June was a month of graduations and of Pride. And I recently met a student that was celebrating both. His name is Abel and he sat in a bus for 1 1/2 hours, each way, twice a week, then returned home, disciplining himself to do work for 4-6 hours per day. He could have gone to a school closer to home, but Abel chose to make this trek for over 18 months to graduate fromOpportunities for Learning (OFL), a public charter school. OFL who provided the teacher and books partnered with LifeWorks who provided a classroom at the LA Gay & Lesbian Center. It was a safe space for Abel.
In the beginning, Abel's mom didn't want him to enroll in this school. It was too far from home and it was not a traditional public school. But when she walked in and met OFL teacher, Jeff White, her feelings began to change. Jeff was kind, encouraging and genuinely cared about her son. He also took time to talk with Abel. Little did Abel's mom or Jeff know that Abel was planning to use this new school as an easy way to drop out of high school completely. Being gay, hanging with the wrong crowd and falling behind in his credits had created a hopeless feeling inside of Abel, but dropping out of his local high school did not give him enough reasons to fail. Going to a charter school, riding a bus six hours per week and having to work independently would give him those reasons. To Abel's surprise, something different happened. The connection he made with his teacher started to spark a tiny light of hope in him. And with Jeff's support, he started to believe that his dreams were possible. "Could I actually catch up on my credits and graduate?" Abel thought.
Jeff held Abel to a high standard. If Abel fell behind in his work, Jeff sat him down and talked to him about what was going on. This was a teacher that truly cared, took the time to get to know his student and found ways to connect with him. Abel wanted to make Jeff proud of him, so he began to study harder. And so little by little, Abel's thoughts of dropping out switched to believing that he could graduate. As graduation drew near, Abel began to dream that he would be able to attend college. He is now on his way to California State University Northridge pursuing another dream . . . getting a degree in film and eventually applying to USC's Film School.
What kind of school can bring a student without hope to dream big and start believing in himself? Opportunities for Learning was founded by John and Joan Hall. John a dyslexic student, who could only read a few words at the age of 12, developed a method of education that requires the students to work independently, developing character assets, like being responsible, persevering, being disciplined . . . .qualities that will prepare them for college. It is a year round school, with a low teacher to student ratio (one teacher to five students per hour). And this l:5 ratio allows teachers to really bond with their students. Students are asked in their initial meetings with teachers, "What is your dream?" John says having a dream, a passion, a purpose that ignites you, is the key to students working hard, overcoming adversity and believing that success is possible. In addition, OFL hires teachers that do not see the failures of the past, but empower students in the possibilities of their future.
This school also believes that community is important, because people need to feel like they belong. So although the students work independently of each other, John and Joan's daughter, Jamie, has built in community pieces through her non-profit, Pathways in Education. Students fly to Colorado to work on a ranch for ten days, board a bus to go into the mountains to study leadership for a weekend or explore different colleges over four days while talking about the steps needed to pursue post secondary education. Individual school sites also have the opportunity to create other learning experiences, such as travelling to Washington DC to lobby for safer schools and attending a PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) convention.
So in the month of Pride, Abel and his family not only celebrated his academic accomplishments but they are proud of who he is as a person. I dream that our LGBT children have teachers like Jeff, who will advocate for their students, see their greatness and make sure they are safe. I dream that our LGBT children can be themselves in a world that often tries to tell them that they are not good enough. And though we still have so much further to go in our work, hearing the decisions from the Supreme Court on DOMA and Prop. 8 and seeing students like Abel succeed, give me hope that we are moving in the right direction.