Minn. Offers World’s First Online Gay School

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday August 6, 2009

GLBT youth who long for an alternative to schools where they may be subjected to anti-gay harassment may have another alternative to look forward to if a new online school for gay youth succeeds.

The new school, the GLBTQ Online High School, may eventually serve as a model for other online educational programs aiming to serve gay and lesbian students.

An Aug. 5 Pioneer Press article that was posted at TwinCities.com reported on the new GLBTQ Online High School, which is based in Mapelwood, Minnesota.

The article said that the school is thought to be the first online high school for GLBT youth.

Other schools meant primarily as safe learning spaces for gay and lesbian high school students do exist, most notably Harvey Milk High School in New York City, which has a student body of about 100 and is open not only to GLBT students but also to straight youth. Harvey Milk boasts an unusually high graduation rate--nearly 90% according to the Web site of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which founded and backs the school.

The new online school was created by David Glick, who, the TwinCities.com article noted, serves Minneota's Department of Education as its online learning coordinator.

So far, two dozen prospective students have applied, as have a hundred would-be instructors. The online nature of the new school means that even though the school is based in Minnesota, the students can apply, and learn, from anywhere in the country. The same is true of the faculty: the applicants for positions at the school have applied from around the globe.

Glick acknowledged that the students and their teachers would be interacting remotely. "We may not bring people closer physically--but we will in every other way," he was quoted as saying.

"We want to make them feel more confident about who they are," added Glick, who went on to note that GLBT students outside of urban centers who might not otherwise have access to safe school environments would benefit.

Aside from allowing young gays and lesbians the chance to remove themselves from potentially hostile environments, the online school would also allow them to interact with other GLBT youth, the article noted.

Even so, worries that the students would be "isolated" by online learning, rather than by being in physical proximity to their peers and instructors, was given voice by the University of Minnesota's David Johnson.

The article quoted Johnson, an instructor in social psychology, as saying, "The danger of the online high school is that kids will stay isolated and feel uncared for."

Added Johnson, "It would be much better to have these kids in a regular high school."

Indeed, some would question the need for schools that cater to the needs of GLBT youth. With more gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in more schools and students across the nation learning to respect their gay and lesbian peers, it might be hoped that gay students would fit right in with others in a typical high school environment.

Then there is the controversial aspect of segregation, self-imposed or otherwise, of sexual minorities. Does it really help gay youth to give them their own schools?

Or, from the point of view some right-wing pundits may espouse, does the existence of a school intended to offer a safe space for gay youth in some way "encourage" teens to "become" gay?

A proposed school for GLBT students was derailed in Chicago last year among conservatives' worries that if such schools were to continue being opened, school districts around the country would be "forced" to provide special educational facilities for GLBT youth.

Arne Duncan, former CEO of Chicago's public schools who was appointed by President Obama to the post of Secretary of Education, came in for flack from the right for having supported the Chicago GLBT school, which would have been named Social Justice High School-Pride Campus.

Arne spoke of the dropout rates of gay high schoolers and the larger percentage of homeless gay teens over homeless teens who were straight, but such concerns were drowned out by anti-gay rhetoric such as that from Illinois Family Institute spokesperson Laurie Higgins, who said of Duncan, "Our concern, of course, is that [Duncan is] going to take these values--these arguable, unproven theories about homosexuality and how public schools should treat it--and using his power and position, affirm that in some kind of more nationwide proposals, or policies."

Higgins added that Duncan's support for the proposed Chicago school was evidence that "he necessarily has taken a position on what homosexuality is--the nature of it, and its morality.

"In order to have curricula that affirm homosexuality, you have to have come to these prior conclusions," Higgins added.

An Associated Press article from last Nov. 20 noted that criticism of the school's stated intention to provide a safe educational space led to the proposal being recast as a school where any students subjected to bullying could get an education without fear of harassment and intimidation, but that, in turn, led advocates of the Social Justice High School's Pride Campus to pull the proposal off the table entirely, "in order to protect its integrity," in the words of Chicago GLBT liaison Bill Greaves, who indicated that the school might be proposed anew in 2009.

"We don't know what the proposal will look like at this point, but we will make sure that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students are not invisible," the November article quoted Greaves as saying.

Again, however, the new school was not intended to lock out straight students or to create an educational gay ghetto; as a Oct. 30, 2008 EDGE story reported, Chad Weiden, assistant vice principal at Social Justice High, saw the goal of the new campus as "to create a safe learning environment for LGBTQs" and, in general, a place of learning for those students who had "been overlooked in the system and not given opportunities."

Weiden placed the emphasis on "students who seek to investigate the central question of what it means to be an ally.

"In order to investigate that, we need a diverse population of students who can ally with someone whose race, sexuality, gender may be different and then work together towards issues of social justice," with the ultimate goal of making the proposed Pride campus "a training hub to educate teachers and administrators on issues of bullying and harassment, so eventually every school can be a Pride school."

Citing research from the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, which advocates for safe schools nationwide, the EDGE article reported, "GLSEN's 2007 National School Climate Survey found that nearly nine out of ten LGBT students experienced harassment at school in the past year.

"Three-fifths felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and about a third skipped a day of school in the past month because of safety concerns.

"When they did attend, the grade point average of students frequently harassed was almost half a grade lower than for students less often harassed."

But would a school that, almost by definition, side-steps student harassment be worth it in the trade-off of the the online world's lack of proximal real-world interaction?

In terms of educational attention, Glick dismissed such worries, noting that, "most online teachers get to know their online students better than face-to-face because they interact with more individuals."

The TwinCities.com article said that Glick was aiming to get the school accredited and operational for a January launch date. As for the curriculum, Glick vowed that the online high school would provide positive role models by teaching about GLBT historical figures.

The technical details about how teachers and students would interact included texting and video, as well as the use of multimedia teaching tools, the article said.

Good old-fashioned phone conversations would figure into the mix, too.

One upside of such a learning program would be to allow students to learn at their own rate, rather than have to try to keep up (or slow down) to match pace with the rest of the class.

Like the school's brick-and-mortar equivalent, Harvey Milk High School, the GLBTQ Online High School will not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation: straight students will also be welcome, the article said.

Older students who might feel out of place in a physical setting with teenagers would also be allowed to enroll and complete their high school educations.

Though schools already exist that provide GLBT students with a hassle-free learning environment, Glick noted that the online nature of the school made it experimental, and potentially a model for similar programs in the future.

"There's no other school we can look to as a model," the article quoted Glick as saying.

"People ask us, what's the research behind this? We are the research."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.