Philly schools pass sweeping transgender students policy

The School District of Philadelphia approved a sweeping policy Thursday night that allows transgender students to use the bathroom and locker room of their choosing, but goes beyond that.The new policy, voted on by the School Reform Commission codifies a number of rights for transgender and gender nonconforming students. They include:

— The right to be addressed using their preferred name and gender pronoun;

–The right to use the restroom and locker room that “corresponds to their gender identity;

— The right to participate in physical education classes and intramural sports in a manner consistent with their gender identity;

–The right to dress in alignment with their gender identity.

The policy also mandates schools make single stall restrooms and private changing areas available for students who feel “a need or desire for increased privacy.” It further instructs schools to use as much “gender-neutral language” possible in all communications and limit the number of gender-segregated activities.

On the matter of interscholastic sports, the policy says any disputes will be resolved on a “case-by-case” basis.

A quiet milestone

Given the usual controversey around transgender policies, the commission’s actions came with notably little attention. Only one of the 26 public speakers at the SRC meeting even mentioned it. It passed with the unanimous consent of all four commissioners present. There were no public comments on the matter, nor was there discussion among the commissioners.

The district’s new policy comes just a month after the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance to school districts on transgender students. In a “Dear Colleague” letter the department informed local districts they could be in violation of Title IX guidelines if they discriminated against transgender students by denying them use of the bathroom or locker room that corresponds to their gender identity. 

“We have worked closely with students and members of the LGBTQ community to develop these guidelines,” said Superintendent William Hite in a statement. “Every student deserves to know their rights will be recognized and upheld at school. This policy provides clear guidance and will help ensure that our schools remain welcoming to all our students.”

Karyn Lynch, the district’s director of student support services, said that the policy was hammered out in a nearly year-long process that included consultations with members of Hite’s student advisory group.

“In a lot of our schools, this will be formalizing practices that already exist,” she said.

She could not guess how many gender non-conforming students are currently attending district schools, but said that officials have had “maybe 30 calls in 7 years” over issues such as whether it is possible to change a student’s name on school records due to a gender transition. More generally, some parents would call to ask whether there were any concerns they should raise in sending their non-gender conforming children to school.

The policy explicitly states that students should use the restrooms and locker rooms that conform with their “gender identity,” but Lynch said that on occasion restrooms with more privacy, like those in the nurse’s office, have been made available to students who asked for them.

Hite’s student advisory group included eighth through 12th graders from both district and charter schools. Lynch did not know whether any transgender students were represented, but said it was a diverse group and the issue inspired lively discussions.  

“The students talked openly and honestly,” she said. “The superintendent took all their recommendations and suggestions under consideration.”

Kenderton headed back to district control

The School Reform Commission also passed a resolution Thursday converting Kenderton Elementary, one of its Renaissance charter schools, back into a district-run school. Kenderton was left in the lurch when its charter operator, Young Scholars, announced in May it could no longer afford to run the school because of its high special-education population. Kenderton parents pushed for the Mastery Charter network to take over the school, but Mastery wanted to change the school’s grade configuration. Such a maneuver would have required the approval of the SRC, which balked at the request.

Asked why, commissioner Bill Green said a majority of SRC members felt it would have set poor precedent to grant a charter and then change the terms before the charter expired. Green clarified, however, that he would have supported a grade reconfiguration.

Kenderton’s board still needs to surrender the school’s charter before the school district can officially take control. The head of the district’s charter school office, DawnLynne Kacer, indicated that the charter surrender is forthcoming.

“We have been in constant communications with [Kenderton’s board] and they have verbally told us that they are willing and intend to surrender the charter,” said Kacer.

A spokesperson for the board confirmed that the school is “working to surrender the charter.”

The school district also withdrew renewal resolutions for three Mastery Charter schools that had been on the SRC’s agenda until today. The district presented Mastery Clymer, Simon Gratz, and Shoemaker for renewal months ago, said Kacer, but Mastery hasn’t signed the renewal agreements yet. Kacer said the district and Mastery continue to negotiate the terms of the renewals, but would not describe the nature of substance of those negotiations. Officials from Mastery could not be reached for comment.

District expands, defines SACs

The district also adopted a new policy on School Advisory Councils, school-based governing bodies meant to encourage community input. The policy mandates all schools have an “active and engaged” SAC, except those that already have some other organization filling a similar role.

The policy specifies how SACs should be formed and details their duties. It says SACs should scrutinize school budgets, examine data on school performance, collaborate with school principals, review school policies, and “play an active role” in determining the initiatives and programs their schools undertake. It does not, however, grant any firm authority to SACs, placing them largely in an oversight role.

For years the district has flirted with the idea of beefing up School Advisory Councils and they’ve been cast as an important cog in Mayor Jim Kenney’s new community schools initiative.

Contract talk continues

The SRC also approved the four-year pact with the district’s 2,000 blue collar workers, represented by 32BJ SEIU, which was ratified by the membership earlier this week. 32BJ president Ernie Bennett was in the audience and acknowledged by the commissioners. The workers include bus drivers, bus attendants, maintenance workers, cleaners, and building engineers.

Hite expressed disappointment that the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, the bargaining unit representing principals, administrators and some administrative workers, rejected their tentative pact. He said he was meeting with small groups of principals “to understand from their perspective some of the issues we need to talk about.” 

In addition to salary increases, the agreement included a lump sum bonus if the pact were signed by the end of June, which now could be in jeopardy. Objections were not due to the financial package, but to conditions in schools that principals are working under given the district’s fiscal austerity.  

“The principals acknowledged that the circumstances are difficult for them,” Hite said.

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