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LGBTQI-inclusive initiatives at Urban Prairie Waldorf School
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times

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Urban Prairie Waldorf School on Chicago's Southwest Side began more than a decade ago with the goal of educating students from early childhood to eighth grade in the traditional Waldorf model of engaging the whole child intellectually, socially, emotionally and physically. Waldorf students are encouraged to be curious, compassionate and self-reliant. They also use critical thinking skills in every subject area.

The school has also added LGBTQI-affirming policies in recent years. Sexual orientation non-discrimination language is featured online and in the print handbook, all faculty and staff have pronouns included on the school's website, a transgender and non-binary students and community members gender affirmation policy has been added in the last year, the school's first-floor bathrooms are gender neutral, LGBTQI history representation is being woven into each grade's curriculum and the 8th grade human fertility class includes LGBTQI human reproduction instruction.

Local intersex advocate and speaker Pigeon Pagonis visited the 8th grade human fertility class to share their experience with the students. Staff has also gone through training with the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance and facilitate Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity ( SEED ) seminars monthly where they learn about their own implicit bias when creating their curriculum.

On March 31, Urban Prairie held its first school-wide Trans Day of Visibility event. The day was focused on bringing consciousness and visibility to the trans and gender nonconforming community. Each teacher chose activities that were age-appropriate and would meet the developmental needs of their students and the 8th grade students volunteered to lead many of the day's activities. Younger children heard gender creative fairytales and stories. One grade had older students role-play how to ask someone about their pronouns in a respectful way. The transgender flag was painted in watercolor by some students while others passed out homemade pins in the colors of the flag.

There was push-back from some parents due to the Trans Day of Visibility event. A few students were kept home that day while some other parents, whose children were at the school that day, told the school afterward they would not be returning for the 2018-2019 school year.

Although there were a small percentage of parents who reacted negatively to the Trans Day of Visibility event, the rest of the school community has been supportive.

"Urban Prairie's value of LGBTQI-inclusivity is based in love—a love and appreciation for each child ( and parent ) who comes to our school," said Urban Prairie Director of Community Development Heather Berhalter. "We strive to be a school that presents 'mirrors' and 'windows' for every child and their experience. A 'window' is an opportunity within the curriculum to see into and value another person's experience. A 'mirror' is a curricular opportunity to have your own existence reflected back to you in a way that is affirming of your humanity. This method seamlessly interweaves love for the other and self worth into our everyday learning in the classroom. When all of the children feel seen, loved and valued, they are available for the real work of school—learning and growing. Our transgender and non-binary students and community members policy gives the structure to support this basic value of our school."

"The Urban Prairie curriculum is probably one of the most accepting and inclusive environments I have ever experienced," said 8th grade student Siah Berlatsky. "For anybody who is thinking about going to this school, they will have a phenomenal experience. They will be taught to love and respect themselves for who they are."

"It is important that we recognize, honor and accept trans and non-binary people for who they are," said 8th grade student Cecilia Cowen. "Learning more about this community and talking about the issues they face is very helpful for any middle school student."

"Urban Prairie has been the most supportive school I have been a part of," said 8th grade student Elliot Bushell. "I would consider this school to be a safe space for me. The teachers and community on the whole are very warm and friendly. I do not think I will be able to find a place like Urban Prairie in the future."

"I am excited and happy that the school is striving to be a more inclusive place and that festivals like Trans Day of Visibility allow our students to be more compassionate and understanding," said Movement and Games Teacher and 8th grade math teacher Adriana Kondrat. "It was a bit surprising to see some community members be apprehensive to the festival and the other affirming initiatives that are occurring. As an educator, my highest priority is the safety and well being of the children. When we offer a curriculum that show the breadth and depth of human experiences, we support each student's individuality while developing their capacity to meaningfully engage with the other."

"It is incredible to work in a school with incredible faculty who care so deeply for their students," said 9th grade teacher Meredith Merchant. "It allows the space for developing adolescents to move into their true selves with freedom. Being a teen is hard enough, if we can help clear the path through affirmation and love, then we have done our jobs."

"Having a transgender policy for our school is something I support," said Urban Prairie parent Briana Villarrubia. "In 2016, after a discussion with our pedagogical chair around transgender identity, I offered to have my sister and niece come talk to our faculty, staff and parents about our family's transgender journey. The intention was to support and educate others about transgender issues and start a conversation around acceptance and understanding. Research shows depression and suicides are probable outcomes for transgender individuals. If there is a way to avoid this through education and communication, to encourage acceptance of differences, I am happy to participate and support this conversation.

"I believe the push back in our school around our transgender policy reflects what we see in the world. The Waldorf idea of community and the verse shared at our Parent Council meetings states that, 'A community is healthy only when the whole community takes shape in the mirror of the human soul, and the force of the individual soul lives in the community.' I believe our school wants all people to feel welcome and that our policy is an opportunity to continue a conversation that will strengthen our community and world."

"Our family is very happy with the school," said Urban Prairie parent Sarah Steedman. "The school faculty and staff are progressive and forward thinking in many areas, but particularly of note is they provide a safe place for all students to express their true selves without fear. For the students, this meant receiving age appropriate education on how to be inclusive with everyone in our school community as well as the wider community.

"Our two kids transferred to Urban Prairie from CPS where they were both struggling for different reasons, one with their gender identity and the other academically and socially. They were begging us to find a different kind of school to go to because they were so stressed out. Both of our children are now thriving. I credit a lot of their joy and the rewarding friendships they have found to the exemplary and forward-thinking education they are receiving. The teachers are meeting the challenge of a changing world with grace, compassion and inclusivity toward all."

"We are committed to affirming the identity of all children regardless of age," said special subjects teacher Jillian Miller. "It is our goal to make children, families and staff feel included, celebrated and valued. Each community member should see themselves represented at Urban Prairie Waldorf School."

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