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Education

How Austin ISD is Trying to Fight Gender Stereotypes and Embrace Diverse Families

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WelcomingSchools.org

Kristina Kramer has taught at Blazier Elementary in Southeast Austin for ten years. But it wasn’t until she started a new program called Welcoming Schools that she realized:

“I did little things that were excluding students in my classroom," Kramer says. 

When Kramer says when she sent letters home with students, she says she'd address the letters as “'Dear Parents' instead of, 'Dear Parents and Guardians.' Or not thinking about other people who could be caregivers in a child’s home."

She brought the issue up at a school-wide meeting, too, when they wanted to send home a note to all students’ families.

“Maybe we should consider changing the language to be more inclusive. There’s a grandmother who is helping to raise her grandchildren and she said, thank you for that!" Kramer remembered.

The Austin School District likes to tout its “No Place for Hate” designation, a title given by the Anti-Defamation League to districts with large anti-bullying campaigns. This year, three elementary schools in the district are training teachers in a new curriculum called Welcoming Schools, created by the Human Rights Campaign. Its goal is to make sure teachers and students embrace different types of families. It's one of the first school districts in the state to adopt the programming. 

“We have children who live with mom and dad, kids who live with two moms, two dads, grandmother, step parents, aunts, uncles whoever," says Sherrie Raven, Director of AISD's Social and Emotional Learning department. She says this year, the district is focusing on support for LGBTQ and Special Education students.

“Neither Special Ed nor LGBTQ always feel secure reporting problems with peers so we think they need a particular focus to help them be safe," Raven says. 

The district doesn't know how many students are raised in non-traditional households. But Raven says it's important for teachers to realize the biases they might bring into the classroom that could affect students.

“We’ve got kids living in all situations and those kids are already in our schools," Raven says.

The curriculum also talks about avoiding gender stereotyping, which is something Kristina Kramer is already working on in her classroom at Blazier.

“There are lot of girls who don’t want to wear pink, I can think of a few this year," Kramer says. "They’re more like what we would stereotypes as tomboys. And I think we have to address those issues so that they feel comfortable being who they are, just as the boys who are more artistic and want to express that.” 

AISD is only focusing on teacher training right now, but plans to introduce a curriculum for students as soon as next year. That curriculum provides teachers with materials for how to use instances of bullying as so-called “Teachable Moments.” AISD's Raven says one lesson deals with the phrase “That’s so gay.”

“Is 'gay' really a label for behavior or is it really you’re saying, ‘that’s not cool?" Raven says, explaining the lesson. "And if that’s what you’re saying then let’s use the accurate language that goes with it and not say something that might be discriminatory or hurtful to someone else.”

Raven says she envisions that lesson for upper elementary and middle school students. Although Kramer thinks it’s important to deal with these issues as early as possible.

“Students start to realize that they’re different from other kids very early on," Kramer says. "I think if you teach children how to be more accepting and welcoming and inclusive, they will grow up to see the world in a very different way. That sounds very idealistic but it is true.” 

Teachers at Davis and Williams elementary are also participating in the pilot program. The district is considering if and how it wants to roll out the program to middle and high schools in Austin.

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