Early in December, Mount Horeb made front-page news — twice — when a reading of children's book I am Jazz, about a transgender girl, was cancelled at school, only to be rescheduled days later at a library packed with nearly 600 supporters.
It was the latest in a series of stories in and around Madison connected to the great need for schools to create gender-expansive environments, those that affirm all children and allow them to express their interests and find confidence in their strengths.
Nine Madison schools are taking on this important work through a partnership with Welcoming Schools, a K-6 project of the Human Rights Campaign. To be a Welcoming School means to embrace family diversity, avoid gender stereotyping and work to end bullying and name-calling.
One school, Schenk Elementary, is in its first year of implementation. The program was funded through a $25,000 Foundation for the Future grant from the Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools, which works to provide enriching educational opportunities for students.
Sherie Hohs, the district’s LGBTQ+ social worker who oversees Welcoming Schools partnerships (pictured far right in the black-and-white photo below), says Schenk is off to a strong start. “Schenk is showing us how to do this well right from the start. It is an ideal team. Their minds are really willing and open to bring this work into every facet of their school.”
Kindergarten teacher Tracy Smith (pictured above right) is one of those Schenk team members. When Hohs attended a staff meeting last spring asking who wanted to be involved, Smith's hand shot up.
“I was like, sign me up immediately for as much as possible," she says. "It was really exciting because I felt this was something that we needed. It was kind of a hole that we had."
But Schenk needed more than a handful of willing staff. The whole school would need to buy in. Hohs requires the following of Welcoming Schools partners:
- A diverse team dedicated to the work that meets monthly
- A school-wide commitment to professional learning around Welcoming Schools
- A commitment to materials and lessons that are inclusive
Having implemented the approach in eight other schools, she's learned these three conditions are key. “We’ve really tried to systematize things. We have some good models out there, so if schools are ready to take on this equity work, we have a pretty good scope and sequence in plan to make it happen.”
Love makes a family
As a starting point, Schenk focused first on family diversity, kicking off the school year in true Schenk style with a back-to-school ice cream social. A popular event with families, Smith and her team knew this would be a good opportunity to introduce Welcoming Schools, complete with special rainbow sprinkles, an informational poster board, friendly conversation and books on display featuring mixed-race families, families with two moms, single parents and so on.
Perhaps you can imagine going through 12 years of school never seeing your family reflected in classroom materials and media. Says Hohs, “We know family is the most important element for our young people, and family engagement impacts students' school connectedness and learning. We believe that it is imperative for all students to see their families represented in their schools, and also to learn about the diversity of families within their community to become well-rounded citizens.”
If you're wondering how Welcoming Schools lessons look in the classroom, Smith says she weaves them right in to her existing curriculum. “We’re already talking about families. We’re already talking about what makes a family special. It doesn’t feel jumbled, like I’m switching from one thing or another.”
The difference is that more children see their own families in social studies lessons that go beyond the tired narrative — “Two people meet and have babies. That’s what makes a family." According to Welcoming Schools, “Love makes a family.”
It follows then that most families would react positively to this shift. Hohs offers this story: Last year she met with a parent group at Nuestro Mundo to model how the school would show a DVD called “That’s a Family” to students (watch trailer). Afterward a parent told her, “Thank you so much for teaching our kids this. I didn’t know what to say when we went to the grocery store and we saw two women holding hands. I didn’t have the language.”
Says Hohs, “We need to take families on this journey with us.”
Schenk families continued their Welcoming Schools journey at an open house this fall that featured a family picture station in the gym.
In spring Schenk will begin teaching lessons on being an ally, bias-based bullying and gender, a topic too often missing from conversations in schools. Smith points out that while Schenk has done a great job of implementing practices that are culturally and linguistically responsive, many people aren't yet talking about issues around LGBTQ+ "and how it has to do with kids. I just felt really moved by it on a personal level. It’s not just about kids who are not heterosexual. It’s about gender. It’s about making everyone feel welcomed. It’s about ally behavior.”
It’s true, Sherie Hohs offers, that schools generally are comfortable addressing issues of bias around gender and sexuality when negative things happen — like someone using the phrase That’s so gay. Many teachers even have the skills to make that a teachable moment, Hohs says. "But there’s a difference between just responding to negatives and providing that window of inclusion.”
This is truly a learning curve for many adults, but the good news, she says, is that we all have background knowledge to build on. “We’ve all had experiences with gender. Everybody’s been told not to play with that toy or that they couldn’t like that color. That sits with us. We still have those memories with us, being told what you could or couldn’t do because of her you were. Most teachers, once they’ve had some training and get comfortable, they see the value and how much the kids are extremely engaged when talking about topics related to identity.”
The kids get it, she notes. “At a very young age kids can tell you what boys are 'supposed to do' versus girls.”
Through Welcoming Schools, along with a smaller nonprofit partnership, Gender Spectrum, Schenk is shining a light on the fact that “we put kids in these binary boxes of boy/girl, and our culture is so boy/girls that it’s really hard to step back,” Hohs explains.
It may be hard, but it's necessary. At the most innocuous level, “It doesn’t allow kids to grow up with their fullest potential and truest identity," Hohs says. More grave is the fact that children and teens are suffering. Tracy Smith doesn't mince words: “Why this really matters is because kids are dying. Straight up. We’re not addressing these issues in the way that we really should be.”
Both have found that once staff start to understand gender through this critical lens, they’re willing to look at how that impacts their teaching.
One example Hohs offers is Van Hise, where teachers decided to get rid of the gendered bathroom passes they’ve used for decades — one that’s blue and has a truck and one that’s purple with butterflies. After the Welcoming Schools training, they realized, “Oh! We’re gendering this and we don’t have to.”
Much of the work to get the larger community to understand gender through that lens involves advocacy and macro-level changes in the district, like working to make bathrooms and locker rooms safe and accessible, building up libraries' collections of inclusive books and doing things like West High School did this fall when they made the change to a gender-neutral homecoming court.
The social-emotional learning connection
Sherie Hohs sees a compelling opportunity to incorporate Welcoming Schools into social-emotional learning like Second Step, Responsive Classroom and Developmental Designs.
Like these approaches, Welcoming Schools and Gender Spectrum “enhance the universals of the Behavior Education Plan. They’re part of behavior support," she says. "They can add some flavor to what we’re already doing. We have models for my partner schools for weaving Welcoming Schools and Gender Spectrum into the PBS themes.”
Tracy Smith agrees. “It’s something that makes so much sense for kids. It feels so good to be finally talking about it."