Choosing a School Which Supports Gay Families
At this time of year, many parents are looking towards the fall, and the schools their children will attend. If your child will be entering preschool or kindergarten next autumn, you are probably looking at educational options now. If you are unhappy with an older child's school placement, you may be looking to change. In making these choices, it is incumbent upon us, as lesbian and gay parents, to consider how the school will view and teach about our families.
In order for schools to be appropriate places of learning for our children, they must be places where our kids can feel that their families are accorded the same respect as other children's families. They must be places where books, pictures, and classroom mention of families include depictions of the lives of children with same-sex parents. If our families are treated with disdain and hostility, or merely ignored, our children are presented with an obstacle to learning, and to enjoying school. We need to be sure that we are placing our children in schools which not only meet our children's academic needs, but where their needs for affirmation and celebration of their families are understood and accepted.
Controversies over lesbian and gay parenting and marriage that have made the headlines over the past 15 years - from the Children of the Rainbow Curriculum through Massachusetts marriage to Mary Cheney's pregnancy - have made clear that our families are not fully accepted within American society. Most of us already knew that, and we further know that many heterosexual parents are vehemently opposed to their children learning about families like ours, particularly in the lower grades (See my essay Coming Out Isn't Talking Dirty for part of an explanation of why). We need to know that our children's teachers, and the school officials, understand and share our belief in the importance of presenting a more inclusive view of family. What's more, we need to know that school officials will stand up to homophobic parents if they object to gay-inclusive curricula. This is of particular concern in kindergarten and first grade, where family is typically the focus of the curriculum.
A year before my eldest child began kindergarten, I began the process of visiting schools, observing classes, and interviewing teachers, principals and guidance counselors. It was a big project. Between my then spouse and me, we visited and/or considered about 15 schools. We then narrowed it down to seven, and I made appointments with the principals of all of those to have a detailed interview. In interviewing principals about gay family issues, I asked the following questions:
• We're a lesbian couple with a child entering kindergarten this fall. Given the current climate, we're concerned about what he may face. Can you tell me a little bit about what it's like in your school for children of gay parents?
• How is family defined in the curriculum?
• What has your experience been with families with same-sex parents?
• How would teachers handle a situation where a child makes a homophobic remark, or says that it's not possible to have two mothers?
• What would happen if other parents object to a child with two mothers being in the classroom?
• What, if anything, is done around Father's Day and Mother's Day? Are there other activities that are specifically aimed at mothers or fathers? How are they handled when children don't have one parent of each sex?
• What materials (books, pictures, etc.) are used which depict alternative families?
I found these questions were helpful in interviewing school principals and teachers about these issues. They include questions which are general enough to encourage people to talk about the issues, and those specific enough that someone must really have thought about these issues and be doing something about them to answer appropriately. Both kinds of questions are necessary if you are to get an accurate picture of what life in a particular school is like for children of gay families.
Not all principals will have answers ready for all of the questions. In some cases, your interview may be the first time the principal has ever thought about some of these issues. Schools and administration are all over the map - even in 2007 - on how much experience they have had with gay and lesbian family issues. As lesbian and gay parents we often must be ready to educate the educators, to help them understand these issues and how they affect our children's learning.
It is important, however, to beware of a principal who doesn't wish to discuss the issues, has no experience of gay families, but assures you that everything will be fine and everyone is treated alike. If the heterosexist assumptions of literature and curriculum have not been examined, if the possibility of hostility from other children or parents has not been considered and a plan to deal with it conceived, if the needs of our children to have their families represented is not taken seriously, everything will most assuredly not be fine.
Finding an appropriate school generally takes some looking. Options available to families will vary dependent upon such factors as residence location, scheduling, particular academic needs of the children and financial considerations. It is important that you learn what your options are, and broaden your search sufficiently to feel you have a true choice.
There are those who feel that, if they can afford it, private school is preferable. They argue that parents can have more control since the school is a service for which they are directly paying. Others feel a strong commitment to public education, and believe that public schools by their very nature are already dealing with a diverse population and may, in some cases, be more acutely aware of a need to reflect diversity in their curricula.
In either case, you may have more options than you realize. If you are going the private route, there may be independent schools which you are not considering because they don't have illustrious names, or because you just hadn't heard of them. If you are thinking of public school, different districts have assorted "choice" programs that may be a better alternative than your local school. Also, even in places where there is no formal public school choice, there may be exceptions made for some reasons. Here in New York City, those exceptions are called variances. You will need to know what kinds of exceptions are granted in your own school system, what reasons would be deemed acceptable in your district, and what schools might be open to you.
It is essential that we do our homework before we go to look at schools for our children. How can you do this? Well, follow the same principle that the adoptive parents among us used to bring children into their families: maximize your sources of information. Tell everyone you know that you are looking for a school for next year. Network with parents whose children are already in school; go to public forums sponsored by school, church and community groups; call your school district office and ask to speak with the superintendent, the head of guidance, or early childhood education. Find out what choices are, or may be, available to you. Our family, for example, received a variance from our local zoned school solely because the local school did not adequately address our concerns on gay family issues. We were the first family to get such a variance and before speaking to the head of guidance for our district, we were completely unaware that it was possible to get a variance on that basis.
Of course, not all lesbian and gay parents will be able to find a school which they feel adequately affirms their families. And in many cases, the school that best meets other needs may not be the one that best fulfills our needs as gay families. We may have to make compromises on this issue. In general I think it's true that there is no perfect school for any child or family and parents must always look at not only the benefits of their school choice but also the costs/risks, and do all they can to mitigate the risks and maximize the benefits.
If it turns out that the risks in your best (or only school choice) are in the area of inclusion of gay and lesbian families, I have a few words of advice. First of all, accept the fact that you may have to be a pioneer. A school may have no experience with children of openly gay parents and you may have to take on the task of educating the school. If that is the case, it is important to look for teachers and school officials who are receptive to learning about gay families, even if they have no personal experience. In my experience those who are open to other kinds of difference (e.g. racial, cultural, religious) are generally more understanding of our concerns and more willing to make changes to make our children more comfortable.
Secondly, be very cognizant of the compromises you make. If you are choosing a school which meets your academic, financial, or other requirements but ignores or is hostile to your family, recognize that that is what you're doing and be sure that you deal with this issue with your child. Be sure that you go out of your way to provide your children with non-school settings that are affirming, accepting, and empowering. Provide your children with social outlets on an ongoing basis that include other lesbian and gay families and that are inclusive in their outlook. This can be accomplished through informal social networks, through affirming and inclusive faith-based organizations, through gay-friendly summer camps, through pen-pal arrangements with other children in lesbian and gay households, through events like Gay Family Week in Provincetown, MA or Saugatuck, Michigan. Don't let your child feel like the uninclusive school environment is the whole world.
ObFanfic connection: Unless Xavier's starts a preschool and elementary education program, Jean-Paul and Adam are going to need to find a gay-friendly, mutant-friendly school for Ezra pretty soon.
This is the seventh essay in an occasional series on lesbian and gay parenting. Previous essays in this series are available in my journal archives, and also on my website here .
Oh, and the school we chose turned out to be wonderful for our whole family for the thirteen years we had at least one child there. See My Tearful Good-bye to see why.