Phoenix Nonprofit Opens Arizona’s First LGBT High School – College Times Repost
High school is hardly a walk in the park for most teenagers. Acne, bad fashion choices and heartbreaks plague memories of many past and present student bodies. But for some, such worries pale in comparison to the harsh reality experienced by LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) youth in the American public school system.
Almost a third of LGBTQ students drop out of high school because of harassment related to their sexual orientation, according to research by the American Psychological Association.
A Valley organization made it its mission to provide such students an environment through which they can experience the highs and lows of high school without the added fear of homophobia and bullying.
One n ten, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting LGBTQ youth in the Valley for nearly 18 years, held a ribbon cutting ceremony in on April 13 to commemorate an historic event for Arizona: the opening of Q High, the first LGBTQ high school program in the state.
Mayor Greg Stanton, along with fellow supporter Councilman Tom Simplot, praised the venture and the organization at the ceremony.
“So many kids that participate in one n ten are kids [who] have overcome incredible adversity in their own lives,” Stanton said. “And this organization supports that they find the right way in some of the most difficult days of their lives so that they can provide the leadership for our city, community and state moving forward into our future.”
Linda Elliott, executive director of the organization, can attest to the struggles of the youth the program strives to support.
According to Elliott, a third of the youth the center supports is comprised by dropouts, half of which are homeless. When she began her work with the organization, she decided action needed to be taken. If the LGBTQ youth that frequented the center were to have a future, they would need to get their high school diploma. Elliott knew that the youth had dropped out of school because they had been bullied and did not feel safe in a public school setting.
“They felt safe here,” she said of one n ten. “They felt welcomed here. So we needed to get the school in our environment so that they would come back to school and get their degree.”
One student’s story
Safe isn’t a feeling 16-year-old Tyler uses when describing the experience of public high school.
The androgynous youth does not want to be labeled as gay, straight or lesbian, nor as a girl or a boy. Furthermore, the LGBT teen does not want a last name printed for fear of attracting negative attention.
A self-described LGBT youth, Tyler encountered bullying issues freshman year of high school after coming out. The teen was routinely confronted and used as subject of gossip at school, as well as prevented from accessing certain school areas by bullies.
Tyler said that being LGBT prevented school officials from being supportive or proactive in stopping the bullying, even when threats of violence had been made.
“Every time I went to them, they wouldn’t do anything,” the teen said. “I really think that if a straight student had come to them, it would have been different.”
The bullying continued in the hallways, even after notifying school officials, culminating in a public shaming session.
“One [girl] threatened to beat me up,” Tyler said. “She got in my face screaming about me being an LGBT student. It was humiliating and terrifying.”
According to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s 2009 National School Climate Survey, over 80 percent of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed and approximately 40 percent reported being physically harassed because of their sexual orientation. Nearly two-thirds of students surveyed said that they felt unsafe in school because of their LGBT identity.
When the school failed to address the bullying, Tyler began receiving threatening phone calls at home from a classmate.
“I was afraid to go to the school campus,” Tyler said. “No kid should have to be scared to walk around their school.”
Today, Tyler isn’t afraid of hallway bullies or inattentive school officials.
As part of Q High’s pilot group, the LGBT youth has found the safe school environment public school couldn’t provide.
Tyler spends roughly five hours a day at the one n ten facility’s classroom doing schoolwork from Tuesday to Saturday. Through Q High’s online schooling program, Tyler is able to cover all the course material an Arizona public school student needs in order to graduate thanks to a partnership with the Arizona Virtual Academy.
Tyler gets help from staff and volunteers, as well as a lunch break and recreational options just as one would in a typical high school setting. The difference lies in the environment.
“You walk into the building and there’s six people saying ‘hi’ to you as you walk to the classroom,” Tyler said. “It’s so great to be in this center where everyone is so friendly and helpful.”
Tyler does not regret the move from traditional schooling to one n ten’s program.
“I prefer going to Q High,” Tyler said. “It’s a safe environment and I’m not bullied. Nobody is calling me names, and I don’t need to be stressed about where I am. I can be comfortable and do my school work without distractions.”
“We started this program so that our youth could actually get their high school diploma and have an equivalent to a diploma instead of just having a GED,” said one n ten Program Coordinator Kado Stewart.
Stewart said the idea of Q High came to fruition six months ago, but that the effort to assist one n ten’s youth members scholastic achievements began earlier.
“Our youth have been telling us for the17 years that one n ten has been around that they’d been bullied in school,” she said. “A lot of them dropped out of high school or their families kick them out for being LGBTQ.”
Stewart’s story is similar to that of one n ten’s youth visitors.
Growing up in what she calls a “tiny town” in Wisconsin, Stewart was routinely bullied during high school. Stewart said she was a target of constant harassment for being an out lesbian when she was 16 years old. Nevertheless, she started her high school’s first Gay Straight Alliance and has been involved in LGBT advocacy since.
Steward joined one n ten five years ago, starting one of the largest summer camps in the world for LGBTQ youth, Outdoors Camp.
“When I first started doing work with one n ten and with Outdoors Camp, it was really about trying to help create a safe space for other youth” she said.
Today, as a program coordinator, Stewart oversees Q High along with the rest of the one n ten staff, calling it a “big team effort.”
Stewart explains that Q High is an online high school diploma completion program through Arizona Virtual Academy.
The program adheres to state curriculum, like any other high school online program. The main difference is that the program is housed in the organization’s downtown facility.
While the students can do their work from home, they are required to log in 25 hours of schoolwork a week. The facility is open 45 hours a week, so students can choose their own schedule and pace when it comes to their course load.
All of the work is online, as are the teachers. While they don’t have physical teachers in the facility, youth and community volunteers, as well as teachers from neighboring schools do attend the school to help students with any questions or tutoring requests.
The positive mission of the program has not come without its fair share of detractors.
Stewart and Tyler said there have been arguments against an LGBT-focused school. Critics have argued the program is a means of segregation or shielding the youth from the real world.
“I know for a fact that our youth have experienced more real worlds than a lot of people have or ever will in their lives,” said Stewart.
“The reason that they’re here is so that they can do their math, English and geometry,” she continued. “So that they can get out of high school, get their diploma and get out in the world and do whatever they want to do.”
Stewart said that the perception that most people get bullied is a poor excuse to not to offer an alternative school where students feel safe.
“We’re not going and saying, ‘You’re gay so you have to come to our school,’” she said.
Stewart said the center is an alternative that provides safety, and is not solely geared toward LGBT students. Q High has straight students in its current class.
“You can come here and do boring math problems and not get beat up for it,” she said.
Despite the criticism, Stewart thinks the future for Q High looks bright.
“We have 14 youth enrolled right now,” Stewart said. “We’ve had another nine or 10 students already contact us from out in the community who want to transfer to Q High next semester.”
The school will be closed for the summer, like many public high schools.
“Our capacity for the spring semester is 25, and I think we’ll have that filled very quickly,” said Stewart.