Struggling to choose what pair of joggers to wear, trying to subtly beat your face for the “gawds” in the morning, and deciding what filter to put over your “Goodmorning” snap for your Snapchat followers are things teens goes through daily and are typically choices parents do not have to make.
Parents see their teens off to school and recognize the clothes they are wearing and the type of energy their children carry with them; though many do not see the costume they squeezed in before they walked out of the house door, it is each teens’ golden ticket through high school to avoid being bullied, teased, and exposed for discovering their true selves.
Are school environments causing teenagers to not be themselves for eight hours? According the 2013 National School Climate Survey by Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), roughly 60 percent of LGBT teens hear anti-gay comments at their school. The survey also stated 74 percent of students are verbally abused for their sexual orientation while another 55 percent were harassed because of their gender identification. So is there a school that can embrace students for their educational challenges or giftedness, sexuality, and gender identity?
Enter Pride School Atlanta
Christian Zsilavetz, co-founder of Pride School Atlanta and transgender male, feels as though LGBT identifying and gender nonconforming kids should be in a school environment where students are able to “be, learn, and grow.”
Pride School Atlanta is a K-12, private school geared toward students and educators who want a safe and encouraging education academically and socially.
This sounds like heaven for any student no matter how they sexually identify, but in the court of public opinion the school has received national coverage and criticism.
Zsilavetz began identifying as a transgender male at 27 and transitioned when he was 36. With more than 25 years of education experience, Pride School Atlanta was a dream of his that is actually coming true. Zsilavetz wanted to work in an environment where his identity and his extensive work experience was valued and where “boys who wear pink in kindergarten who are already being bullied,” he assured in an interview with VOX, could be celebrated.
Media platforms from mainstream outlets such as NPR to local Atlanta blogs have covered Pride School Atlanta. Zsilavetz has also had to change the Pride School Atlanta Facebook page from a school classification to a community program account since under the former grouping, users are able to submit reviews and comments.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution covered the Pride School Atlanta and comments on their Facebook page range from mocking to critical:
In January, Zsilavetz was interviewed on Situations with Wanda Smith on Atlanta’s top rated R&B station, The Ryan Cameron Morning Show on V103. One of the more opinionated callers stated to Zsilavetz: “What do they [LGBT members] want? They want to be treated equal, now they want a gay school too? You can’t have both.”
Zsilavetz’s comments seemed almost systematic, as if he had been prepped for a hate campaign by Olivia Pope: “Well what about HBCUs? Why do you have to wait to be with your people?”
The Bullying Game
The stretch of an analogy only confronted one facet of both schools: inclusionary environments where you are surrounded with the same people. Though his statements are valid, they call into question how inclusion can be attained at the school if in fact, Atlanta Pride School is open to all students, including straight-identifying students.
Regardless of the “foot-in-mouth” gaffe, when Zsilavetz spoke with VOX, he felt the need to fortify the culture of the school.
“It’s not like we are going to sit around the campfire saying gay this and that, we are going to walk into school.”
Zsilavetz said bullying will be addressed, and understands that bullying exists in the LGBT community as well.“You have the permission to stop the school to solve the issue,” he said. Zsilavetz explained how the school would be democratic and that if a student has a issue they have the ability to receive help for it at that moment.
“Everyone bullies every now and again, and I think zero tolerance is a joke,” Zsilavetz stated, recognizing that bullying is tough to deal within any environment.
However making the school “democratic” and open to a student’s emergency at that exact moment could perpetuate the sheltering aspect of Pride School Atlanta that people are concerned about.
“School shouldn’t just be a place of survival,” Zsilavetz stated. While rational, one can’t help but question: is tending to a student’s every cry really teaching them to appropriately deal with their issues or creating habits to allow others to interject for them?
Pride School Atlanta will enroll roughly 60 students for their August school year start. At $13,000 per year, the school is stationed outside of the metro Atlanta area at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation Church in Brookhaven, which limits the opportunity for low-income minorities in Atlanta to attend.
“We have not recruited any student at Pride School Atlanta,” Zsilavetz stated when asked how he’d recruit minorities. Zsilavetz did express how most of the students who are currently enrolled come from urgent families wanting to find a safe place or help for their child.
Most families contact Pride School Atlanta, “willing to try something new,” Zsilavetz said.
An Open-Minded Outlook
While the school’s intentions have been criticized, some students are open to the idea of an accepting institution.
“I actually like the idea of the school, most school systems constrict kids and tell them how they are supposed to color inside the lines. I find it refreshing,” said Marcus Strickland, a student at Chamblee Charter High School.
Strickland identifies as a gay male but when asked if he would consider attending the school he responded with an abrupt “no.”
Lillian Dinkins, heterosexual-identifying senior at Dekalb School of The Arts, said she would attend the school.
“My school is pretty much like that now, and you are going to run into people like that anyways. I would go for support.”
Dinkins, who initially didn’t realize Pride School Atlanta would be K-12, said that broad age range could be difficult for younger ones.
“I think any school K through 12 could be dangerous, but some older kids prey on younger and unintentionally have an influence on younger,” she said. “May not make it a natural process for them.”
Zsilavetz seems genuine in his motivations to help students be themselves in education.
The push for inclusion has been subsided by school officials and is seen as a political, everlasting chess match.
Even students have latched onto this mentality.
For students to make the best of what they can in the schools and classrooms, some attend without tampering with the reality of education now in society. For very few students, Pride School Atlanta hopefully can be what they need to holistically learn and grow.
But to the masses, this school may forever be looked upon as an unfocused circus and sadly Zsilavetz is looked at as its ringleader.