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State colleges get failing grades on LGBTQ issues [18 February, 2009]

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The Illinois Safe Schools Alliance recently issued a report card for all Illinois teacher training colleges, based on their preparedness of teachers (K-12) in LGBTQ-related matters.  The report is titled “Visibility Matters: Higher Education and Teacher Preparation in Illinois: A Web-based Assesement of LGBTQ Presence.”  The Alliance looked at school Web sites to determine, broadly, the extent to which higher-education institutions with teacher training colleges were inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity issues.  More specifically, they considered the extent to which these policies were reflected in the materials used in teacher education programs.  Forty-one out of Illinois’ 57 programs received Fs.  Only one, at University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), received an A.  Four received Ds, one got a B and the rest received Cs.

According to Shannon Sullivan, executive director of the Alliance, most of the colleges have been receptive to the need for the report despite such dismal grades and even if they took issue with the Alliance relying so heavily on Web sites:  “Realistically, Web sites need to be a conscious reflection of what your values are.  Certainly, policies, especially non-discrimination policies should absolutely be there on your Web site.”  About the decision to include both sexual orientation and gender identity, Sullivan said, ‘the reality is that everyone has a gender identity.  Heterosexuals are also targeted for being gender non-conforming.  In fact, the most common way that students in schools are targeted is about gender non-conformity, even when the words that are used to harass them relate to sexual orientation like “faggot” or “dyke.”

In the case of schools that already have many of the required policies and programs but whose Web sites may not reflect those, the report is a reminder that more needs to be done to ensure a match between perception and reality.  Gary Cestaro is the program director of DePaul University’s LGBTQ Studies Program and an Associate Professor of Modern Languages, and spoke to the more general ways in which the institution has worked to create a supportive environment, “but that fact may not be as visible as it needs to be.”  He pointed out that DePaul was the only Catholic university with a program of LGBTQ studies and that there is a lot of LGBTQ visibility, from students to staff.  Cestaro had no problems that the report relied on Web sites: ‘the Web site is the most public face of the university for most people.  That’s a reality that’s set in our world.”

Emily Manes, a third-year undergraduate in elementary education at DePaul’s teaching college, is also a member of Gender Just, a local group that focuses on anti-discrimination and anti-bullying policies.  Her perspective was that of both a student and an activist on the very issues addressed by the report.  She confessed that, given DePaul’s generally supportive environment, the grade left her “pretty surprised,” but it also made her look more closely at the curriculum in the teacher training college and discover that “there isn’t lot of emphasis on LGBTQ issues.  We have a lot of support systems, but not specifically within the School of Education.”  Manes, like Cestaro, considered the report a useful tool and, as the latter put it, “an invitation [to make changes] more than a criticism.”

Sullivan affirms the idea that the report is meant to be an opportunity for colleges to have an open discussion about how to best change policies and allow Web sites to reflect the commitment of universities to LGBTQ-friendly policies.  She said that the Alliance would be able to facilitate workshops and meetings around the same.  “We’d also want to see what the successful schools are doing.  What are the best practices they can share?”

At UIC, College of Education Dean Victoria Chou was happy about the “A,” and gave the credit to faculty and students who kept the College apprised of the latest research on LGBTQ-related issues: “It’s important to keep ensuring that this is one of the issues that has to be out there to be included.”

Even schools that received failing grades welcomed the report because they might lead to curricular revisions.  Sylvia Gist, director of the College of Education at Chicago State, had concerns about the emphasis on Web sites since that might not accurately reflect the campus, but also said, “It’s great that they did a study like that.  Quite often there are things that are done on campus that we do not publicize that are directed towards making sure that people feel safe on campus.  It heightened an awareness on my part about information that needed to be on our Web site and information in a lot of cases that we just took for granted.”  At Illinois State University, which received a C, Associate Professor of English Education Paula Ressler was impressed by the study: “This research is huge.  It takes a lot to do this work.”

Still, some colleges and universities that are unfamiliar with LGBTQ issues may have a while to go before they can begin to address them.  MeShelda Jackson, chair of the School of Education at Benedictine University, was eager to discuss the report with Windy City Times, but was also unable to provide any details about teacher preparation and LGBTQ issues, and did not seem entirely comfortable talking about the community: “My understanding is that they were viewing the Web site, to see how clearly we [presented] the message of different types of diversity, as with the homosexual.”  Pressed for details on what situations student teachers might encounter in relation to LGBTQ students, and how curricula might address those, Jackson provided no specifics but insisted that such issues were “embedded within the courses … because we have to teach about diversity.  And so forth.  It’s not a subject we shy away from.  Our instructors are keenly aware and they talk about it in the same way as they talk about a kid with a disability.  That sort of thing.  Right now, we’re in the process of revising the program and looking at another course that would teach all of these issues in one course versus having everything embedded.”

The fact that Jackson, and other faculty from programs that received poor grades did respond to the report is an indication that colleges are taking LGBTQ issues seriously.  These have recently been among the issues at the forefront of the education landscape.  Late last year, an attempt to open an LGBT gay high school was shelved, amid controversy in many quarters that cut across left and right affiliations.  Most recently, Ron Huberman, who replaces Arne Duncan as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, has come out as gay.  As of this writing, he has refused to take a stand on the gay high school, but his sexual identity certainly makes it likely that gay issues will continue to be part of the conversation on education.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 18 February, 2009

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