Ohio

Eye on Education

Ohio Charter School Serves as Safe Place for Gay Students

Molly Bloom / StateImpact Ohio

ACPA students wait backstage at the school's drag show.

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.

Intentional Niceness

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.”

Comments

  • CR

    Hi. I’m a student at ACPA. I am the ONE transgender out of the 1/3% that could have been mentioned. I do not lable myself as “Gay” I am a human being. Not a sexuality. And I choose not to live my life under your lable.
    I agree with elements of this article, but you are stressing the “gay” factor too much, acpa is NOT all about just being gay, you failed to mention the other talented arts we have, the music? How some members of acpa are in bands and have fans? How about the acting sides hilarious plays? The dance team, and their performances, how about the “artsy” people? How about the fact we have a gallery show to showcase student work, how about the fact we are the second best charter school in columbus? How about the student government that plans and hosts school dances and other events? How about the fact people who aren’t gay are still wonderful people? How about the fact we are overall a warm, loving and accepting school REGAURDLESS of who we choose to love? We are HUMAN beings. We go to a DIVERSE school with open arms, hearts and minds. We live, we learn, we laugh together. As a community. Not a gay school.
    Get to know everyone first, Ms Molly Bloom, before you speak on behalf of a minority.

  • CR

    Hi. I’m a student at ACPA. I am the ONE transgender out of the 1/3% that could have been mentioned. I do not lable myself as “Gay” I am a human being. Not a sexuality. And I choose not to live my life under your lable.
    I agree with elements of this article, but you are stressing the “gay” factor too much, acpa is NOT all about just being gay, you failed to mention the other talented arts we have, the music? How some members of acpa are in bands and have fans? The dance team, and their performances, how about the “artsy” people? How about the fact we have a gallery show to showcase student work, how about the fact we are the second best charter school in columbus. How about the student government that plans and hosts school dances? How about the fact people who aren’t gay are still wonderful people? How about the fact we are overall a warm, loving and accepting school REGAURDLESS of who we choose to love? We are HUMAN beings. We go to a DIVERSE school with open arms, hearts and minds. We live, we learn, we laugh together. As a community. Not a gay school.
    Get to know everyone first, Ms Molly Bloom, before you speak on behalf of a minority.

  • C

    Hi. I’m a student at ACPA. I am the ONE transgender out of the 1/3% that could have been mentioned. I do not lable myself as “Gay” I am a human being. Not a sexuality. And I choose not to live my life under your lable.
    I agree with elements of this article, but you are stressing the “gay” factor too much, acpa is NOT all about just being gay, you failed to mention the other talented arts we have, the music? How some members of acpa are in bands and have fans? The dance team, and their performances, how about the “artsy” people? How about the fact we have a gallery show to showcase student work, how about the fact we are the second best charter school in columbus. How about the student government that plans and hosts school dances? How about the fact people who aren’t gay are still wonderful people? How about the fact we are overall a warm, loving and accepting school REGAURDLESS of who we choose to love? We are HUMAN beings. We go to a DIVERSE school with open arms, hearts and minds. We live, we learn, we laugh together. As a community. Not a gay school.
    Get to know everyone first, Ms Molly Bloom, before you speak on behalf of a minority.

    • Ake

      C, I don’t think that Ms Bloom was at all trying to discredit the academics that ACPA has achieved, or the fact that ACPA is accepting of everyone. I think the purpose of the article is simply to point out that there is a school where gay kids are not only accepted, but celebrated. In light of the Supreme Court’s tackling of gay marriage today, I think that this was a perfect little sneak-peak at ACPA for those who have never heard of it before. They get the basic message: It’s a safe school for everyone.

    • http://www.facebook.com/kate.howard.90 Kate Bohringer

      Did you read the second half the article where she clearly states that the school isn’t entirely for gay kids?
      “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.”

      This article isn’t going to dissect every piece that makes ACPA great, but it’s going to highlight some of the pieces.

    • http://www.facebook.com/kate.howard.90 Kate Bohringer

      A second point, “before you speak on behalf of a minority” sounds very inappropriate, given the context of this article, and even the point you were trying to convey.

  • C

    Stop deleting my comments

    • M_Bloom

      Hi C: We have not deleted any of your comments. If you don’t see your comments on this screen, try refreshing or changing the sort order of comments.

  • Chloe

    We are so much more than just the “gay school”, this article is wonderful but people already label us as mostly gay and I don’t think that that is important at all. We also have diverse styles, races, personalities, talents. How come no one got mentioned for that? I’m gay, yea, but I feel like our school is made up of more straight people than gay, and they accept us like we accept them and that’s all. That’s it. I just want us to be recognized as more than just a school full of homosexuals. We’re wonderful and loving toward EVERYONE.

  • der Renegat

    I was actually a student at ACPA my Freshman through Sophomore year. I left within the first week of my Junior year because I couldn’t take it anymore. I was so excited as an 8th grader, choosing what high school I’d be attending. I was so excited about ACPA, but boy was I wrong. People may find this wrong of me to say, but they cater to the “gay, transgender and etc”. When it comes to the “normal” kids at ACPA, we get left out. They wouldn’t allow me to take classes that would help me advance in my education and get into to college sooner. I am now a Junior at ECOT (Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow) and it is absolutely phenomenal. You get the hands-on attention you need to actually learn and prosper. When my mother went to return my books to ACPA, the VP and “Founder” had the courage to tell my mother that the only reason I was leaving was because I was a lazy student who didn’t want to work hard. She also told my uncle, who was attending there with me, and who was being withdrawn, that he could come back if he hated ECOT, but not me. Why? I have a feeling it was because he hadn’t taken his OGTs yet and I had. I’ll tell you one thing though, I got good grades at ACPA and they had the courage to say that? I was the student who was trying to graduate early and taking on more than I probably could have handled. Now at ECOT, I’m graduating as a Junior, I start college in August of this year. I know of people who beg their parents, even cry to their parents because they don’t want to go back to ACPA. They’ve got a good idea with this whole “excepting everyone” thing, but it’s not what it seems. Good intentions, bad handling. Also, the people interviewed were the popular kids. Of course they have nothing to say but good things.They only care about their “Excellent” rating and high OGT scores.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1005086194 Kelley Casey

      Not so my daughter 100% straight and they have bent over backwards to make my daughter happy. The guidance counselor gave my daughter an invite to be in a student leadership program for a semester. She went to meeting to discuss about anti-bully policies. At this school she has finally started to accept who she is, and I think she and the school is awesome. I congratulate you on your progress but right now you are showing the world the reason you were not a good fit for this school. Move on and move pass the hate!!!

      • Anony.

        Saying that the original poster is showing a “reason he/she is not a good fit for this school” is quite saddening that you’d say that to a student. It’s a tad bit childish.

      • concerned

        Perhaps your daughter has not been there long enough to see the antics of Mr. Gatto and his inability to treat everyone equal.

  • Anonymous

    This school is not all it says it is, honestly I think this school is corrupt. They say they have an early graduation acceptance, but when my friend went to graduate early and they denied her of taking all the classes she needed, she had the perfect scheduled to do so. This school is about false statements and lies, the kids are rude and dirty and they don’t know how to pick up after themselves. The ‘gay’ kids basically run the school leaving the other kids who identify other wise left out and ignored, Plus the affection rule, does not apply to them. If a straight couple is seen even hugging they’re undermined and yelled at, whilst a gay couple could make out in plain sight and not be punished. This school is a poor excuse for an alternative school, everyone should be treated equal right? Not here, if you’re gay, you’re everyone’s favorite, but that’s not the case if your straight. Equality does not exist there.

  • Kate

    I’m so proud of how successful ACPA has become. It’s not just about safety for gay kids, and it’s not just about arts. It’s also the fact that with a massive majority of kids that live below poverty, they have still managed to beat some of the richest districts in central Ohio in graduation test scores. An inner city school beating high class suburban districts on standardized tests is amazing! ACPA isn’t just a safe school, it’s a GREAT school. I didn’t go to ACPA, but I think it says something amazing about Columbus when a school like this can succeed.

  • LM

    We send our son to ACPA, not because it’s the “gay” school, but because it’s a college prep school where he can learn and grow in a challenging and creative environment. I have a problem with the clear agenda of this article, to focus only on the LGTBQ angle and not on the tolerance that is enforced, across the board. When we enrolled our son, there was no mention of safety for gay kids…GiGi (enrollment director) gives a very clear pitch to the kids that disrespect of another student, in any form, will not be tolerated. There are kids at ACPA who aren’t safe at their regular schools because of medical conditions, there are kids who just need a different learning style, there are kids who want to learn creatively…to label them either “gay”, “artsy”, “boys who like My Little Pony” or “those that don’t fit in” (those were your 4 categories) is just more stereotyping…and ACPA doesn’t tolerate that! As a parent, I’m disappointed at the focus in this article on sexual orientation of a minority of those attending, rather than the amazing educational process that our kids benefit from.

    • KR

      This is exactly how I felt when I read the article. The labeling in the article is offputting and takes away from the amazing academics and amazing alternative to a traditional high school. Yes, kids feel safe there… they feel safe whether they are straight or not… this article made me angry at the belittling of such a good environment and great academic program.
      I was happy to see the kids step up and comment as well saying the same.

  • Anonymous

    This school has been a miracle for my family. I thought I was going to have a high school dropout or a child who committed suicide. My child’s public school was horrible. Even though in writing they have a ‘non-harrassment policy’, it was not enforced. My child’s problem-he liked theater and not sports (btw he’s not gay). He gave up trying to fight the bullies and told me high school was supposed to be miserable because that is how it is always portrayed in movies. ACPA has shown him that high school can be fun and he can be involved in after school activities and have a wonderful high school experience! I now have a child who loves going to school and wants to be involved. This school is for any child that wants to be treated with respect by staff and by the other students!

  • Dawnyea

    Acpa is an absolutely amazing school that does its best to help EVERYONE. Its the refuge for kids that don’t feel safe or like they belong anywhere else. Acpa has done everything to to give me, and everyone, opportunities that we’d never get anywhere else. We accept everyone, no matter what they’re gender or sexuality. This school makes me proud to be who I am, and taught me to appreciate others just as much. Its beautiful here. We’re not the “gay school,” we’re the safe school.

  • Mick

    I am a student at ACPA and I think this school is absolutely amazing. No, not everyone would be a perfect fit for it, but it’s here for the people that really need it. I came here at the end of my freshman year, and I have never been more welcomed than I was on my first day here and still am at the end of my sophmore year. I didn’t even know places like this exsisted, and I am so happy to have found a school like this. Both the kids and the administration are loving and caring toward everyone, regardless of whether they know them or not. This isn’t the “gay school” or the “school for kids who were bullied”. This is the safe school. This is the school for people who really like academics or like things like acting, music, dance, or art. But most importantly, this school is for kind people who can provide a safe environment for other people who need it. Everyone deserves that and I wish every school was like ACPA.

  • William

    This article is very lacking. ACPA is not a “gay
    school”, it is a school founded on the principles of kindness, tolerance,
    and academics of course. ACPA is a safe school where students do not have to
    fear the negative actions and judgments prevalent the public school environment. ACPA is a safe school where students that
    identify as part of the LGBTQ community fall under the spectrum of safeties,
    not a school where those students are offered a safe environment because of
    their sexual orientation.

    This article said, “Even the teachers have facial piercings”,
    but in reality, there is probably only one teacher and they have a nose
    piercing. The writer said that one third
    of the student body was gay, but that figure is completely made up as no survey
    or anything of the sort has been taken. This
    article seems to paint a picture of our school being alien and so much
    different but it is just how schools should
    be.

    • Teach

      A survey is conducted at the end of each year. 1/3 of ACPA students identity under the Gender/Sexual Diversity spectrum

      • LM

        So what exactly are you saying Teach? Are you saying that since 1/3 of students identify as “gay” then in turn that makes ACPA a “gay” school? If that’s the rationale you’re using then if 1/3 of students in a school are “hoods” then should the school be labeled a “hood” school?

  • Amanda

    ACPA is a school that strives for equality for ALL. Sure, we are a school that is accepting to all forms of sexuality, but we are also a school that creates a safe environment for anyone else! This article just states on aspect of the equality ACPA has! The Equality Project is a show that our school runs that full of monologues about all sorts of things like racial, gender, religious, and yes, sexual discrimination. I am not gay, and yes I go to ACPA. My religious views are a lot different, and I sure do have a different personality! But that doesn’t matter! What does matter is that I believe everyone deserves equal rights and the fact that many students that say they are gay or bisexual or lesbian are treated like they are less than is just wrong. The fact that many students are getting bullied across the nation for there sexuality, and robbed of there education is wrong. ACPA is standing up for that. It is a school that strives to create a safe environment for all, and that is what all schools should be striving for! We are not a gay school, we are not a straight school either. We are a school that strives for equality and for a safe environment for all. This school has been above and beyond anything I could ever hope for, and I am so thankful to be apart of it.

  • ACPA Teacher

    I think the comment section here perfectly describes and represents ACPA. It is diverse, opinionated, and open to each individual’s ideas and concerns, so long as they are delivered respectfully. The constant effort that the administration, staff, and students put toward hearing everyone’s voices is among the top characteristics that separate this school from so many other public schools. Sure, ACPA still has problems, it isn’t perfect, but the drive to achieve better than the best that’s out there, in climate, academics, arts, and personal development is what makes it so special.

  • concerned

    This article, and the students that were interviewed were obviously hand picked by the staff of the school. The school does a very good job of protecting and catering to students with homosexual preferences. However what it does not do well is apply the same standards to all the students across the board. The staff, particularly the administration caters to the homosexual students, and in fact discriminates against the students who do not choose that lifestyle. I have seen this personally, hence the reason my child was removed from the school by me. It is as if they have a goal to turn students gay, or chase them out. It is sad to use the youth of today for your hidden agenda. Gigi preached that no discrimination, or bullying will be tolerated, she must have been referring to gay students because her staff discriminates against the straight students. The principal, and assistant principal are the culprits. All Gigi will say is that she no longer has control. If you encourage your children to sneak off to school, and visit the “drag Closet” behind your back so you do not know they are dressing in drag, or if you want them to participate in drag pageants this is the place for your student. If you want your child educated for success, and to understand that your beliefs are ok, and that no one should ever treat you differently, or push you to be a certain way then I would choose a different school. I have no issue with homosexuality, I do not agree with it but it is a choice. This school needs investigated by the state, or perhaps a civil attorney.

    • MD

      I never felt pressured to be gay at ACPA. I was always encouraged to be whoever I wanted to be, gay, straight, or otherwise. Not only that, but the education I got at ACPA was amazing. I learned to love school again. I had fun, I got a great education that was a solid foundation for me to succeed in college and my post-graduate education.

      I’m sorry you felt that your child was pressured to be gay, but for me and my friends, that simply wasn’t the case. ACPA celebrates the diversity of its students, no matter how they identify. I will tell you one thing- I was well prepared to succeed in life after I graduated ACPA. It is the top charter school in Ohio for a good reason- and the OGT scores don’t look at your orientation, either. They’re all by the numbers.

      • concerned

        I am guessing you graduated while Gigi was still in control.

    • LM

      Your name should be delusional instead of concerned. What a bigoted statement you made. The school has a hidden agenda to turn kids gay? Are you serious?? My daughter’s former school was filled with so much negativity it was interfering with her studies. She has excelled far beyond my expectations at ACPA, and she’s NOT being turned gay like you stated. It’s obvious your child shouldn’t have attended ACPA from the get go since you stated you don’t agree with homosexuality. Why in the world, knowing going in there would be a larger than average number of homosexual students at ACPA, would you sent your child there? I have not experienced any of the so-called discrimination from any faculty at the school you describe. It goes to show, haters are gonna hate.

    • A

      I go to ACPA, I still go to ACPA, and I have never once been “pressured to be gay”. I’ve never once been discriminated against. I don’t go to my school because I’m gay, I don’t go to my school because of the LGBTQ community there, although that is one aspect of the school that I love. I go to my school BECAUSE I’ve never been to a school where I’m so free to be open about who I really am. I don’t dress in drag, or use the drag closet. I have NEVER been discriminated against in any way, because of my sexuality or otherwise. The teachers and administration at ACPA don’t know the sexuality of every student. They don’t know whether I’m gay or straight or bi or anything else. They’ve never asked me. If I were to choose to talk about it, or tell them about it, they’d be completely open to whoever I chose to have a relationship with, whether it is a same sex relationship or not. Our school isn’t about the gay community. It’s a part of our school, but it is not what it is about. I’m sorry that you feel your child was discriminated against and forced to be gay, but I don’t feel that way. There are a lot more kids at my school who are OPEN about who they love, because they can be, but I don’t think there are any more kids at my school who are gay than at any other school. It’s just a place where we can be ourselves and not have to be worried about getting picked on or bullied. My school is open to EVERYONE, gay or straight, as long as you’re a good person and don’t hurt others by bullying them or picking on them. And sure it has its flaws, but I wouldn’t choose to go anywhere else.

  • Hailey

    I completely agree with Chloe this school is about empowering and finding…no scratch that CREATING YOURSELF. ACPA is so amazing and great. Every time i hear ANYONE say something bad about ACPA i look them dead in the face and say,’ then dont go” because the truth is to go to ACPA is a honor. I have pride to be a freshmen at ACPA who can create and be who i am. People don’t judge me at all I have half NEON pink hair and Half Red. People at ACPA LOVE my hair even if they didn’t it wasn’t brought out and i wasn’t made fun of because that is not the ACPA way. We are so much more than a gay school we are a family we are are united rather by friendship or by heart we are the legacy not just for High Schools not EVEN just ohio but the whole world….

  • The Gypsy Mom

    These students are absolutely beautiful kids. God teaches us to love one another and to judge not. ACPA it seems to me is following these guidelines God has set in place. They offer children of ALL walks of life the opportunity for a rewarding education as well as a safe environment. As long as we have people out there that segregate the students into groups the intolerances of society will never change. Let’s look at ACPA for what it is ” A school for beautiful, kind, loving, and gifted children who just want to succeed in life”.

  • Greg B

    ACPA Class of 2007!!!

  • Ms Kim

    The moment I switched my son, in 10th grade, to ACPA…….it was the best move I ever made. Not only did he go from a 1.75 GPA to graduating with a 4.0 GPA…….most importantly he grew into a strong, confident, happy young man. ACPA staff were so supportive and kind. They always had time to talk with parents and students. The students came first no matter what. Their methods of teaching really reach the students. They didn’t worry about the clothes the students would wear to school, the color of their hair or fingernails, if a guy wanted to wear a dress and a girl wanted to wear a suit and tie, if the students had their cell phones in their pockets……..they gave the students trust and the freedom to express them selves as well as learn. And you know what? It works. My son is now in his 3rd year of college. I couldn’t be more proud of the man he has turned out to be. And I have ACPA to thank for much of that.

  • Anonymous

    I have heard great things about ACPA. One question I have is how the administration there can have that much power without getting into legal issues. The quote from the mother who said the enrollment director told her child, “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” seems unrealistic, but I know that is what she does and says. I personally know a student who was accepted then “unaccepted” because of a facebook post she made about kids following her to ACPA. If ACPA is a charter school, they are public and have to accept any student who applies (unless they’ve been expelled from another school or have reached their enrollment max). I know at my school we have had very difficult times suspending/expelling students for fighting, let alone making derogatory comments. Wouldn’t it make more sense to help students who are not tolerant, or have behavior issues learn from their mistakes rather than just kicking them out? We’ve made tons of progress with a lot of students who were “bullies” because we actually taught them how to relate with people different from them. Sometimes it would be nice to be able to just expel them, but it’s not realistic for most schools, nor is it teaching tolerance to those who probably need it the most. Seems a bit hypocritical…

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