Amid Trailside controversy, Welcoming Schools trainer describes what’s in the program
This June, two months before an August professional development session for teachers that sparked a community controversy, three months before a 2,300-word anonymous email and four months before a cease-and-desist letter, Utah State Board of Education equity and advocacy specialist Holly Bell received a certification in a professional development course designed to promote inclusivity and equity called Welcoming Schools.
Welcoming Schools identifies itself as a training tool for elementary school educators focusing on embracing family diversity, creating LGBTQ- and gender-inclusive schools and preventing bias-based bullying.
Part of Bell’s job is to travel to schools around the state and help districts implement anti-bullying training newly required by state law and help teachers promote equity in a rapidly changing world. She sees the Welcoming Schools training as aiding in that effort.
“My role here is to provide technical assistance to schools. If I’m able to provide trainings to help equity, I do,” Bell said in an interview with The Park Record. “Teachers are getting these questions and they don’t know how to answer. (These trainings are) giving them some tools so they know how to answer things that come into their schools.”
Bell said she was asked to come to Trailside Elementary School and in August gave a 2.5-hour training entitled “Embracing Family Diversity” to about 50 staff members.
The educators were divided into small groups and Bell led them through exercises, she said. They watched a short film, she gave them sample lesson plans and led discussions.
She was brought there, she said, because the school surveyed its staff and ultimately requested one of seven Welcoming Schools modules. Park City School District officials have said Trailside teachers had requested more training and the district was attempting to comply with the new anti-bullying legislation.
The second module that was planned for March would have focused on bias-based bullying, Bell said, but district officials have said they’re reconsidering that after some parents have raised concerns over the Welcoming Schools program. Last month, attorneys for a group called Stop Welcoming Schools sent the district a cease-and-desist letter demanding school officials halt the program. The group claims the program amounts to sex education and has referred to it as LGBTQ indoctrination, setting off a debate about the program among Trailside parents and other community members.
So far, the training at Trailside remains the only one Bell has done, but she said the program is approved to be used throughout the state. The State Board of Education touts the trainings as a way for districts to comply with the new anti-bullying requirements at no cost.
Bell said she draws on many sources to conduct the trainings, and that Welcoming Schools is a particularly good one, with evidence-based results.
“It’s known to decrease reported bullying behaviors and increase scores in reading and math,” she said.
She said students don’t concentrate on learning if they don’t feel safe at school.
“(Students) can’t get an education if they’re being bullied or isolated or told they’re bad or their families are bad,” Bell said.
According to training documents provided by Bell, one information sheet was entitled “Who can marry whom?” and offers instruction about how to have inclusive conversations with students about marriage.
The sheet says it is important to teach students about many different kinds of families, whether those particular families are present in the school community or not.
“It is our job as educators to talk about diverse families and relationships with elementary students and to provide them with mirrors of their own lives so they can develop healthy identities as well as provide windows into other lives so that they become global citizens who embrace differences,” the training material says.
For example, to the question “How can two women have children? Don’t you need a dad?” the worksheet supplies the sample response, “Children come into families in many different ways. Every family is different.”
Bell said these are the types of conversations teachers sometimes ask for help navigating. Sometimes, it can be as simple as rephrasing how teachers ask students to bring a permission slip home to be signed by “mom or dad.”
“The thing I like about this program — teaching language teachers can use that’s very benign. That’s important because teachers don’t know how to address (certain topics),” she said. “You don’t have to say a lot. We don’t need to make big complicated definitions of things. If you don’t practice ahead of time, you get stuck.”
That’s a point echoed by Kelly Bullett, a parent of a racially mixed family who has two kids at Trailside Elementary School.
“I think being a parent of a family that is not what is typical has made me so much more sensitive to people that lie outside of what is typical,” Bullett said.
She recounted a story in which a little girl asked her whether her kids were “real” siblings. She’s thought and read a lot about these issues and was able to tell the girl that her children have different birth mothers but that their family is real in everyday ways that made sense to the girl, like arguing over who gets to brush their teeth first at night.
“It wasn’t anything I needed to go into detail. I had the vocabulary to explain to her what our situation is,” Bullett said.
Other training materials provided by Bell — which vary by target age — challenge students to stretch their definition of what a family is and identify bias in advertisements. The packet also includes a glossary of terms like “half-brother,” “LGBTQ family” and step-parent. Bell said the Trailside training did not discuss pronoun usage.
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