Creating Brave & Belonging Spaces

KIPP Austin College Prep (KACP) principal Juan Juárez shares how he is working to fulfill KIPP Texas Public Schools’ commitment to creating brave and belonging spaces for all students and staff. An inclusive environment where everyone bravely pushes themselves in uncomfortable ways so that we may feel a deeper sense of compassion, connection, and empathy toward those who are different from us.

LGBTQIA+ individuals, particularly children, still experience high levels of discrimination and stress especially in school. LGBTQIA+ students nationwide continue to face bullying, exclusion, and discrimination in school, putting them at physical and psychological risk, and limiting their education.

Growing up as a gay Latino, Juárez remembers feeling lonely and isolated from his family and his Latinx community. “I am proud of being a Latino but, and it’s also been very hard growing up as a Latino because of the toxic masculinity that exists within our culture. I struggled with my identity. I knew that there was something different about me, but was consistently given the messages of having to be extremely masculine acting, by my own family and our culture,” said KIPP Austin College Prep principal Juan Juárez.

Juárez admits his journey to self-identity took years. He finally came out to a trusted adult at age 19, but made a point to keep that personal information out of his professional life until more than a decade later. Even then, it took him six years at the same school, before he felt compelled to share his story.

“The first time that I ever publicly disclosed my sexual orientation was when I was a principal in San Antonio, and it was really scary for me because I didn’t know the backlash that I would receive,” said Juárez . “The reality was families knew who I was because I shared with them my stories, and because they knew who I was, it wasn’t a big shock to the community in San Antonio, where there is an even larger population of Latinos and Latinas.”

Since then, Juárez is intentionally open to staff, students and parents.

“My hope is that students are able to see that I am just another individual with a different identity, a unique identity. And my hope is that those students and staff who are either a part of the LGBTQIA+ community or struggling with their identity, will be more comfortable being a part of the community,” he said.

When Juárez first came to KACP two years ago, he was surprised at the lack of students who appeared to be part of the LGBTQIA+ community. “I don’t know the statistics of it, but statistically it’s pretty impossible to have zero out of 480 students not identify as LGBTQIA+. There were no students who were publicly out,” he said.

Juárez helped a group of teachers establish a social justice lab committee that has helped staff and students have honest conversations about their feelings, the school environment, and what they believe is missing in school policies and practices.

Today every KIPP Texas-Austin campus has at least one single-occupant, accessible, gender-neutral bathroom for students and staff.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations with parents around students who are struggling with their identity. Honest and sometimes difficult discussions that I don’t think would have occured, if it wasn’t for the conversations we’re having as a staff.”

Juárez said reactions from most families have been positive, but he has had a handful of conversations with parents and families who are just not in agreement.

“Those are really hard for me, as a gay Latino, to hear some of the comments that parents have said, around how it’s unacceptable. Or that we shouldn’t be having those conversations. And I think one of the things that I’ve done with teachers is equip them with language on how to have those conversations because those conversations can be really triggering, especially for our teachers who do identify as part of the community,” he said.

To create brave and belonging spaces, KACP has a restorative process toward hate language at school. “Students go through an entire reflection process where they sit down with a teacher or myself, and think and read the statistics around the harmful impacts of negative comments in the LGBTQIA+ community.”

In addition to the LGBTQIA+ affinity group for staff, KACP now has a Gender and Sexuality Alliance for students starting in fifth grade with parental approval. “It starts with educating our youth to make sure that they are developing a mindset where they understand that identities are unique, identities are beautiful, and that we need to accept other people,” said Juárez. He said when students and staff share their story, often family members and friends will respond with compassion, kindness, and their own vulnerability.

Students must feel safe and supported in order to reach their greatest potential. In order to fit the diverse needs of our students, KIPP Texas ensures that our classrooms are brave and belonging spaces where every student feels engaged, empowered, respected, and ready to learn.

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