School's out

Walt Whitman Community School in Oak Lawn is America's first private high school for gay and lesbian students. Despite some grim personal stories, the kids are all right.

Allen acknowledges that "we walk a fine line in counseling students who're questioning their sexuality. We don't want to influence them in any direction, but we do want to provide a supportive environment so they can come to decisions about their identity themselves. We encourage students to discuss the issue with family members as part of helping accept themselves."

And what if family members don't want a gay or lesbian teenager to accept their sexuality?

"Then we have outside therapists, organizations, and alliances we can refer the student to. We try to help them decide whether it's safe to discuss these issues at home."

Walt Whitman Community School isn't just a safety zone. It's practically a womb, a cocoon for young people whose emotional issues generally are ignored by most secondary institutions. But both organizers admit its legitimacy as a school is still a question mark. Open just two months, the school has yet to receive accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits private institutions in Texas. Stone and Thompson plan to go for "special purpose school accreditation" as soon as they're permitted, which won't be for three years. A private school has to stay open that long before SACS will even consider an application. Once accredited, all diplomas get the SACS seal of approval retroactively.

"It's a bit of a risk for the students," Stone admits, "especially those who are college-bound. But as anyone who's ever home-schooled their kids can tell you, the system has ways around not having a diploma from an accredited school. There are exceptions for students with high SAT scores. We're also working with two seniors right now to get them into community college programs that will gain them credits the universities want. We've had college recruiters down here, and they were very supportive of what we were doing."

Both believe the risks are more than compensated for by the personal attention the students receive. As for the annual $7,000 fee, Thompson says, "No student is turned away because they can't afford it. In fact, no kid here pays full tuition. We're just now researching private and public scholarship funds, and we've gone to a few sympathetic individuals who'll sponsor the kids."

Thompson and Stone pull their salaries "on a month-to-month basis" from a donation pool that's replenished by some regular private investors, but mostly by one-time donations from individuals who have read about the school. Thompson admits that they considered not opening Walt Whitman after the initial enrollment of seven fell below the goal of 10 they'd set for the school. The lower-than-expected tuition revenues have made their lives and the future of the school precarious. But she says they get calls daily from interested students, and based on interviews expect to double enrollment by mid-semester.

Thompson and Stone say "all the bureaucracy" of the public school system was a major reason why they chose to open a private school rather than crusade inside DISD. It was a matter addressed by one local school board member. In private talks, the trustee "supported the idea [of a gay and lesbian school], but wondered why we weren't pushing to do this work in public schools, especially since the parents were paying taxes to finance the system anyway," Thompson says.

"The difference between teaching a class of 35 and a class of eight is remarkable," she says. "You don't have to run to somebody above to get approval for every little thing you say. You have time to treat the students like individuals. We had 65 students at Walden Prep, and I liked to say there were 65 different reasons why they were there."

The reasons why eight students have enrolled at Walt Whitman Community School are just as diverse, but they can be attributed to a common source--the stigma of homosexuality. Thompson cites a number of local skirmishes, like the parents and school employees who demanded a Carrollton high school band cancel its trip to Disney World in order to support the Southern Baptist Convention's boycott. (After a fractious school board meeting, the trip continued.) And "you can't even say the word 'condom' in Plano schools," she notes.

"People wonder why gay and lesbian kids drink and drug in higher numbers than their straight friends," Thompson says. "Well, if you accept what counselors say--that addictions are started to numb emotions people can't handle--the explanation is clear. These kids hear from adults that their feelings are a sickness that must be cured or controlled, or something positively evil. That sounds like a prescription for self-medication to me."

Stone and Thompson are adamant that their curriculum addresses the intertwined issues of identity and visibility--of giving their students the chance to feel better about themselves. Their classes note the homosexuality of historical figures whom traditional schools also cover but don't "out." Stone says that just recently she compiled profiles in her world history class that included gay, lesbian, or bisexual leaders and pioneers from different countries and eras--all figures that most people presumed are straight because they were never taught otherwise.

Still, Thompson admits that there's a limit to the identity affirmation. "Somebody asked me one time, 'Do you guys do gay and lesbian algebra problems?'" she recalls with a laugh. "I tried to imagine what that was: 'Three lesbians drive to the grocery store, buy three gay magazines each...' The answer is, no, we're not that anal retentive."

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