Spotlight

Equity, inclusion and welcoming learning environments fill us with pride

A classroom should be a place of discovery, creativity and positivity as students grow and thrive. While we focus a lot of energy on what students learn, the classroom climate can also have a tremendous impact on student achievement. According to a recent Human Rights Campaign survey, students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender report being harassed and bullied at school — both verbally and physically — at twice the rate of their peers, making them more likely to disconnect from school and experience negative educational outcomes.

Creating a welcoming and inclusive environment in our schools is not only crucial for the student’s well-being, it is necessary to ensuring equity. Green Dot Public Schools California, a national leader in turning around previously low-performing schools, is continuing to push themselves and their dedication to their students and staff who identify as LGBTQ+.

“Our mission at Green Dot Public Schools is to help transform public education so all students can be successful in college, leadership and life,” said Broad Residency alumna Nithya Rajan, Green Dot’s vice president of strategic planning. “And for us, all means all.”

Recently, she said the Green Dot California region was struck by the results from both the California Healthy Kids survey — which captures student data on attitudes, behaviors and experiences related to school — and their own diversity, equity and inclusion staff survey. In both, there were gaps in how students who identified as LGBTQ+ felt in their schools relative to the averages within the school — and gaps in the employee experience of staff who are nonbinary in their gender as compared to other employees.

“This really helped create a focus for our CEO and the DEI committee to see that we need to continue to push the bounds of all means all in supporting all students so they are able to be successful, productive, included and welcomed within their schooling experience,” said Nithya.

In doing so, Green Dot initially researched system-level best practices, policies and structures to improve their efforts to create inclusive environments and safe spaces for students and staff.

“At this point, we know what’s best practice, and we are starting to undercover what our own organizational efforts and successes are,” Nithya said. When school starts again in the fall, she says they will conduct broader listening tours to prioritize the highest-impact supports tailored to each school community’s needs.

This summer, Green Dot is facilitating professional development for school leaders on the context and language of gender identity and sexual orientation to empower schools to create brave spaces. They are also launching anti-bullying and allyship work in student advisories to encourage students to stand up for what is right in the face of harassment or discrimination.

“We hope that students and school leaders are reflective about the ways they are broadening inclusion on each campus,” said Nithya. “Hearing from staff and students will definitely make it richer and more specific to Green Dot.”

On the other side of the country, Boston Public Schools has also been establishing more resources and inclusive practices over the last few years through the work of its Office of Safe and Welcoming Schools.

In 2016, the school district convened more than 50 students and nearly two dozen staff members to discuss how BPS could be more inclusive of the LGTBQ+ community. The group talked about a range of issues during this first-ever conversation between students, staff and school officials — from school policies to instructional inclusivity to the shared experiences of top school administrators who participated.

“Be proud of every aspect of your identity,” said then-superintendent and Broad Academy alumnus Tommy Chang, who struggled to have his own immigrant identity affirmed throughout his schooling. “Don’t let other people suppress it.”

Since then, new curriculum has been developed by a team of teachers working with Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth to develop LGBTQ-themed history, English and health lessons featuring the 1969 Stonewall Riots and writings by gay and lesbian authors.

Boston Public Schools also launched the “Out for Safe Schools” staff training program, offering teachers the opportunity to develop inclusive best practices and earn ally badges they can wear so students can easily identify supportive adults on campus. And at the elementary level, the Welcoming Schools program provides professional development to K-5 educators with inclusive-classroom support.

Just last year, Boston Public Schools employees and the Boston Teachers Union came together for the first time to march together in the Boston Pride Parade — starting a new tradition they continued earlier this month.

From coast-to-coast, our school systems are continuing to improve their practices on what it means to foster safe learning environments. While there has been much improvement, there is still more work to be done to ensure all students feel included in their educational experiences.

 

Lauren Ramos-Mendoza is The Broad Center’s associate director of communications.