Pride School Atlanta To Serve As Safe Haven For LGBT Students, Teachers
A new private school is planning to open this summer. It would be one of the first of its kind in the country – specifically looking to attract students from the LGBT community.
It will be known as Pride School Atlanta and serve as an intentional safe space for children, parents and even teachers.
Director Christian Zsilavetz is pumped up when he talks about the new school. He’s still deciding between a few locations, but a top contender is Rock Spring Presbyterian Church.
Right now, there’s a daycare at the church, but he hopes to add a school there. He looks out the window at a playground from one of the classrooms.
“It’s totally fenced in, which is what I really like, and there’s actually blacktop back there with a basketball hoop, and there’s plenty of room for kickball,” Zsilavetz says.
Zsilavetz is transgender and used to teach math at a private school in Decatur.
“I was having a hysterectomy so I needed to out myself,” Zsilavetz says. “It’s kind of weird to say, ‘I’m having surgery and I’m not going to tell you what it’s about.’”
Zsilavetz says the school’s director didn’t want him to be out in the classroom.
“So I went to the boss and she said, ‘You know I’m not really comfortable with it,’ and she talked to her board president and they had some real conversations about it,” he says. “And I said, ‘Well my dream school is where my experience is 100 percent welcome as an educator so I can be the best mentor I can be.’ And the cool part is the director turned to me and said: ‘Well, why don’t you start that school?’”
He wants to start with classes from pre-K to eighth grade. Tuition at Pride School Atlanta will be about $12,000 per student.
But here’s the problem. He only has $900 set aside for the school. So how’s he going to do it?
“Faith,” Zsilavetz says. “Shoestrings and faith. I knew the money would come eventually.”
He’s gotten financial pledges of support.
“Many people say, well, you need so many thousands of dollars and partially, you know, we’re reaching out ─ I hate to say it that way ─ to the old gay money here in Atlanta because there are lots of older folks who have no kids who have been successful. There’s a large LGBT community here,” Zsilavetz says.
People write to him to say they want to volunteer or pay for students to attend because they wish this school was around when they were kids.
Plus, he says, a space like Rock Spring Presbyterian Church rents for $1,000 a month, so “one tuition would cover the rent for a year.”
‘A Free School’
Pride School Atlanta will operate on a free school model, which means no assigned homework and no required tests.
Kara Vona is helping Pride School Atlanta get off the ground.
“We’re going to teach them how to read and we’re going to make sure that they know how to do math.” Vona says. “But you can do all of those things without having this multiple choice answers and standardized tests and hours of homework every night and little kids having to go to the chiropractor because their backpacks are so heavy.”
Vona used to teach at Dunwoody High School. She has experience with start-ups.
She helped start the Emma Lazarus High School for immigrants in New York City, New York, that was ranked by Newsweek in 2014 as the top school in the country for low-income students.
“There’s a long history of school of this working quite successfully and also we have really skilled educators, who really can work with the style ─ that is very different,” Von says.
“At my school, sometimes I’m still scared to tell people that I’m gay, and I pretty much never mention that I’m transgender,” Eli Sommer, a junior at River Ridge High School in Cherokee County, says. “If I was at Pride School, I wouldn’t have to worry about that.”
He started the GLOW club last year. GLOW stands for Gay, Lesbian Or Whatever. He says his school is very supportive, but students in his club say they’re hesitant to tell administrators when they get bullied.
“I think that really, a lot of it goes unreported because they’re not sure who it’s safe to tell it to ─ like they aren’t sure if the counselors will be OK or if the counselors are going to tell their parents,” he says.
Many school districts in the metro Atlanta area don’t keep or break down reports of bullying by sexual orientation or gender expression, but a 2013 survey by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network found that 80 percent of LGBT students in Georgia say they were verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation. More than a third said they were physically harassed.
And that harassment can start early.
Faith Yewdall is the parent of a six-year-old who attended D.H. Stanton Elementary in Atlanta. Just weeks after he enrolled, Yewdall started to notice him acting strangely.
“He has some longish hair, he loves ‘My Little Pony,’ had a ‘My Little Pony’ backpack,” Yewdall says. “Prior to school starting, I talked to his teachers and said that, ‘He likes things that some kids are going to say are girl items, and he won’t cut his hair and I’m fine with that as a parent, so how will that be handled in the classroom?’”
She says his teachers were “really adamant about it being a really safe space, that there would be no bullying.”
But she says other students would bully him, mostly when the adults weren’t around: in the hallway, in the cafeteria and in the bathroom. So two weeks later, she pulled him out of school and started homeschooling.
“We want everyone to be safe in a school,” Yewdall says. “It’s crazy to think that we don’t need to take active, real steps to keep these little people safe because they can’t do it for themselves.”
Pride School Atlanta has started to get national attention.
About a dozen students from Buxton School, a private boarding school in Williamstown, Massachusetts, came to Atlanta to learn more about the school.
Logan Wright is a 16-year-old sophomore who identifies as gay.
“I just wanted to say thank you,” he told Zsilavetz. “It makes me so happy to see that you guys are giving kids the space to figure out who they are, and they won’t have the same struggles that I did. So I just ─ I really, really appreciate that.”
The school hopes to enroll its first group of students in mid-August.