The Milwaukee Public School System will expand the services provided by its gay-friendly high school and apparently become the nation's first school system to create a gay-friendly middle school.
At a meeting two weeks ago, a subcommittee of Milwaukee's Board of Education unanimously approved the Alliance School's proposal to serve sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. The proposal gained unanimous approval from the full board by default when the item was not pulled for further discussion or a vote at last night's meeting. Alliance School lead teacher Tina Owen said the public charter school will begin accepting new applicants eligible for middle school in the 2009-2010 school year immediately.
Milwaukee's response to gay-friendly schools has been much different from other cities'. In Chicago, community leaders' concerns about creating a gay-friendly high school stalled plans to bring such a proposal before the city's school board. In New York City, protesters greeted students of the gay-friendly Harvey Milk High School in Manhattan's East Village on its first day of classes five years ago. But in Milwaukee, the Alliance School's birth as a high school and expansion to serve middle school students passed with no real opposition. Calls from social service organizations and parents urging Owen to create the middle school more quickly are the only responses she has received from the community, Owen said.
Before helping to create the Alliance School four years ago, Owen worked in another Milwaukee high school and advised its Gay Straight Alliance club. She heard horror stories from students who were being verbally and physically harassed on a daily basis because of their sexuality or gender identification. Research conducted by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network indicates that students across the country are experiencing the same trauma. A GLSEN study on school climate found that 86.2 percent of youth who identify themselves as other than heterosexual were verbally harassed in the past year and that 22.1 percent were also victims of physical assaults at school.
Marty Lexmond, the director of school innovation for Milwaukee Public Schools, said the need for a gay-friendly middle school is even greater today because adolescents are publicly identifying their sexuality as early as middle school. He added that he is pleased with Alliance's progress over the past four years because the school serves young people whose needs are not being met elsewhere. Lexmond believes that had many of the school's current students not attended Alliance, they would have acted out or dropped out of their old schools. Some students he came to know personally told him so.
Though Alliance is certainly a safe place for gay youth, Owen makes clear that she did not help create the school or its new middle school to benefit gay students only. "Alliance has never been exclusively a gay high school; rather, so many LGBTQ students are the ones being bullied," Owen said. "This school is for any student who wants to become a part of this safe environment."