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Nettelhorst Elementary pays tribute to diversity
by Wes Lawson
2009-06-17

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Anyone who has passed by Nettlehorst Elementary, 3252 N. Broadway, is likely to notice the colorful rainbow fence surrounding the playground. And if you read the placard that is part of the display, you'll learn that the school is the first public school to be marching in Chicago's Pride Parade. ( Photo by Robin Schachtel. )

The children of Nettlehorst have tied thousands of multicolored cloths around the fence to display, in the words of the placard, " [ a ] tangible sign of his or her personal intention to create a better world ... Here, the rainbow colors of gay pride are a visible sign of our respect for the neighborhood of which we are a part, and the diversity of families that we serve."

Brad Rossi, a gay parent of a first-grade girl, and Marcia Festen, a lesbian parent of two daughters, one of whom is in kindergarten, were both crucial in bringing the idea to the school. The two worked together in the 1980s, and Rossi says that the idea came from California.

"My partner and I moved here from San Francisco last year with our daughter specifically for this school. We liked the school's focus on arts and the Boystown location," Rossi said. "We already knew Marcia, and we began looking around the school for other [ LGBT ] families, since we had come from a school with many [ LGBT ] families and we hoped that would be the case here."

Rossi said that in looking for other LGBT families in the community, the idea of marching in the parade, which he did at his daughter's previous school in San Francisco, came about.

"I started wondering if there was something we should be doing. This translated into improving the overall climate for the students at the school. We also asked ourselves, what do we do to make our presence known?

Festen said that the idea came largely from Rossi, and that the idea stemmed from a desire for a school that was both safe and affirming.

"In kindergarten, the kids say 'It's so cool that you have two moms!' to our daughter. Our daughter knows are family is different. When she plays, she always uses a mom and a dad. [ But ] there was a kid that got teased for having two dads. Our kids will get teased. That's a fact of life. My job as a parent, and the reason why I got involved, was to help my kids be resilient to teasing by building a support system around them," said Festen.

The project began with the fence, which has been an ongoing art project for several years. This is the first year in which it was specifically LGBT themed, and Rossi said that he was nervous at the outset of the project.

"You never know if people will be silent, angry, or supportive. There are 450 kids that go to this school and I've only heard one negative comment, and that was just hearsay. For the LGBT families, this is cool because we didn't know what to expect. There's this idea that because we're in Boystown, we'll be light years ahead, but we're not. We're ripe to move forward and the pieces are in place."

Among the few dissenting voices in the community is Tom Mannis, a blogger for conservative blog RogersParkBench.blogspot.com .

"I was walking through the neighborhood, and I came across the school, and the display of very pretty multicolored cloths. I thought it would make a nice picture. When I read the placard [ that explains the display ] , all kinds of thoughts went through my head," said Mannis. "I have nothing against gay people, I'm not a homophobe, and I have nothing against the parade. But I step back and say, 'What is the gay pride parade as it happens here?' Drunk men with their asses hanging out of tutus."

He added, "On the one hand, is it good for kids to be acceptant and nondiscriminatory? Yes. Should they be taught to understand the world around them? Yes. Should they be allowed to participate in a parade that has become a sex parade? No."

Festen was in charge of getting the fabric for the mural and was astonished at the community outpouring.

"When we were thinking about this, we wanted to show our kids that we were part of the community," she said. "We took fabric donations and got an overwhelming amount. There was a guy named Adam at CB2 [ at Clybourn and Halsted ] who went out of his way to get us fabric. Within two weeks he had gathered us two bags. We got donations from the Steppenwolf Costume Department, the fashion department at the Art Institute—it's been amazing."

In spite of the blog comments, Festen says that the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

She said, "A conversation has been started among the parents on the playground. Most people probably knew I was a lesbian mom, but now people are having a dialogue. There's a supportive community ready to engage in these issues, and we want people to say "Hey, this is a great school for my kid!"

Even Mannis wants to make it clear that he does not look disparagingly on Nettlehorst.

"It seems like a very good school," he said. "They're doing great things for the kids. Although I was picking on them for that one issue. I'm not attacking the school as a whole. I may have overstated my case."

Rossi said that in the end, he wants this to be a stepping-off point for further dialogue.

"There have been incidents at this school that made us say, 'we're going to either sit and wait around and react or we'll become proactive. The question of 'How do we make this school become a school we want to be a part of?' prompted us to say, 'We need to do this now, because we don't want our kids to face some of the things we faced as LGBT kids," Rossi said.

T-shirts for the parade and the school are available through the school, and Rossi mentions that they have already sold over a hundred.


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