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Gender Inclusivity Gaining Momentum on Independent School Campuses
For those of us who have worked with young people for decades, meeting students who do not conform to traditional gender roles is not new. What is new, however, is that the discussion of gender not being binary has taken on increased prominence. As a result, growing awareness and new policies to support students are gaining momentum on school campuses.
Supporting transgender students and strategies for gender inclusivity have become regular topics in educators’ professional development circles. The Association of Boarding Schools, for example, recently featured two such sessions at its annual conference in Washington, DC. In addition, new conferences have emerged to focus on clinical and educational perspectives: The Gender Education DeMystification Symposium will mark its fourth annual conference in Atlanta this February. That same month, the Time to Thrive Conference—organized by the HRC Foundation, the National Education Association and the American Counseling Association—will mark its sixth annual conference in Anaheim, CA.
The spate of research, public advocacy, and professional development is translating into action on campuses nationwide, ranging from updating student handbooks to renovating facilities. In the world of boarding schools, Phillips Exeter Academy, Choate Rosemary Hall, Phillips Academy Andover, The Hotchkiss School, and Northfield Mount Herman School have each opened, or are in the process of creating, dorm options that are inclusive of all genders. Across institutions, educators are sharing ideas and expertise with the goal of serving all students.
Like the schools with whom we work, we at The Bertram Group make it our highest priority to serve all students well. One of the most fulfilling aspects of being an educational consultant is recognizing each candidate as an individual, and helping candidates find the school settings where they can be their best selves.
Below are perspectives from three educators about how schools are leading the way in this field.
Phillips Exeter Academy
Director of Student Activities
“To make a truly welcoming campus, Exeter has been working on multiple levels—professional development, facilities, policies, personal interactions. Along the way, we have found this process has prompted us to make changes that are appreciated by all our students.
“We now have two dorms that are designated as “all-gender,” which means they are supportive communities that are open to anyone with a shared interest in this topic. When we sent home communications to parents about this development, we received a lot of positive responses. We also have been making changes to add more privacy—which is something that all students have liked—in bathrooms, locker rooms, and changing areas.
“To promote positive personal interactions, we are building awareness and adjusting organizational systems. We found that students often desired help or guidance in communicating with faculty and peers about chosen names and pronouns. I am in the role of LGBTQ+ Coordinator to offer support on such issues. One of our biggest challenges was working within existing software to ensure that our information databases reflected students’ self-identified names and gender identities. Diversity, inclusion, and equity are cornerstone values at Exeter and we are striving to have our campus policies and environment match those values.”
Mb Duckett Ireland
Choate Rosemary Hall
English Faculty, Diversity Education Committee Chair
“Schools need the resources to speak about gender in meaningful way. Choate has been doing this through professional development, by bringing speakers onto campus, and by facilitating open dialogue with students. We prioritize equity, inclusion, and developing cultural competency. Gender identity fits into that series of discussions with both faculty and students. As a faculty point person on this topic, I speak in person with students to hear their experiences. Students have also shared their perspectives through an anonymous survey.
“Beyond facilities enhancements, we are updating our data management systems, policies, and handbooks. It’s important and affirming for students to see themselves reflected in these places before they even present themselves to you. It’s important to not make assumptions about a student’s identity or what they need to feel supported. The best strategy as a faculty mentor is to facilitate open communication. Fortunately, one of the benefits of boarding school is having time with students, so faculty get to know them in a wider variety of capacities, which expands our ability to support them.
“Adults—parents, educators, and others—who are just beginning to educate themselves about gender identity sometimes find it a confusing arena because the conversation continues to evolve. I encourage people to stick with it; a deeper understanding develops over time.”
Julie Mencher, MSW
LGBT Diversity Consultant, Psychotherapist, Educator and Trainer
“The current gender revolution is rocking our age-old assumptions that gender is a salient, static, and binary dimension of human life. With over 50 gender categories on Facebook, and the Common App offering high school seniors the opportunity to name a different gender identity than the sex they were assigned at birth, it can seem like the kids are speaking another language where gender is concerned. I stress the need to learn about the changing gender landscape as part of parenting these days—both to keep up with our kids in how they view the world and to prepare them to be launched into the world as it is today, not as it was when we grew up.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach that will work for all independent schools. I encourage schools to focus on how the culture of their specific community determines how to best support transgender/gender-nonconforming students. Providing education and training on the transgender topic to faculty and staff, leadership teams, the board of trustees, and parents engages everyone in a process of learning that puts everyone on the same page. I’ve worked with schools from the most traditional to the most progressive. And I’ve been so moved to watch how attitudes change over the course of a training workshop. Learning really does lead to growth and change!”