Welcoming Schools is a project of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. It is a “comprehensive approach to improve elementary school climate with tools and resources to embrace family diversity, avoid gender stereotyping and affirming gender, and end bullying and name calling”. It offers resources to “support students who don’t conform to gender norms.” It claims it is “the only resource of its kind that is LGBT-inclusive”.
According to their website, Welcoming Schools was “initiated by a group of parents and educators to meet the needs of students whose family structures are not well represented or included in school environments”. A quick review of the national directors and founders confirms there was indeed a great deal of personal self interest involved in its founding. Many of the national advisory board member bios detail extensive work and advocacy for LGBT concerns at local, state and national levels. There is a fair amount of cross pollination with the National Education Association and Southern Poverty Law Center. Many mention their partners. One evidently felt it necessary to mention her son exhibits “gender variance characteristics”.
On Friday, May 2, 2014, Welcoming Schools held its inaugural Seal of Excellence Ceremony and screening of their film “What can we Do? Bias, Bullying and Bystanders” at the J.J. Hill Montessori School in St. Paul, MN. What can we Do was filmed at J.J. Hill and Hiawatha Leadership Academy and featured teachers using some of Welcoming Schools lesson plans for the first time in their classrooms. The audience consisted primarily of the children in the film and their parents along with the honored guests. The kids were especially excited to see themselves on the big screen…and were repeatedly referred to as ‘movie stars now’.
Welcoming Schools recognized eleven schools and school districts for their work in “engaging entire school communities to create welcoming, inclusive schools”. Honorees hailed from Minnesota, Washington, California, Texas and Florida.
St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman was the first guest to speak. He said schools that celebrate diversity and welcome all students are the “most successful” and “safe” environments. Schools that do not; “exclude” and “hate”. They “suffer”. He was especially pleased with the timing of this event as it came on the heels of marriage equality legislation being passed in MN and the “global recognition” St. Paul received when he transformed the Wabasha Bridge into the Freedom to Marry Bridge for a night…two things of which he was very proud.
MN Senator Scott Dibble, introduced as a “champion for schools and students” spoke about his work and support for the recently passed Safe and Supportive Schools Act in MN. His desire is for “all [schools] to aspire to be welcoming schools”. He said the brouhaha over the piloting work in St. Paul, hasn’t died down, but hopes that “all” schools will adopt the Anti bullying Policy prescribed in the SS Act. He believes it fulfills the vision of the Governor’s Task Force against bullying. The “entire community” must be engaged and the movement will be led by “young people”.
Midway through the evening, students were given a chance to highlight some of their work related to Welcoming Schools activities. A 5th grade lad shared his report for the upcoming Peace Day. He wrote about Harvey Milk; crediting him for “paving the way for equal rights” as the first openly gay politician in San Francisco.
Next a darling group of 5th grade girls belonging to a group called the Racial Equality Committee or REC, shared the results of their “sexism and racism” survey of their peers. They were “shocked”…. “shocked!” to have found very little racism among their 180 classmates…. (which merely confirms the general climate of things in the US despite what our current administration would have us believe). However, they were equally “shocked” by the high levels of sexism after learning many kids have been subjected to “rude remarks”, have been “excluded”, or “left out” in the lunchroom. I noted they were careful to refer to the respondents in a gender neutral fashion. They concluded these sorts of experiences “make you feel bad because of how you’ve been born”. I couldn’t help but wonder perhaps it’s just because in 5th grade, boys pretty much think girls have cooties….and vice versa.
The Midwest Regional Director for Welcoming Schools, Cheryl Greene later described how a school attains the “Seal of Excellence”. (Her bio notes she lives in the Twin Cities with her wife and children).
According to Greene, schools receive a Seal of Excellence based upon their successful implementation of four key measures:
- Leadership Development Team in the school
- Level of professional development in the school
This professional development was described earlier by Heidi Johnson from Hiawatha Leadership Academy. She said they have partnered with Welcoming Schools to help their teachers and leaders “unpack their own biases before talking with kids”. Welcoming Schools utilizes S.E.E.D. seminars to “go deeper” with adults. Each school must have a Welcoming School Committee, and they use Welcoming Schools provided resources. So far, HLA has taught 12 Welcoming Schools lessons. According to the Welcoming Schools website, they “offer professional development tools, lessons aligned with the Common Core State Standards, and many additional resources for elementary schools.”
- Level of family engagement- an on-going use of inclusive lesson plans
- Level of on-going evaluation
Curiously, an actual and measurable reduction in rates of bullying was not a key measure.
At the end of the night, the Seal of Excellence Schools were recognized and awarded their posters. It was probably unremarkable that several Berkeley CA schools including an entire Berkeley district won the award.
Four MN schools were recognized:
- Carver Elementary in Maplewood, for their 2 year pilot program, “gender expansive” classrooms, and bullying rates that have dropped 40%.
- Castle Elementary in St. Paul, which started two years ago and has “diversity inclusion everywhere”.
- J.J. Hill- specifically for their training of faculty and non-faculty, anti racism efforts and content specific gender and LBGT training.
The evening concluded with some 5th grade students singing True Colors.
Clearly, Welcoming Schools has an agenda. They are aggressively working to normalize and affirm LGBTQ lifestyles, and to erase the traditional understanding of gender and gender roles in our elementary aged children. There is a high level of emphasis geared toward changing their values and attitudes and creating in them the belief that gender is not biological but psychological in nature….it’s whatever or whomever they think or feel they are at the moment. Evidently, mirrors lie and it is no longer natural for boys to gravitate toward ‘boy’ things or for girls to gravitate toward more feminine interests. Apparently, their natural bents are no longer ‘natural’ and must be reshaped and reinterpreted.
They are teaching kids to be advocates and agitators for these issues as well. The Welcoming School climate encourages students to look for conflict and concerns where they don’t really exist. Only a program like this would call common playground responses sexist. Why should 5th graders be looking for sexism anyway? Why do we want them concerned with this?
Our family has always instructed our kids to step in and not be bystanders if they ever saw another being bullied, but Welcoming Students blurs the line between real and perceived bullying. If we are going to start calling elementary boys and girls natural tendencies to sit with their buddies at lunch “sexism”, then Welcoming Schools diminishes the real and serious nature of true sexism and racism.
Respectfully submitted by: Julie Quist