National organization looking to offer LGBTQ support in every Philly school

Michael Farrell, principal of Penn Alexander School, has been working to bring a chapter of the national Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network organization to Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Michael Farrell, principal of Penn Alexander School, has been working to bring a chapter of the national Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network organization to Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Principals and school officials are partnering with LGBTQ community leaders to form a Philadelphia branch of the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network. The national organization provides tools and foundations for schools to to address needs of LGBTQ students.

Ten years ago, Michael Farrell emailed GLSEN, introducing himself as an out teacher asking for resources for his school. He was surprised that Philadelphia didn’t have a chapter of the organization.

Farrell came back to the idea after he worked his way up to principal at the Penn Alexander School, a public K-8 school in West Philadelphia. Now, he said, the time seems ripe.

“We have many bright spots already in the city,” Farrell said. “I think the GLSEN chapter will bring a level of collaboration and coordination throughout the city with organizations that are doing great work too.”

Farrell wasn’t alone in his thinking.

On the other side of the city, Meredith Elementary School in Queen Village was being commended for following Policy 252, passed in Philadelphia in 2016 with the purpose of ensuring safety and support for students regardless of gender identity or gender expression.

Shortly after that, Meredith’s principal Lauren Overton began hearing from students who still felt out of place in schools.

“These were all kids that were going to school within the Philadelphia community, whether it be public, parochial, private or charter, feeling like they wanted to have a voice to say, ‘Hey, it’s not happening in the same way in every building across the city,’ ” she said.

Policy 252 is a big first step, according to Farrell, but GLSEN can help solidify its purpose.

“I think the other steps that we need to take to get to get to the more inclusive place is to really talk about practices and work with small groups of educators — especially principals — to continue to unpack that policy and identify areas of growth for particular schools and communities,” Farrell said.

The budding chapter received an overwhelming local response when it started hosting events and networking with other educators interested in LGBTQ student advocacy.

Once the chapter is accredited, GLSEN can provide training, resources as well as communications and fundraising support. It can also manage administrative and accounting work so Farrell, Overton and other leaders can devote their time and energy to local programming.

That programming includes networking events for LGBTQ educators, allies and people who would be interested in being liaisons throughout the district. The plan is to build a network that reflects the gender and racial diversity of the students they are serving. Ultimately, the goal would is to have 75 more gay/straight alliances focusing on K-8 rather than high schools alone.

“We are hoping to appoint a liaison in every building in Philadelphia,” Overton said.

Those liaisons could be a teacher, a guidance counselor, or a principal who would advocate for best practices in their school.

Farrell and Overton know they’re not alone in this work. They hope that they’ll be able to build relationships with already existing organizations and allies doing similar work.

“This is a community effort,” said Farrell.

“We realize we’re not trying to start an organization that’s going to do isolated work. We want to be connected to all the great work that’s being done in Philadelphia around supporting students,” he said.

Support is already coming in from the community, notably from the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs.

“The Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs is eager to work with our partners at the School District of Philadelphia and in the community as we fight for safer, more affirming spaces for our LGBTQ young people in Philadelphia,” said Amber Hikes, executive director in a statement.

Though the official launch of the chapter won’t happen until the national offices complete their review, GLSEN officials are optimistic.

“We look forward to working with these incredible volunteers as they connect with educators and the community to ensure that LGBTQ youth can get a safe, affirming, and inclusive education in Philadelphia schools,” said Daryl Presgraves, GLSEN director of field services, in a statement.

Farrell says the supportive environment that GLSEN advocates may be crucial in the development of LGBTQ students.

“My hope is that we create inclusive, safe spaces in schools where maybe that is their one place that they go to and learn and thrive and dream about the life they want to live and feel both protected and supported by their peers and staff,” he said.

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