At her old school, 16-year old Katie Johnsen says she couldn’t walk down the hallway without someone calling her a “dyke.”
After she cut her hair off, things just got worse.
Johnsen is now a student at Arts and College Preparatory Academy, a Columbus charter school where about a third of the students identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender.
The school had gained a reputation as a place welcoming to gay students, and to other students who don’t quite fit in. It offers classes in gay history, and students write and perform plays about tolerance.
Founded in 2002 with about 60 students, Arts and College Preparatory Academy, or ACPA, now has 240 students and an”A” rating from the state for its academic performance.
The school is expanding. And students and school leaders alike say that’s a good thing.
Marcus Petrie left the top-rated suburban Reynoldsburg schools to attend ACPA last year. He’s now a sophomore.
“If you’re gay in Reynoldsburg, you’re not OK apparently,” he says. “I’ve had people push me up against lockers, I’ve had people smack books out of my hands, throw my binders down the hallway and all that stuff.”
Marcus helped create the school’s “drag closet.” Marcus pulls out women’s sweaters, dresses, and stacks of shoe boxes as he explains what that is.
“A lot of students don’t have the luxury of having parents that are super-accepting of things like this,” Marcus says. “We wanted to have an area where students could go to if they were interested in it without always having to go into their sister’s bedroom or go into their mother’s closet.”
Also in the drag closet: The iridescent green dress Marcus will wear in the school’s second annual drag show later that night.
Students and teachers held their first drag show last year, as part of a state “safe schools” grant program. Members of a local drag troupe helped them pull it off.
So is ACPA “the gay school?”
I asked Brooke Boster. Brooke has green hair and wears one pink hightop sneaker and one green one. She’s a junior at ACPA. So is her girlfriend.
“I don’t know if we’re the gay high school,” she says. “I feel like we’re the safe high school, the better high school, the super-awesome high school. And we don’t, like, hurt anyone’s feelings and we’re super-sensitive to like everything.”
Most ACPA students are not gay. Others are just artsy. Or they’re guys who love My Little Pony. Or they feel that they somehow don’t “fit in” at other schools and just want a place where they can be themselves.
Eden Tetteh enrolled at ACPA this fall. She’s not gay. She says ACPA is more like a “nonconformist school.”
“There’s, like, no bullying, so even if you brought yourself out there no one would bully you,” she says. “Everyone has something about them that maybe they don’t want people to know about, but here you can just kind let that out there.”
The school enforces a policy of intentional niceness.
Laura Garcia’s son is a sophomore at ACPA. She can still remember the “hard-ass” speech ACPA’s enrollment director gave her son when he started.
It went something like this: “I will not tolerate negative behavior. I won’t tolerate derogatory things. If I hear that you were at the mall and said something derogatory, you’re out.”
And school leaders make sure that prospective students know what they’re signing up for.
Zach Reau, a social studies teacher, says not everyone is ACPA material.
“If you see a boy walking down the hallway in a dress… If you’re going to be OK with that, then this is the school for you,” he says. “If not, maybe you should look somewhere else.”
The school isn’t free from all forms of social exclusion. Students who view homosexual behavior as wrong – and are vocal about their beliefs – would probably be uncomfortable at ACPA.
And it has many of the same problems that “regular” high schools do: Cliques; students who get upset at each other; and at a school where even the teachers have facial piercings, dress code enforcement. (The school bans clothing that is “overly revealing;” promotes drugs, tobacco, alcohol, or violent weapons; or is offensive to any specific group.)
Tony Gatto is ACPA’s principal. He’s been with the school since it started in 2002.
He says he’s not particularly concerned that his school is pulling students out of traditional school districts or if it’s assisting gay students in a form of self-segregation.
“That’s for the other schools to be concerned about,” he says. “I think it’s more important to keep them safe.”
Molly Bloom / StateImpact Ohio permalink
Eden Tetteh lives in the Columbus school district but attends ACPA.