Monday, October 13, 2008

GSA Monday Topic: All-Gay Schools - Minority Empowerment or Ghetto Segregation? (part 2)

Harvey Milk High School in New York City
Founded to be a safe space for LGBTQ Youth

Okay, this topic (see last week's post "All-Gay High School or All-Bully High School: What's safer?" here) was so hot and brought up so many issues, that the GSA club I'm involved with ran out of time to talk about it! Everyone seemed to have more to say at the end of round 1, so we're going for round 2!

Two major discussion points brought up at the meeting last week that really needed more time:

1. Wanting to know more about Harvey Milk High School in New York - an All-Gay High School that's actually up and running.

2. Parallels with All-Black schools

So here's some additional info on the Harvey Milk High School to spark discussion this week, from the wikipedia site on them:

The school was founded in 1985 as a small, two-room program with just over a dozen students by HMI in collaboration with the New York City Department of Education's Career Education Center. The Department of Education administers the school and is responsible for admissions. Harvey Milk was created as an alternative education program for youth who find it difficult or impossible to attend their home schools due to threats, violence, or harassment.

Students must themselves apply to transfer to the high school, like other transfer schools in New York City. Approximately 95% of the students are African American or Latino. The school has a 95% graduation rate, far above the state average, and 60% of students attend institutions of higher learning.

Enrollment in 2004 was 110 students in 9th-12th grade.

Here's a few excerpts from the great Question and Answer section on the Hetrick-Martin Institute's website
(they're the non-profit that started the School)

Q: Why can't at-risk children remain in their current schools? Isn't this segregation?

A: These are children that have been in traditional schools, but have needed to leave or have dropped out because of physical violence and/or emotional harm. Thanks to HMHS they have a safe place to learn so that they can graduate with an education, a diploma and their lives ahead of them. Being in a separate space during the school day doesn't mean that these students will never learn how to adjust to the demands of the larger world. Every day they face real-life pressures, including harassment.

It is not segregation to remove a child from a dangerous situation in order to give them a chance to learn safely. HMHS is a successful refuge for a small portion of youth, who have fled unsafe schools in order to secure their right to a safe educational environment; no one is arguing for a totally separate school system.

Q: What kind of educational environment does The Harvey Milk High School provide?

A: HMHS is one of the many NYC small schools, like the Frederick Douglas Academy, the Young Women's Leadership School and the Urban Academy Laboratory School, that provide safety, community and high achievement for students not able to benefit from more traditional school environments.

HMHS uses the same curriculum and graduation standards as any other NYC public high school, with the same Regents and other rigorous tests. HMHS' highly trained educators provide a supportive and safe environment for its students.

Q: How does the secure environment of HMHS prepare children for "the real world"?

A: Every day they face real-life pressures, including harassment. HMHS offers them a chance to learn in a safe environment. Our students graduate and attend advanced programs or college at a higher rate than the NYC public school average.

Q: Are heterosexual students welcome at HMHS?

A: HMHS and The Hetrick-Martin Institute care about the needs of children in crisis and focuses on their educational needs. Admission to HMHS is voluntary and open to all, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or physical abilities.

Q: What about at-risk youth who want to remain in a mainstream environment?

A: Admission to HMHS is voluntary. HMHS focuses on the needs of children who are at-risk and may be subject to extreme levels of violence and harassment. HMHS services only a small portion of the youth population. The vast majority of these youth in the NYC public school system attend their zoned schools.

Q: Don't many children face harassment at school? Should we have special schools for them all?

A: In an ideal world, all children and other students who are considered at-risk would be safely integrated into all NYC public schools - but in the real world, at-risk students need a place like HMHS.

Q: Wouldn't the money be better spent on public schools with anti-harassment programs, trying to teach more tolerance among students towards some of these other kids?

A: HMHS is a practical, safe solution for certain at-risk students subject to extreme levels of violence and harassment. We believe that anti-harassment programs and teaching tolerance in all public schools are important, and that additional funding should be continue to directed to those programs.

I thought the parallels they gave to other "leadership academies" in the school system was really interesting. That's along the lines of a comment last week talking about the idea of All-Black schools being important for African American students to build up their sense of pride and prepare them for the wider world - and yet how maybe that immersion and minority empowerment training is best when it's a short term experience that you then take with you out into the broader school/community...

Another big question that came up was what do the kids that go there think about the school? Check this out, letters from former students at Harvey Milk High School (more letters here), telling about their experience with going to the All-Gay school:

Dear HMI,

I am responding to your “what’s on my mind” section of the website. I remember the first time I walked into The Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI). I was an anxious and scared 15 year-old. I had problems in school and wanted to drop out because I just didn’t feel that school was a comfortable or safe place. At the time, I was constantly being reminded that I was different. HMI provided a space where I could be safe, comfortable, and not have to worry about whether people knew my “secret.” For once, I could just be David. At HMI, I started my journey towards gaining self-esteem and the realization that my goals were attainable.

Eventually, I went to the Harvey Milk School (HMS). At the time, it was a one-room schoolhouse overlooking the Hudson River. The roof would leak and on a winter day the walk from the train station to the school was brutal. But the community we formed at the school, and the encouragement of Mr. G and the other teachers, kept us coming back. I can honestly say that without the Harvey Milk School, I would not have gotten my high school diploma, and I might very well never have dealt with my own sexual identity.

Since HMS, I have graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and worked for six years with various non-profits, particularly doing HIV prevention work and working with gay and lesbian youth in both New York and Los Angeles. Now, I am finishing my first semester of law school at the University of Pennsylvania. I graduated from HMS in 1993, and my hope is to graduate from Penn Law in 2007. I just wanted to say thanks for all the work you guys are doing. I know the work is often hard, and that the material benefits are not always the best (I too am looking forward to a career in the public interest), but the work you do makes a really big difference in many people’s lives.

Thank you,


Dear HMI,

In the spring of 2001, I discovered a place that would inevitably change my life and the way I live it. That place was HMI and HMHS. I came there a confused and scared 16-year old who had the rug, floor and pavement all pulled out from under him in a series of harsh swoops. I was deeply depressed, undergoing major familial deconstruction and the then pending loss of my mother. On top of all that, I was a fairly smart kid in an academically rigorous high school who was being singled out for being gay and not being quiet about it, and they didn’t know what to do with me. I looked for a place that did - I looked for any place that could make it better, and I found HMHS.

Truth be told, I came to HMI with the intention of attending the school, a place to be understood from 9 AM to 3 PM. I applied and vehemently followed up with them. My life was going crazy and I needed this. I got in, and started school at Harvey Milk in September of 2001, but after 2 weeks of class I wanted out. My fellow students were unlike anyone I had ever known, and I had no intention of getting to know them. I went crying, begging to be let out, but they wouldn’t. Never before, or since, has being denied something I was so desperately sure I wanted such a good thing. I fell in love with every student, teacher, and social worker at HMI. They became my second family, which was just what I needed as I was being kicked out of my home just a month after I started at HMHS - a problem that the staff at HMI quickly helped to rectify. They helped me find a place to live; they helped me find a better way to live.

I am writing this letter from SUNY Purchase, where I am now a second year Women’s Studies major. I am often asked what life was like at HMI, and I say picture the most supportive and caring place, throw in the most unique and wholly selfless people you’ve ever met, with the strongest and most courageous kids ever, and that should just about cover what HMI/HMHS is like. And after I say that, I realize just how much that description is, for me, really the most accurate there could be and I am forever grateful.

Yours in Solidarity and Gratitude,


Here's something else to consider: not every kid that might want to go to an all-gay High School has one available to them, so how do we make every school safer for GLBTQ Teens?

Is there some sort of immersion/minority empowerment program that's supplimentary that can be made available to more GLBTQ Teens across the country (around the world)? A summer leadership program? Or maybe that's what all our GSA clubs could be - that safe space in the schools that shore up your sense of self and pride and make you feel supported and empowered in being yourself - whether you're Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning or a Straight Ally?


Lots of good things to think and talk about!

Have a great club meeting - and remember - you can comment about this here to participate in this blog's virtual Gay-Straight Alliance Club!




Sarah Laurenson said...

I think there's a need for both - a separate safe school for those who cannot deal with what happens to them at public schools, and those who are stronger or less likely to be harassed mainstreaming in the public schools. This way we get the kids who are more targeted out of danger and we get diversity in the schools so the other kids can learn more about gays and what they're like.

It's a slow process towards true equality. Ask any person of color about that. There were the brave ones who integrated even though the threats and danger were huge. And there were those who stayed insular and avoided integration. And we're still dealing with racism today.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't part of the last discussion, so I may be repeating things, and I'm sorry if I am, or if anything I write tends to seem simplistic.

I know enough to know I don't have the kind of experience needed to make a call about this kind of school. If one of my kids is gay, I don't know that I would push for Denver to have an all-gay school, but I never thought I'd enroll my autistic son in a one-on-one treatment center preschool and I have.

One of my concerns about an all-gay school (although the Q&A suggested straight kids could apply, which would be a great experience, I think, for straight/supportive teens) is what's not being addressed which is - well, sex.

I don't think being gay is just about sex, but I do think that in having an all-gay school there's communicated a really positive message about honoring sexual identity.

And yet, overall, we're not willing to talk about healthy sexuality for straight teenagers. (Well, okay, Palin thinks they should just get married, but....) I would just hope that this could lead to positive discussions about sex overall, about healthy sexuality and sexual identity, without resorting to the extremes that society seems to plug teens into (Gossip Girl, anyone?)

Pat Schmatz said...

I'm always a fan of voluntary separatism for oppressed groups when there's an obvious need.

That separate time/space allows for all kinds of things - but most of all, like David said in his letter, the chance to simply be David. You can't do that if you're always looking over your shoulder.

Rita said...

I'm so glad to see this follow-up, and to read these letters direct from students who have attended the Harvey Milk School!

I, too, originally wondered whether some might prefer a short-term, leadership academy-type summer program over an entire, immersive high school experience, since I've gone to such programs for Asian Americans, and they were great. But then I thought, well, but it depends on the severity of the problem we're talking about. If a kid is really being persecuted, then he or she really needs a fresh start.

So much to cover for any one (or even two-part) discussion!

Tee said...

I teach at a 'separate' school for a particular indigenous minority. It has excellent results and is a safe haven. Past students have gone on in life to do remarkable things because they leave full of confidence in their identity. I imagine the school you speak of has the same effect. Youngsters need to feel safe in their learning environment or they do not learn.

I see these separate schools as no different to church based schools and other 'private' schools.

As long as 'choice' is involved these schools have a place. The students who get to attend them are very fortunate.

The school I'm at has existed for 150 plus years which I think speaks for its success and the communities' continued perception that it works.

Of course, this does not let public school administrators off the hook. However, a huge attitudinal shift is necessary in the dominant culture before 'all' youngsters can go to a safe school.

Abuse and violation of humanity is inherent to the belief and power system of most societies. That is the culture that underpins the control of the powerful over the intimidated. It's victims often must separate to be strengthened so that they can have the energy to go another round of resistance.