New York City's Segregated School; Students Attending the Nation's First Public School for Gays and Lesbians Benefit from a Safe Environment and Excellent Facilities. If Only Their Peers Were So Fortunate

Insight on the News, October 27, 2003 | Go to article overview

New York City's Segregated School; Students Attending the Nation's First Public School for Gays and Lesbians Benefit from a Safe Environment and Excellent Facilities. If Only Their Peers Were So Fortunate


Byline: John M. Powers, INSIGHT

Last July the New York Post announced that New York City would open the nation's first public high school for gay and lesbian students. The media roiled as religious and conservative groups accused the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) and Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg of creating a segregated high school. Now the school has opened and the nation's media appear to have shrugged and looked elsewhere for opportunities to titillate or shock while affecting concerns based on high legal or moral principles. So what is it like inside Harvey Milk High School (HMHS), and what is the opposition doing to close it?

The project was started in 1985 as a small education program affiliated with the NYCDOE for at-risk students who experienced harassment as a result of being homosexual or perceived as such. According to NYCDOE spokeswoman Margie Feinberg, HMHS became a four-year, fully accredited high school because President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires states to create an accountability program for all public schools. As a result, all informal programs were eliminated in New York City. But instead of being closed, HMHS was given a $3.2 million renovation and became a full-fledged high school.

On Sept. 8, HMHS opened its doors like every other New York City public school while students made their way past protesters and supporters. The Post covered the school's opening and reported that a small number of protesters held signs that read "God Hates Fags" while a group of supporters numbering more than 200 chanted, "Two, four, six, eight, sodomy is really great!" Since its colorful opening the high school has been quite "normal," according to principal William Salzman.

So what is so different about HMHS? Critics of the school have wondered what the special needs of lesbian/ gay/bisexual/transgendered/questioning (LGBTQ) students are and why any public high school cannot meet them. It is not the need for a different curriculum, says Lenette Dorman, a spokeswoman for the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which has provided support services for HMHS since its inception. It is a matter of ensuring a safe learning environment for youths who experience harassment at other public schools. "We realize young people get harassed for a variety of different reasons. We don't find that the violence factor and the physical-abuse factor is the same [among peer] LGBTQ young people," Dorman says. The core curriculum at HMHS is the same as in any other public school.

"I'm trying to have a rigorous core" to the curriculum, Salzman says. Indeed he also offers four special-focus electives as a result of receiving eight newly renovated classrooms. These include media and technology, theater, robotics and culinary arts and were selected after meetings the principal held with student representatives and teachers who provided feedback on programs they wanted to see at the school. Salzman also is focusing on American history and is implementing the new reading and mathematics curriculum designed by the NYCDOE.

HMHS has its sights set on creating teams to compete with other schools. The principal says there are firm plans for volleyball, track and basketball teams, a cheerleading squad and a debate team that will compete in the Lincoln-Douglas and Urban League debates. There also are sketchy plans for a chess team. These teams will form as clubs and be competing with area schools by the end of the first term. The colors they will wear and their mascot have not been decided, though current favorites are blue and gold and a panther. Students are eager to compete with other schools, Salzman says, and will not be intimidated by the potential prejudice of opposing teams.

Physical-education classes involving martial arts and step aerobics are offered in a classroom in lieu of a gym. The school has an extended darkroom for its popular photography class and a fully functioning and well-supplied science room. …

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