Walk in the front door of Milwaukee’s gay-friendly Alliance School and at first it doesn’t seem all that different from many big-city high schools. Metal lockers line the hallways of the old cinderblock building, once home to a city recreation program. Interspersed with the lockers are colorful student artwork and fliers taped to the walls and classroom doors. Before and after school and during passing periods, students crowd the hallways, jostling and calling out loudly to each other, even as others make little to no eye contact. Teachers threading their way through answer questions about homework and order kids to class. Students drift into the office asking for bus passes. Lockers, one after another, slam shut.
But, look and listen more closely, and the unique characteristics of Alliance emerge. Its vibe: laid-back but edgy. No bells signal the beginning and end of class periods. Students talk freely on their cell phones and address teachers by their first names. But many of the flyers and wall posters carry messages urging “peace” and “respect.” Some students seem wary of a visitor in the building, with more than one asking, “Are you a sub?” And even by the almost anything goes sartorial standard of today’s high school, many Alliance students stand out for their wildly flamboyant, unconventional style. To be sure, plenty of boys are wearing jeans, some carrying skateboards or basketballs under their arms. But it’s not unusual to see them talking to other males wearing multiple earrings and dramatic, perfectly applied eye makeup. Some girls are dressed as if for a fashion show runway, wearing three-inch heels and glittery tops. Others express themselves through rainbow-hued hair, multiple body piercings, or a long, black trench coat.
Teachers eventually clear the halls, curbing off-color and rude comments. And students know that once they get to class, cell phones must be silenced and used only to take emergency calls. Yes, there are rules. But, on a day last fall when a substitute teacher ordered a student out of her classroom for refusing to take off his hat, regular staff members rolled their eyes at what was clearly viewed as an overreaction. “Why would I waste my time worrying about students wearing hats in class given the problems they’re facing, the issues they’re dealing with?” asked English teacher Paul Moore, one of the school’s founding teachers. “What we need to be doing is establishing relationships with these kids and making sure they feel safe and accepted. Only then can we can expect them to be in a position to learn.”
A safe haven
Moore and his colleagues at Alliance face the daunting task of meeting the social/emotional and academic needs of a group of students whose sexual orientation puts them in what some say is society’s last unprotected class. The school opened in 2005 as a teacher-led charter school operating under the auspices of the Milwaukee Public Schools. The school’s lead teacher is Tina Owen, a former MPS instructor whose vision shaped Alliance as a safe haven for students who had been bullied or discriminated against not only because of their sexual orientation, but also their beliefs, abilities, or appearance.
Several students transferred to Alliance after being bullied at their neighborhood schools for their conservative Christian views, and some academically oriented students taunted for being nerdy enrolled at Alliance seeking the chance to study in peace. Still other students say they were driven out of their neighborhood schools by unrelenting criticism of their weight, clothing choices, or body odor.
When it opened, Alliance was one of only two high schools in the country (the other, New York City’s Harvey Milk High School) explicitly designated as gay-friendly. Four years later, it was expanded to include grades six through eight, making it the first and only such school in the country to serve middle school students.
Alliance is small — it has 172 students, 12 full-time, and six part-time faculty and staff. Last year’s graduating class was made up of just 21 students. Like most urban schools, Alliance also is diverse in terms of race, family income, and special education eligibility. About 40% of its students are black, 31% are white, 24% are Hispanic, and 5% are Asian. Almost 77% are eligible for free- or reduced-priced lunch, 25% are homeless or in foster care, and close to one-third qualify for special education.
Still, Alliance is primarily known as Milwaukee’s “gay school,” with about half of the student body identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. They come to Alliance from all over the city, its suburbs, and from rural communities as far as 50 miles away.
“Once you’re explicitly gay-friendly and say that, it sets up a certain level of expectation,” Owen said.
But she points out that the school’s mission is broader. “We’re not looking only through the lens of gender,” she said. “That’s just one piece of who we are as humans. At other schools, if you don’t fit in this box or that box, you’re harassed, kicked around, pushed out. Here, it doesn’t matter. We promise all our students the same level of safety and acceptance we promise the LGBT students.”
To that end, Alliance’s curriculum is designed to address the issue of bullying with restorative justice practices and community-building activities. Its Restorative Justice class, a popular elective course for upperclassmen taught by Heather Sattler, trains students to participate in Peacemaking Circles, a technique derived from Native American traditions and steeped in ritual, that are used to resolve conflicts, promote honest communication, and develop positive relationships. During an intense circle session convened by Sattler and Beth Wellinghoff last fall in an English class they coteach, they asked each student to tell of a significant change in his or her life. They shared experiences that were overwhelmingly personal and often tragic. One girl revealed that at the age of six she had been blamed by family members for the accidental death of her baby sister. Another, who admitted that for years she had considered committing suicide, said she now felt she had to go on living in order to care for her cancer-stricken mother. “It’s a nonjudgmental way to tap into what the kids are about and to begin to develop trust,” said Sattler of the circle process.
Culture of acceptance
Jasmin Price, 16, is one of several dozen students who on most days end up eating lunch in Moore’s classroom, a huge space dominated at one end by an elevated stage. Some join Moore for a round of the card game Magic; others play Dungeons & Dragons. A third group of kids settles in on the old couch and easy chairs scattered around the stage to play a video game.
Jasmin, a relative newcomer, sits nearby watching, a book open on her lap. Her path to Alliance, which began in 5th grade, is heartbreakingly typical of that reported by many of her peers. Raised in a mostly upscale Milwaukee suburb 20 miles from the city, she loved elementary school.
“But middle school was horrible,” she said. “If you didn’t have a lot of money and weren’t a real girly girl, you’d get picked on. It was constant. And I’d get so anxious I’d make myself sick, which meant I’d miss school, which would make me even more anxious.”
Jasmin, whose mother is gay, describes herself as bisexual. She begged to be homeschooled, but, because that wasn’t an option, she bounced around to a few other traditional schools before happily landing at Alliance last September.
“After just four weeks here, I’m already more comfortable than I’ve been since 5th grade,” she said. “It’s really different, in a good way. Everyone here knows what it’s like to be bullied or harassed just for being yourself. So we don’t pick on each other. We may not all be best friends, but we treat each other like human beings.”
Sommer Kersten, 17, describes herself as pan-sexual. She said she has a “boyfriend” who is a girl. “I don’t care about people’s gender,” Sommer said. “I have my own taste, but I accept that there are many gender options.” At her former school she was routinely called a “dyke” — when she wasn’t being ignored. “Here, I felt real comfortable right away. I noticed there were some people who liked the same things as me — like the piercings. And I wasn’t the only one with exotic hair.”
According to Domonic Exum, 19, the culture at Alliance is based on the premise that “You get along with everyone, and everyone gets along with you.” At his former high school, he said, “Kids would start out arguing about petty stuff. There would be a lot of ‘He said...’ and ‘She said...’ By the end of the day, it would have escalated to the point where the police were called, and the school was put on lock-down. Here, we’re more mellow. New kids sometimes come with an attitude, but by the time they’re four weeks in, they get the message: We don’t do the drama stuff here.”
An at-risk population
Because so many of Alliance’s students are considered at risk of dropping out of school before graduating, the school operates on a four-days-a-week, year-round schedule. The block schedule enables students to take just four, 100-minute classes each day.
Going to school year round not only helps combat the so-called summer brain drain that affects many low-income and minority students, but also aims to counteract an even more alarming reality: higher-than-average national suicide rates for students who are homeless, in foster care, or who identify as transgender. “Many of them don’t have the ongoing support they need outside of school,” Owen said.
As a charter school, Alliance also has the flexibility to set aside Tuesdays for staff professional development; students don’t report to school, but instead are expected to spend the day working to complete a 60-hour community service requirement for which they receive one-half course credit, and a required online course. Among the students’ online class options: credit recovery classes, remedial education classes designed to boost math or English skills, Advanced Placement classes, or electives such as Art History or Digital Art. Some students also spend Tuesdays working at part-time jobs. Giving students so much flexibility in their schedule, Owen said, helps them learn how to manage “freedom with responsibility.”
Students say the culture at Alliance and the way classes are structured make it easier for them to concentrate on their schoolwork. “I remember I used to try to buckle down in my classes, but there was so much stress, and I was so depressed or angry that I ended up cutting school a lot,” Sommer said. “Here, I go every day, the teachers are easygoing, and I only have four classes to deal with at a time.”
Meeting academic needs
Yet, despite such accolades, huge challenges persist. Owen is so concerned about the 10% of Alliance students who are transgender that she’s made their academic needs one of the issues she’s focusing on this year. Although she says transgender students are well accepted, many of them struggle to achieve. The transgender community, she wrote in her annual mission statement, is “particularly vulnerable to street crime, homelessness, sexual assault, and discrimination. The sense of hopelessness that many of these young people feel is devastating, and this has a measurable effect on their achievement.”
But teachers also struggle to meet the academic needs of the school’s less emotionally vulnerable students. Due to Alliance’s small size, the number of course offerings is limited. With the exception of 9th-grade English and math, classes are taught in mixed grade-level settings where student ability varies widely. In fact, because Alliance offers a full-inclusion special education program, some students are reading at only the 4th- or 5th-grade level. Beyond that, many average or above-average students come to Alliance after spending years in hostile environments where they languished academically, severely underachieving and developing bad habits.
One day last fall in teacher Chris Gruntzel’s Advanced Algebra class, Gruntzel had a group of eager students in the palm of his hand as he taught a lesson on root-mean-square error. Yet as he explained how the concept measures differences between values predicted by a mathematical model, Gruntzel was interrupted by students arriving late to class and later was forced to slow the pace of the lesson to attend to several students who clearly were lost.
Asked if psychological support trumped intellectual rigor, Sattler said that while social justice issues permeate her teaching, and that teacher-student relationships are critical to Alliance’s mission, “I don’t coddle students when it comes to academics.” Indeed, the first of “The Six Agreements” drawn up by Alliance’s inaugural class and posted on a bulletin board in Sattler’s classroom states that “Schoolwork comes first.”
Owen, who teaches online Spanish and physical education classes, said that’s the norm. “I don’t think academics take a backseat here,” she said. “We’re tough. You don’t do the work, you’re going to fail.” Nonetheless, she conceded, “It does sometimes take awhile to get students where we want them to be. But we’re patient. We don’t give up. We don’t get angry. We just keep pulling them forward.”
But, said Moore, “It’s especially challenging to find ways to offer the smart kids the level of rigor they need.” He routinely supplements their required reading lists, asks them in-class discussion questions designed to promote higher-level thinking, and sets increasingly higher standards when it comes to their written work. Gruntzel is in the process of building a sequence of math courses designed to offer Alliance’s brightest students more rigor.
Standardized test data, at first glance, is not encouraging. Last year, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, only 33% of Alliance 10th graders scored at the proficient or advanced level in reading; 25% did so in math. In both cases, that was lower than the district average, landing Alliance on the list of Schools Identified for Improvement for the second time in three years. But Owen points out that only 24 10th graders took the test last year, including eight special education students. “Given the sample’s small size and its makeup, it’s hard to see the scores as meaningful,” she said.
Owen prefers to look for evidence of success in other measures, such as Alliance’s mobility rate, which has decreased from 60% in 2005 to 17% this year, and its attendance rate, which over the same period has jumped from 66% to 91%. And she points with special pride to the fact that 15 of the 21 students in the 2012 graduating class are now in college or other postsecondary schools.
Ana Jimenez, 19, is one of those students. A freshman at Milwaukee’s Alverno College, she vividly recalls years of bullying, family problems, and depression that nearly derailed her. At Alliance, she “became part of a family,” she said, and transitioned from “a girl who looked and felt angry all the time” to the school’s prom queen and talent show winner. She also won Alliance’s Toccara Wilson Award, named in memory of one of the school’s founders and awarded to the student who best represents, over four years, the ideals to which Alliance aspires. “I still can’t believe it. This school saved my life,” Ana said.
Spreading the word
A spate of positive national publicity, not to mention several awards, have helped boost Alliance’s reputation. Time, U.S. News & World Report, and People magazines, as well as ABC News, all have showcased its program. The school also was honored with the Wisconsin Charter Schools Association’s 2011 Charter School of the Year Platinum Award and, last January, the Fair Wisconsin Organization of the Year Award. In August, Owen learned that the school had received a $125,000 grant from Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction.
Owen said the grant money will be used to underwrite anti-bullying workshops and restorative justice training sessions that Alliance staff and students will put on at other area secondary schools, universities, and community agencies. Plans also call for creating a video and summer training programs, and developing visitation days when the school will be opened to those interested in learning more about how to replicate the Alliance model.
Yet even the positive press, the awards, and the grant money couldn’t stop state budget cuts that have forced Alliance to begin phasing out its middle school program. This year, its 6th grade was eliminated; by the 2014-15 school year, it will serve only high schoolers. “It’s a shame,” Owen said. “There are so many middle school kids who really need to be in this kind of an environment.”
Despite the setback, Owen and her staff know Alliance continues to meet the profound needs of a subset of students whose very lives, in some cases, depend on its continued existence. They have become adept at responding to the often-heard criticism that Alliance’s model provides nothing more than a temporary respite, a Band-Aid for students who would be better served by learning how to stand up and face — rather than be sheltered from — the abuse bound to be heaped on those living on what many still consider the fringe of society.
“What they need,” Moore said, “is a place to be safe from physical abuse and psychological trauma while they explore who they think they are, and get a chance to grow, in peace, at their own rate. Sure, they’ll face discrimination, but it’s a whole different ballgame once you’re 17 or 18 and a more confident person than it is when you’re just 13 or 14.”
Sommer said she’s contemplated the hard reality of taking her place in the real world. “Sure, I’ll have to deal with it. And I will. But for now, here, I can just be myself.”
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