Moving to Chicago and coming to work at the Alliance, I had heard about the Berywn South School District and watched the video about the work the district did with the Alliance. Even with all of that I still didn’t think that it was going to have such a long lasting impression on my life.

Walking into Heritage Middle School I could instantly tell I was somewhere special. Heritage Middle School is exactly the kind of school I wish I could have gone to. Meeting with assistant principal, Allison Boutet, was refreshing, and  to hear an administrator talk about the need to not only support a transgender student, but to make sure that policies and procedures were in place to make sure the student’s rights were protected.

What makes Heritage Middle School so special is their eagerness from the beginning to make changes to support one of their students. Working with The Alliance to provide professional development training to staff, administrators, and teachers, creating gender neutral bathrooms, as well as creating gender inclusive policies makes the school safer for all students. They have even gone a step further to establish a support team, comprised of Alliance staff, teachers, and administrators who meet regularly to address any other issues when they arise.

Matt Dillon, a six grade teacher described how working with the Alliance has made him feel more comfortable working in the district. “Now, since we have been working with the Alliance, not only can I be myself to staff and students, but I have noticed and entire community at Heritage Middle School are themselves. We have had conversations in teacher meetings about LGBTQ life. Students have the option of seeing themselves in the books in our library. We can include examples, and conversations about LGBTQ people in our lessons (it’s actually encouraged!).”  It was impressive how the school made all of these changes in one year and by supporting one student, the school is supporting all students and staff as well. As Brittany Baldassano, a 7th grade teacher at Heritage pointed out “students, like education is always changing.”

In a time where you hear arguments about privacy rights and religious freedoms, you forget that at the center of all of this are children. Children who want to be treated like everyone else and not made out to be some kind of problem, which needs to be solved.This wasn’t completely clear to me until I met a student from Heritage Middle School. Students are not asking for any special accommodations other than to be treated like their peers. I wish everyone could have experienced what if felt like hearing this student tell me why they made the decision to tell their teachers that they were not happy at school, and what they needed to feel safe. 

Hearing them talk about how they would come to school angry and how they didn’t want to raise their hand in class because they didn’t want the teacher to call them by their birth name. Listening to them speak, I couldn’t help be inspired by this student who had enough of feeling unhappy that they decided to speak up. They didn’t just speak up though, they forever changed a school, climate, and policy.

I was nervously trying to hold back tears while they were talking with their friends. Yes, I didn’t just get to meet the teachers and administrators that support them but I also got to meet their friends.  We should all have friends like these. Their two friends, from the beginning made it clear that they are going be there and support them no matter what. I asked what does it mean being an ally and they told me that it meant “protecting and wanting the best for them and making sure they know there not going to lose you.”

The evidence of the Heritage Middle Schools transformation is everywhere you look. Walking through the halls you see signs about tolerance. There is a sensory room that students can use if they need to be alone. In the Library there are books that are representative of the LGBTQ community. By making the focus about the student, this school was able to allow a student to feel safe to be whom they are.

I concluded my interview by asking assistant principal Boutet if there had been backlash from parents or community about the changes at the school. She said that there hadn’t been any and was grateful the school had the district approved policy in case any concerns are presented in the future.

Matt gives the best advice to other school districts considering transgender inclusive policy. “My advice to other school districts thinking about creating a transgender policy is ‘what are you waiting for?’ It’s 2016 and it’s the easiest thing to do really. We followed the advice of the Alliance and put all of our ducks in a row. Once that was done we followed the leadership of our students! They have been the ones to take this and run with it and teach us what they need from us when it comes to policy. All concerns for issues with bathrooms and locker rooms were not a big deal with the students. They showed us what it means to be inclusive.”

Thank you, Heritage Middle School for letting me come and be a part of your amazing community!   

Article by: Dionna Anderson, Communications Manager