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September 29, 2022

Seeking Tools for School Transformation

Meet the Interscholastic Gender Working Group
by Emma Staffaroni

It’s easy to know that your school is falling short in a particular area. It’s not nearly as easy to figure out the next steps for improvement.

We formed the Interscholastic Gender Working Group (IGWG) in 2021 based on a shared understanding of the gap between a school’s mission and its capacity—its reach, and its grasp. With a shared vision and sense of urgency around supporting transgender and non-binary identifying community members at independent schools, we set out to study how to give schools like ours a better grasp.

Each of us in the IGWG comes from a background as gender and sexuality specialists and practitioners in New England independent schools. Our team members have played instrumental roles in school transformation efforts, from founding affinity spaces and all-gender dormitories, to implementing inclusive sexuality education and professional development.

With support from the Tang Institute and the Brace Center for Gender Studies, we held our first retreat in January 2022, where we invited Alex Myers—author, educator, and current director of the Mountain School—as a guest collaborator to help us envision a process for learning about current gender inclusivity programs at our local peer institutions.

Given the recent publication of invaluable resources like Supporting Transgender Students by Myers, as well as an increase in professional development offerings through organizations like AISNE (Association of Independent Schools of New England) and NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools), independent school staff have more and more information to begin, continue, and refine their school’s transformations into more inclusive, affirming, and expansive places around gender identity and expression. But schools often don’t know where to start—and the process can feel daunting. Lacking a roadmap or a big-picture view of the ways schools already support their trans and non-binary young people, they may feel paralyzed or simply overlook existing possibilities and best practices.

Given this landscape, IGWG has designed a plan to gather meaningful and practical data on New England’s independent school network and the status of ‘gender inclusivity’ programs at these institutions.

Getting the Lay of the Land

Our research efforts will kick off with a survey of New England independent schools and their current policies and practices. Since IGWG’s retreat, we have clarified our mission and decided to begin with big-picture data collection. We’ve since drafted a survey composed of questions in a majority yes/no format, a style that will allow school leaders to respond efficiently to provide us with anonymous portraits of schools’ current offerings. (Does your school have single-user gender neutral restrooms? Does it have multi-stall gender neutral restrooms?...etc.) Our survey covers areas like gender-inclusive facilities (e.g., locker rooms), institutional data practices (e.g., procedures for name change), athletic offerings (e.g., all-gender interscholastic teams), and next-school processes (e.g., college counseling resources for trans students). We hope this will not only provide feedback on what’s happening on the ground, but will also in turn offer the respondent (likely a diversity practitioner) this list of key areas of impact.

Our collaboration is indebted to many brilliant partners. In addition to working with Myers and his comprehensive book, our group has had the privilege to learn from sociologist Dr. Tey Meadow, author of Trans Kids: Being Gendered in the Twenty-First Century and Other Please Specify: Queering Methods in Sociology.

Our survey findings, and the portrait they paint of our regional professional network, will hopefully lead to deeper sites of inquiry. Drawing inspiration from Trans Kids, which tells stories of the first generation of families affirming gender non-conformity in their children, we imagine a second phase of data collection that is more qualitative. We might focus on particular school sites where school transformation around gender has led to unique challenges and innovations.

Windows and Mirrors

To borrow Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s beloved formulation, our project will be successful if it provides both windows and mirrors for our audience. Schools, we hope, will see inspiring examples of schools that are developing authentic and sustainable inclusion practices; at the same time, our survey data will offer a snapshot of the evolving landscape at our schools, offering us a more realistic and clear sense of what work there is to do.

As Alex Myers shared at our retreat, true inclusion is “when someone has thought of me before I’ve even arrived.” This definition should be a beacon for all schools as they prepare the way for the young generation and their expansive ways of living gender. We hope our research, too, will help light the way.

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BIOS

Lu Adami (they/them) is a teacher and visual artist from Chicago, Illinois. They recently received a graduate degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania. They led the team that opened Milton Academy's first all-gender dormitory in fall 2023. In the past year, they have presented at the Association of Independent School New England DEI Conference and a Tang Institute conference.

Talya Sokoll is the co-director of the Putnam Library and the gender and sexuality specialist at Noble and Greenough School. Talya is a librarian, teacher, dramaturg, and DEI practitioner. They work with students in a variety of spaces and love to talk about gender, books, musical theater, and pickles.

Emma Staffaroni (she/her) taught English for nine years at Phillips Academy, where she also led the school’s founding all-gender dormitory, served as a DEI coordinator, and directed the Brace Center for Gender Studies. She often partners with schools to advance their gender equity and inclusion work. Emma currently lives in Lowell, Massachusetts.

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