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Charter school for LGBT youth opens

LOS ANGELES – For too many LGBT youth, high school equates to a four-year sentence of taunting, exclusion and sometimes physical abuse.

Nearly nine out of 10 LGBT students (86.2 percent) experience harassment at school because of their sexual orientation, and 60.8 percent feel unsafe, according to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) 2007 National School Climate Survey.

As reported in the Ventura County Star, however, for 15-year old Larry King it was more than a little taunting. An openly gay student who had recently begun wearing effeminate clothing to campus, King was in the school’s computer lab when he was shot by a classmate on Feb. 12, 2008. Two days later he died.

Educators and community activists in the Los Angeles area have established a new school aimed at preventing cases such as King’s. The new charter school provides LGBT and LGBT-friendly youth the opportunity to earn their high school diploma in a safe environment, free from persecution.

The first of its kind in Southern California, the new school is a collaboration between Opportunities for Learning (OFL) and the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center program LifeWorks. OFL provides the teacher and educational resources, while LifeWorks will provide the location and access to Center services, such as LifeWorks’ Youth Space, Cyber Lab/Internet Center and various mentoring programs.

“A bright future begins with a solid education, but it’s impossible to learn in an unsafe environment,” said Michael Ferrera, director of LifeWorks. “Our goal is to provide a safe space where these students will have access to all of the resources they need to have a healthy, happy and full high school life.”

Although there is no traditional campus and students study independently at home, other staples of high school life, such as field trips, student council and a prom, will still be available.

Teacher talks about LGBT school

“I love school and I love education,” Molly Sircher says. “I think it’s the way to empower young people to get the most of the world and their experiences.”

Sircher, now a teacher at OFL, graduated from Chicago’s DePaul University in 2003. Afterward, she spent six months teaching in Dublin, Ireland, as part of a Global Education program. In addition to her teaching responsibilities with OFL, she is also finishing up her M.A. in English Literature at Cal State L.A.

She moved to California just over two years ago and looked into several different school programs before accepting a position with OFL. “When I met [them] I was blown away by their energy and their mission. Their program as a whole really spoke to me,” said Sircher.

All OFL charter schools primarily serve at risk middle and high school youth - who for various reasons - struggle with the traditional school setting. Two key components of the OFL curriculum are credits and packets.

Typically, each school course, such as English literature, is worth five credits. For every five credit course, a student receives five “packets” of course work to be completed at home. They have two mandatory sessions a week with their teacher, where they discuss their progress, asks questions and take tests. The sessions last an hour and the teacher divides her time between - at most - six students.

Naturally some courses, like algebra, tend to be more difficult, so in addition to the weekly mandatory sessions, students also have access to tutors who specialize in various subjects and the opportunity to attend group instruction meetings with up to 10 other students.

“It is never an overwhelming environment, nobody gets overlooked,” Sircher said.

Given the freedom of the independent study curriculum, Sircher does admit that at first it is difficult for some students to discipline themselves. But she is held accountable for each student meeting minimal requirements, so she stays on top of the students; helping them to develop a work schedule and involving the parents when they fail to turn in work or attend a mandatory session. She also points out that many students thrive under the new found responsibility and control over their own academic success.

At any point during the year, each OFL teacher is assigned between 40-55 students; that number fluctuates depending on graduation, transfers or withdrawals. Sircher does not consider the number of students to be overwhelming; on the contrary, she feels it’s a wonderful opportunity to have a close one-on-one relationship with each student.

Until the LGBT school program is fully established, Sircher has scaled back her student enrollment expectations to less than 40. With the help of LifeWorks, there are currently three students enrolled in the LGBT school, including one LGBT-friendly student. Four others have expressed an interest in testing and the goal is enroll 10 more over the next few weeks, capping the program at 40 students.

“I feel [the LGBT school] provides a 'niche' that a whole population of students can benefit from,” said Sircher. “Of course all OFL schools are LGBT friendly and because there is no traditional setting, harassment is not something our students worry about. So a student is welcome at any location and they would have the benefit of the same experience.”

Does this type of school further segregate LGBT youth from public schools?

“Realistically given the level of bias, discrimination and marginalization that continues to be an issue for LGBTQ youth, these schools are often a necessity and the only option to ensure that the kids get an education,” said Ellen Kahn Director of Family Project with HRC.

“It is a short term solution, not the ideal solution. Our work is focused on supporting legislative efforts that make sure schools are accountable for the protection of all students regardless of LGBT identity.”

An example of such legislative measures, is the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) introduced on January 27 by openly gay Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO). The bill has 60 co-sponsors and is supported by a plethora of organizations like the ACLU, HRC and Lambda Legal. The purpose is to establish comprehensive remedies for discrimination, “based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity” in public elementary and secondary schools.

“Every day innocent students fall victim to relentless harassment and discrimination from teachers, staff, and fellow students, based on their sexual orientation,” said Polis. “These actions not only hurt our students and our schools, but left unchecked, can also lead to life-threatening violence. My legislation puts LGBT students on an equal footing with their peers, so they can attend school and get a quality education, free from fear.”

A harassment-free school environment was what Ferrera had in mind when he established Lifeworks in July 2009 and merged with the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center. Ferrera points out that many youth centers have successful GED programs, but the GED option remains stigmatized and limits higher education options, whereas graduating from an OFL school does not.

OFL invited Ferrera and his colleagues to an orientation of their sites last summer. Reiterating Sircher’s words, he explained that LGBT youth would feel comfortable at any OFL location. However, Ferrera and his team were inspired to create the LGBT youth school themselves, since the Center’s convenient Village location is near several other schools, where they believe many LGBT students are in need of such a program. Additionally, through a combination of emotional and support programs, LGBT youth would also have the opportunity to have more exposure to their community at large.

“We have seen in other cities that these specialized schools can meet this particular need in ways that benefit students, their families and society as a whole,” said Jennifer C. Pizer, Senior Counsel and Director, National Marriage Project at the Lambda Legal Western Regional Office.

“Offering LGBTQ students a safe, supportive environment -- one they can choose or decline -- can save lives and be an important ingredient in an overall recipe for positive change for all youth, including and especially LGBTQ youth and their allies.”

It is important to note that the politics, laws and unions of individual States complicate the national debate concerning public schools vs. charter schools even more. The successful implementation of charter school programs is still limited to a few school districts, and in most cases, it is too early to evaluate their academic and financial success. For now, unlike a public school, this charter school program can guarantee that, if nothing else, students have a harassment free place to learn.

More about the LGBT School

OFL’s curriculum was established by two former L.A Unified School District employees in 1998 and has been embraced by 34 locations in Southern California. Their charter schools operate year round, so students may enroll at any given time and are assigned a grade level based on academic need and not age. There is no cost to enroll, provided that the students meet the general public school criteria. There is an age limit; students have 45 days after their 19th birthday to enroll (but are still allowed to complete up to a 4 year program as long as they meet this and other, requirements).

For more information visit the LifeWorks website or schedule your preliminary testing by contacting the Studio City location at (818) 506 5344.

Esther Rubio-Sheffrey is a Staff Writer for SDGLN. She can be reached at (877) 727-5446, ext 711, or at esther@sdgln.com