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3 min

From tolerance to celebration

The making of a gay-friendly elementary school

Five and a half years ago, I became principal of the West End’s Lord Roberts Elementary School and its annex. I was ecstatic.

Lord Roberts on Bidwell St has all of the elements I love in a school community: a multicultural population, inner-city funding and programs, bright students, involved parents with high expectations and a dedicated, diverse staff. However, having spent a week at the school in April 1998, I harboured no illusion that I was in for an easy ride.

First, there was the story of the rainbow flag. To celebrate the opening of the school’s new playground, the principal who preceded me ordered several flags. Unwittingly, one of them was a rainbow flag.

A few hours after it was raised there was an uproar in the parent community and a Grade 7 student started a petition to remove it. Due to parental pressure the flag was taken down.

Then there was the story of the photo exhibit called All Kinds of Families. For one week, photos were displayed in the main hall depicting families of various ethnic backgrounds, single parents, and same-sex parents. Parents raised concerns yet again.

Staff decided to tackle the issue head-on. That’s when I made my entrance.

We began with a two-day staff retreat featuring presentations by the Gay and Lesbian Educators of BC (GALE). We decided each teacher would lead a class meeting to discuss name-calling. If students did not bring up homophobic names, the teacher would. So began our journey from tolerance to celebration.

That fall, we developed a Code of Behaviour for the school. While it did not directly address sexual orientation, it did highlight respect for all people and the importance of honouring diversity. This allowed staff to begin classroom discussions around the question of what constitutes diversity and to take those discussions beyond race into sexuality and family composition.

Having facilitated the development of a Code of Behaviour in three other schools, I knew the process was as important as the product. The involvement of students, staff and parents is crucial, as is the ritual of yearly review, editing and recommitment.

In the last few years, our September Signing Ceremony has evolved into a joyous celebration. Students, staff and parent representatives sign the Code each fall in a school assembly to indicate their commitment to its stated values for the coming year.

The assembly ends with staff members presenting an energetic dance to “We Are Family” which invariably causes a barely contained riot of student applause.

It is obvious to students that staff care for and respect each other and have fun working together. The Code is illustrated by the Respect Mural on the gym wall facing Bidwell St, which provides a daily reminder to all.

In order to gauge the Code’s success, we then designed a Respect Rubric (one of those charts with the word “respect” spelled out down the left side and attributes beginning with each letter described and assessed on the right). Teachers and parents use the rubric each term to evaluate student growth in social responsibility. Students use it as a self-evaluation tool.

We also made it school-wide policy to include anti-homophobia lessons within discussions of diversity at all grade levels, starting in Kindergarten. Picture books depicting all kinds of families provide an effective way to broach the topic in the primary grades.

As a Lord Roberts parent recently said when asked if anti-homophobia should be taught in all elementary grades: “It is important to present information openly. The students will take in what they are ready for.”

Considering the inordinately high suicide rate among gay and lesbian teens, we cannot begin the discussion soon enough.

Recently, Lord Roberts celebrated Pride Week, planned by the newly formed school Pride Committee, a group of gay and straight staff members. “You Can Be Anyone You Want to Be” by the Flirtations was played over the public address system, the rainbow flag was raised in the playground, open classroom discussions took place without giggles, and anti-homophobia posters featuring a gay staff member and his partner were displayed. There were no complaints from students, parents, or community.

We have come a long way at Lord Roberts. Both gay and straight staff members now feel it is a gay-friendly school. All our gay and lesbian staff are out to colleagues and most are now out to students and parents, as well.

Though diversity is a part of every community, I feel that directly addressing homophobia is especially crucial in a West End school if we are to truly honour all members of our local community.

I commend the ongoing leadership of gay and straight staff and parents that has brought us to this point. It is my privilege to have been part of the continuing journey from tolerance to celebration.

There have been bumps in the road. There may be more to come.

The Vancouver School Board’s anti-homophobia policy provided me with welcome ammunition to back up my personal beliefs when addressing parent concerns. The government’s new Grade 12 elective Social Justice course is another positive initiative that will hopefully be chosen by future leaders.

I fully support MLA Lorne Mayencourt’s call for a code of conduct for all schools that explicitly prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender equity. While acceptance and celebration of all people can’t be legislated, the passing of the bill will necessitate the opening of discussion in all schools. We all have to start somewhere.