At this South Philly school, keeping LGBTQ kids safe is front and center

Parent Stephanie Monahon (L) and principal Lauren Overton at Meredith Elementary School.

For much of last year, Stephanie Monahon’s 11-year-old child had shaky grades — and a secret.

But when he publicly identified as transgender, a remarkable thing happened: He was accepted — even embraced — at his South Philadelphia public school, Meredith Elementary.

He asked his teachers to call him by his new, chosen name, Eynder. He talked to his teachers, and his mother had conversations with school staff. The pronouns his teachers and classmates used to describe him changed, although the things he wore stayed the same — he had always dressed in a gender-neutral way.

“He kind of slid into it,” said Monahon. “When people are responsive, you don’t have to make a big thing about it.”

Meredith, in Queen Village, already had gender-neutral restrooms. A middle school class addresses issues of race and gender differences head on, and students in the lower grades are exposed to books that include broadly diverse examples of families. Teachers at every level are asked to steer away from addressing their students as “boys and girls.”

At least five students there now publicly identify as transgender, and the elementary school has a growing number of gay and lesbian students.

And now in seventh grade, Eynder’s grades are soaring.

“I had no idea how much keeping that secret kept him from being the best student he could be,” his mother said. “Honestly, the difference that I see in how he is functioning at school, and even in his grades, is huge.”

Meredith, with a progressive principal in a progressive neighborhood in a progressive city, may be in the vanguard. But increasingly, schools around the region and across the country are confronting children’s gender and sexuality issues at a younger age, with a varying range of actions and reactions from the community.

Even national organizations focused on the issue do not have up-to-date estimates of transgender students, or a sense of how many districts have policies guaranteeing transgender students’ rights. But such school-level protections are on the rise. Thirteen states, including New Jersey and New York, have nondiscrimination policies that cover transgender students; Pennsylvania does not.

The Philadelphia School District in 2016 passed a policy that affirms transgender students’ rights to use the restrooms of their choice, to be called the pronoun they prefer, and to try out for whatever athletic teams they want to.

Springfield Township schools, in Montgomery County, adopted a similar policy; so have the Great Valley School District, in Chester County, and Cherry Hill schools. Other school systems have confronted issues on a case-by-case basis, but have no formal policies in place.

The feedback has not been all positive. In Berks County, a Boyertown family filed suit against the district for a violation of “bodily privacy” over the school system’s policy of allowing transgender students to use the locker rooms of their preferred gender. Two conservative, faith-based organizations supported the suit, which is pending.

Meredith’s principal, Lauren Overton, said that she has gotten some pushback, but that overwhelmingly, families favor the actions the school has taken.

“We wanted to give our kids guidance about how to be human beings in the 21st century,” Overton said as she sat in her office last week in a rare pause from school activity. “There’s things beyond the regular math and reading and social studies that need to be explored.”

Ikaika Regidor, the director of education and youth programs for GLSEN, which began as the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, said that such proactive steps were key now, especially given the Trump administration’s removal of federal guidelines on transgender student rights.

“Schools are handling it in such a wide range of ways,” said Regidor. “That’s scary for a lot of LGBTQ kids, especially at young ages.”

Lea DiRusso, a longtime Meredith teacher, has the perspective of both an educator at the school and of a parent. Her son, who graduated from Meredith in June, was different even as a kindergartner.

“He would be the kid that said: ‘I’m not standing in the boys’ line or the girls’ line. I’m standing in the middle,’ ” said DiRusso, a special education teacher.

Meredith was always a welcoming place, DiRusso said, but once her son came out as transgender in middle school, teachers developed explicit lessons around the issue, ways to explain what was happening and why the pronouns they used to describe their classmate had shifted. 

Educating teachers themselves was top priority — terms like cisgender, describing someone whose gender identity corresponds with the sex they were assigned at birth, were unfamiliar to many. And faculty members agreed that they wanted their students to learn important things about the LGBTQ community from them, not on the street.

“We are child-centered,” said DiRusso. “We have a community of children that are informed about what is going on in the world, and we’re hopefully trying to build tolerance and acceptance.”

After DiRusso’s son came out, so did others.

For Overton, in her second year as principal, the fixes were simple. Some were spurred by districtwide training last year on transgender issues, and some were homegrown.

It was easy to ask teachers to refrain from referring to students as “boys and girls,” and to stop having them line up by sex. Now, one kindergarten class organizes for moving around the building in two lines — “Jupiter” and “Mars,” and other teachers use numbers or letters.

A family whose child left private school in part because of issues with that school’s dress code suggested striking any references to gender from Meredith’s code. So school administrators did: All students must wear black, navy, or khaki bottoms and white or light-blue shirts

A revelation for Eynder, and for his mom, was the pink signs that appeared on every single-stall restroom at Meredith this year. (Each floor has regular girls’ and boys’ restrooms, as well.) They are ordinary pieces of paper, laminated and stuck onto doors.

“Gender neutral bathroom,” they say in all capital letters.

Camera icon KRISTEN A. GRAHAM / Staff
A sign on a gender-neutral restroom at Meredith Elementary. The K-8 school in Queen Village has designated some of its restrooms as such to make children who identify as transgender feel comfortable.

Before this year, Eynder and other transgender and non-binary students had access to single-stall bathrooms typically reserved for adults in the building — the principal, counselor, and teachers. But that sometimes raised red flags for other students, who wondered why they couldn’t use them, and for the transgender students themselves, who sometimes felt as if they were sneaking into a spot where they shouldn’t be.

“This was such a big deal to him,” said Monahon. “Having the support that my son needs to feel like he’s equal to his peers — that’s not true everywhere. It allows him to thrive.”

Overton, for one, doesn’t see Meredith’s work as revolutionary.

“It’s not super innovative,” she said. “It’s just good practice.”

Those families who have questioned the practice, DiRusso said, have said things along the lines of: Meredith is trying to promote an agenda.

“They were afraid,” said DiRusso. “We are not promoting an agenda. But we are trying to instill values in our kids, and we are trying to educate them about people who are different from them, because education is power.”

It’s not an entirely smooth road — kids can be tough, and some children who are transgender or different in other ways have gotten teased, or had the wrong pronouns used to describe them  but the Meredith staff is all in, down to the cafeteria workers. Some employees told Overton they might not understand a concept or the reasons behind it, but they wanted all children to know that they were rooting for them.

“Every child,” Overton said, “deserves an equitable opportunity to feel safe and to have a good education and to be welcomed where they are, as they are.”