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In October 2016, the parents of an incoming kindergartener approached the administrators at John Philip Sousa Elementary School on Long Island, New York, and asked to arrange a meeting. That’s when they told the principal, counselor, and psychologist that their son Jamie was transgender.
During that first conversation, "there was a lot of emotion and fear on the parents' side," said Jennifer Biblowitz, the school's counselor. “But we listened and reassured them that it would be OK. We would create an inclusive and welcoming environment, and we would partner with them the whole way.”
In their Sunday session, "Preparing Your School to Welcome Transgender Students," Sousa Elementary’s principal and mental health staff shared how they created a safe and supportive environment for Jamie’s arrival that fall.
With almost a year to prepare, the team “needed to do a lot of talking, reading, and catching up,” said principal David Meoli. “We had to educate ourselves.” They had never served a transgender student before and wanted to learn as much as they could. They read titles like Becoming Nicole, Gender Medicine, and the January 2017 issue of National Geographic on the "Gender Revolution." They looked to resources including Gender Spectrum's Schools in Transition guide and HRC's Welcoming Schools program. And they connected with a principal in Brooklyn who had supported transitioning students in her school.
They didn't tap their own community, however. "We kept things close to the vest," said Meoli, in order to protect the student's privacy.
That January, they brought in Elisa Waters, a teacher and consultant, to provide staff training on gender. She offered a broad overview of the topic, covering basic terminology and areas like avoiding gender stereotypes ("boys lift heavy stuff" or "girls clean the tables"), using inclusive language (e.g., not addressing the class as "boys and girls"), and being welcoming of diverse families (e.g., avoiding putting "mom and dad" on school forms).
This early training sparked teacher thinking about the way they interact with and respond to students. "This has been a gift," Biblowitz emphatically told participants. "It's created some of the best educational conversations I've had in 20 years."
During a second training in May, the staff practiced different scenarios so that they could field students' questions and handle any situations that might arise. They also touched on more controversial topics like restroom accommodations. Most importantly, said Nadine Fitoussi, the school’s psychologist, they wanted to put a face to transgender children, to really humanize the training. So they showed the video, "Alex's Rap about Transgender Acceptance," featuring a young boy rapping about his coming out experience.
The team then looked to the students, preparing them by "ramping up our SEL program to be more welcoming," said Meoli. They adopted RULER (Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, and Regulating emotions), a program from Yale University that integrates social and emotional learning. They also led a schoolwide reading of The Energy Bus for Kids and promoted initiatives that contributed to "a culture of supporting one another," said Biblowitz.
In addition, they purchased a collection of children's books for the school library on gender, what it means to be gender-nonconforming, and diverse families. The team spent months reading and weeding through different titles, then shared the books with the grade-level teams for feedback.
When they were ready to stock the shelves, Meoli wrote a letter to parents (timed with No Name-Calling Week) introducing the new titles as part of an effort to increase the diversity of the library. The principal had a couple of visits and phone calls from unhappy parents, but he reinforced to them that the school needed "to reflect what’s happening in society and in our own community." At no time did the staff disclose Jamie's status.
Meoli also wanted to expand the school’s library because he assumed that there would be other kids in the school who were transgender. "For me, the compelling argument was that we had to have something in the library they could identify with."
With a schoolwide foundation of kindness in place, the administrators turned their attention to welcoming Jamie. They strategically selected his teacher and placed students in his class who they knew had supportive families. The teacher and his parents have worked closely together to ensure that Jamie is comfortable, safe, and supported. He uses the gender-neutral bathroom in his kindergarten class and the boys' restroom in other areas of the school.
Jamie has not publicly come out to his peers, although some students are aware of his status. He has two older siblings in the school, and one day, his sister told her 2nd grade class something along the lines of, "My sister is my brother." The teacher immediately reached out to Biblowitz for guidance, and she came into the class that afternoon and read Pugdog, a book about gender roles and acceptance. The students asked some questions about gender stereotypes, but "probably not one kid went home and said anything," Biblowitz noted. "We're giving them the skills with the SEL stuff so they can handle that."
Jamie's sister "felt so validated" from the conversation, they agreed. "There really isn’t a roadmap" to any of this, added Fitoussi.
But clearly, they're doing something right. "He's the happiest kid in our school," said Meoli.
Sarah McKibben is the managing editor of Education Update newsletter.
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