More than 200 people packed a North Side meeting room last night to voice their mostly positive opinions on a proposed public high school catering to gay, bisexual and transgender students.
The proposed Pride Campus is an extension of the Greater Lawndale Little Village School for Social Justice and would open in 2010 if approved by the Chicago Board of Education.
Chad Weiden, assistant principal of the social justice school, said the Pride Campus would become a national model as it provides a safe and affirming environment for all students and encourges them to examine the struggle for human dignity.
“Tonight is historic," he said. "We are here to serve the students who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual. [They] are three times more likely than their non-gay peers to report missing school because they feel unsafe."
The room fell silent as Weiden recalled the taunting and abuse he suffered as a gay seventh grader.
James Gandre, provost of Roosevelt University and an adviser to the Pride Campus team, echoed those concerns.
“A safe place for education is crucial, especially when young people are so early in the process of identifying as [gay, bisexual or transgender]. It is such a much more difficult process when they are taunted and abused, then pushed into an unsupportive system.”
The project team has stressed that the campus would not be a "gay school." Rather, it would be open to all students, and strive to be supportive of those who are gay, bisexual, transgendered, or questioning their sexual identity.
During a lengthy question and answer session, most audience members voiced support for the project.
Several asked whether segregating gay students from their peers might leave them poorly equipped to cope with the real world.
Social Justice High School Principal Rito Martinez noted that students only in school for a portion of the day.
"The rest of the day they are dealing with the real world,” he said.
Erin Burden, a Board member of the Illinois Safe School Alliance and former CPS teacher said she supports project, but wondered if it would hinder building a social justice program into the general CPS curriculum.
“It’s frustrating that the greater CPS infrastructure has a long way to go in building a social justice concept into the overall curriculum and atmosphere of the schools.”
The audience also posed practical questions: How will students who haven't told their parents about their sexual orientation apply to the school, how the bathrooms will be marked, and what kind of disciplinary process will be employed.
Schools chief Arne Duncan will evaluate information from last night's hearing before decided whether to support the project. Duncan's decision will be announced Oct. 1, and the Board of Education will vote on the issue Oct. 22.