“In Berkeley, we’ve always embraced diversity,” said Karen Hemphill, Berkeley Unified School District Board Member, at the Monday morning session at Annual Conference on “Welcoming Schools: A system-wide approach to family diversity, gender, and bullying.” Hemphill added, “Within that diversity, we have families with diverse points of view, including families that do not embrace all kinds of families.”
In order to strengthen what the district was doing to make sure their schools would be safe and nurturing, including changing their anti-bullying and tolerance policy and approach, the Berkeley school board adopted the Welcoming Schools program a year ago as a board mandate for kindergarten through fifth grade.
Welcoming Schools is a school climate program that was developed with the support of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation (HRCF) by parents and educators who wanted a tool that would make schools inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender families, as well as adoptive families, single parent families, and foster families to name a few.
Kim Westheimer, director of Welcoming Schools at HRCF, described the components of the program, which are: Establish leadership/ training for educators; community forums for parents/guardians; lesson plans (which are aligned with academic and social/emotional standards), and evaluation. She shared findings of the three-year pilot program with the San Francisco Unified School District, Minneapolis Public Schools, and New Bedford (Mass.) School District.
“Sixty percent of participants reported climate improvement,” said Westheimer, “educators felt more equipped to teach lessons on gender, anti-gay bullying and family diversity; there was increased attention to addressing diversity, and increased belief in the benefit of the lessons for all children.” Also found in pre- and post-assessments were a decrease in fear of parental and religious objections. “Involving parents in implementation helped temper the fears,” said Westheimer.
Berkeley USD partners with Our Family Coalition, a community organization, whose executive director, Judy Appel said “Berkeley was the first place in the country to adopt Welcoming Schools district wide.
Neil Smith, assistant superintendent, described how the program was tested in three district schools, and at the same time they began a system of looking at the curriculum and creating advocates for it. They established a district leadership group that included parents, teachers, and administrators.”A first major step was ensuring that teachers understood this was important.” Smith added, “We held parent community-building events to increase understanding among families.”
“The material can be really challenging for a lot of folks,” said Appel, “There often are questions from parents and concerns. We’ve found the best way is to talk about it with parents in community.” She explained that none of the lessons are gay-lesbian specific, but they are inclusive. “We learned that parents want to feel prepared to discuss what the children are learning.”
A school board member from Alberta, Canada, asked “How do we know we’re making a difference?” Smith responded, “We’re keeping track of referrals, but it’s hard to tease out which component in a large system of building effective schools is making a specific difference.” Other questions revolved around the cost of Welcoming Schools, which is minimal aside from purchasing specific library books. And training and technical assistance is available from HRCF.
“The cost of not doing this will be far greater down the line,” said a board member.
Brenda Z. Greene