Parents and advocates for transgender students lobbied the leadership of Great Hearts Academies for months last fall.
They held a protest outside of the charter school’s ritzy annual fundraising gala. A group of alumni wrote an open letter to Great Hearts that blamed “the prejudices of certain board members” for ignoring student well-being.
The charter network’s response? Icy silence.
And then last month, in a closed-door meeting, the board of the high-profile charter school quietly voted to abandon a discriminatory policy in the student handbook, according to two people familiar with the decision.
A "biological sex and gender policy" forced transgender and gender nonconforming students at Great Hearts schools to use facilities, such as restrooms and locker rooms, that corresponded to the sex listed on their birth certificate. The policy also instructed staff to refer to students using names and pronouns based on their birth certificate, and students had to follow the dress code and grooming standards that matched their birth certificate.
Advocates have been fighting for change since the charter network instituted the policy in summer 2016.
“Honestly, I don’t know what changed their mind. But their mind was changed, one way or another,” said Robert Chevaleau, the president of the Arizona Trans Youth and Parent Organization.
According to Chevaleau and another advocate, Madelaine Adelman, they held a phone conference with Great Hearts Chief Innovation Officer Erik Twist on March 9. During the conversation, Twist told them that the charter network’s sex and gender policy is not currently being enforced and will be removed from the student handbook following the end of the school year, the advocates said.
Twist informed them that new, inclusive language that respects all students, regardless of their gender identity, will replace the old policy in the 2018-19 version of the handbook.
Twist and a spokesperson for Great Hearts Academies did not respond to repeated requests for comment, and there's been no public statements from the school about dropping the controversial handbook language.
The public charter network, which has a reputation for being conservative, operates 28 schools in Arizona and Texas, and claims to deliver a “classical liberal arts education.” Twist is a member of the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools and previously served as headmaster at Great Hearts Archway Veritas in Phoenix.
Chevaleau, who said he has reviewed a draft of the new policy, said that transgender and gender nonconforming students will now be able to access facilities, play on sports teams, and join clubs according to each student’s gender identity. Additionally, Great Hearts’ policies on dress code and pronoun usage will align with the student's gender. According to him, the new policy provides each student with the same level of respect and dignity.
Chevaleau said Twist told him that Great Hearts has based its new, more inclusive policy on the Welcoming Schools program from Human Rights Campaign.
Adelman, a Phoenix board member of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), said that she was glad the Great Hearts board finally abandoned a harmful and discriminatory policy, even though it took a great deal of effort to bring the board around.
“I think they saw how hurtful the old policy was,” Adelman said. “I don’t think they necessarily intended to harm students, but I think they came to understand that it was an unnecessarily harmful policy.”
Great Hearts came under fire last month for another section of its handbook policies.
Brittany Anderson pulled her son from Great Hearts Teleos Prep in protest after he was sent home for wearing braids. Amid a slew of negative media attention, Great Hearts said it will review the grooming policies and added that Anderson’s seventh-grade son is welcome back with no change in hairstyle.
The advocates aren't sure what tipped the Great Hearts board members in their favor.
“If a charter school wants to change their policies, they often can do it in a more expedited way because of the way they’re governed,” Adelman said.
Stephanie Okonoski, 47, is the mother of a transgender student. Although her eighth-grade daughter does not attend a Great Hearts school, she said she was shocked and upset when she first learned of the policy.
"Their motto is 'Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.' They need to live that," she said. Okonoski said she will watch carefully to see how the policy change plays out, but she's cautiously optimistic.
"If they change the policy, I think that that shows in my mind that they’re trying to do the right thing," she said.
Even as Great Hearts is apparently reversing course on its discriminatory stance toward transgender kids, the federal government is moving backward. A year ago, the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos announced it was rescinding guidance from the Office for Civil Rights that said students should have equal access to facilities based on their gender identity under Title IX nondiscrimination law.
Because there's been no public announcement or communication from Great Hearts regarding a policy change, Chevaleau suspects that board members are trying to keep it quiet in order to appease conservative parents and fellow members.
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“I’m excited that they’ve decided to kind of turn a corner, and I truly hope that they embrace the fact that they’ve made their school a better place and a more inclusive place for every student,” Chevaleau said.
Nevertheless, he said that there’s more work to do. Training employees on the new policy is a critically important next step. Chevaleau said Twist told him that Great Hearts will train its executives and schools on the new, more inclusive policy in the near future.
The old policy fostered a “toxic culture” of intolerance that needs to be addressed, Chevaleau said.
“As far as I’m concerned, we’re not across the finish line until that training is complete,” he said.