was developed by a group of educators, parents and school administrators in the Boston area,” says Kim Westheimer, Director of the Welcoming Schools project at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. “This group originally came together to develop a resource for elementary schools that would be inclusive of the diversity of families in schools, including families with same-sex parents.”
In 2007, the grassroots group behind the Welcoming Schools movement merged its efforts with the Human Rights Campaign Foundation (HRC), the nation’s largest civil rights organization devoted to equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans. That year, HRC piloted the first round of Welcoming Schools in 11 different schools across the country. When educators reported that the project had helped improve the schools’ climates and helped foster better student interactions, it became clear the HRC was onto something with Welcoming Schools.
“Welcoming Schools is so important because all children deserve to attend schools where they feel valued,” says Westheimer. “Research, as well as common sense, tells us that children who feel valued and connected to their school are better able to learn. Welcoming Schools gives schools resources to help students appreciate what they have in common while celebrating their differences.”
The Welcoming Schools project is currently being implemented in 203 schools across 19 states, and that number is set to rise in the new school year. In this past year alone, 8,500 people—mostly educators and school administrators—attended 210 Welcoming Schools trainings, presentations and outreach events across the country.
As the project grew in its national scope, it soon caught the attention of the Madison school district. This past year, district teachers and administrators formed a partnership with the project and officially began implementing aspects of its program into school curriculums. The results, Lusk says, were superb.
“I honestly believe that it’s been lifesaving for some of the kids and their families. It’s just made an enormous difference in terms of how safe they feel at school, and that they’re just fine to come to school just the way they are.”
Welcoming Schools implements a bottom-up approach, meaning that the project starts when kids are young, and focuses on transforming elementary school students by working closely with their teachers. At the start of this school year, teachers and educators from elementary and middle schools in the Madison school district attended training sessions with regional staff from Welcoming Schools and Gender Spectrum. By implementing curriculum ideas, administrative approaches, and discussing ways for educators to deal with issues, the Welcoming Schools staff helped educators handle bullying and classroom-ostracizing behaviors with a greater sense of understanding.
“The real goal is to provide an inclusive environment for all our students,” Lusk says. “From the hallways to the classrooms, we want to make people feel comfortable inside the schools. The lessons are really positive. How do we make everyone welcome in our space? It’s really flipped over and focused in that direction.”
Currently, six schools—four elementary schools and two middle schools—in the Madison school district are working with the program, but Lusk believes that many more schools will embrace the project next year as the program continues to evolve. One teacher in the district won and received a grant to buy Rainbow books, culled from a list of suggested books on the Welcoming Schools website, for every elementary school library in the district. Books like Luna, And Tango Makes Three, The Daddy Machine, The Manny Hours, and others are now available to better acclimate students to issues of gender identity and sexual orientation.
But while the program takes a GLBT focus, the real goal is ensuring that all students—regardless of race, gender, orientation, and religion—can feel safe at school and grow into the type of individuals that they truly want to be.
“It’s not just around GLBT,” says Lusk. “That’s what’s really nice about Welcoming Schools. It’s about creating a place where people who have been discriminated against can feel safe.”
With its focus on protecting all types of students in schools, Lusk believes that the district’s continued partnership with Welcoming Schools will continue to pay dividends in the future, ensuring that all students are blanketed in a safe, protective environment.
“We have tons of things that we’re working on in the district,” she says, “but it’s really important for us to put this in among all our other district initiatives.”