Farms linked by 2-lane roads snaked across the rural Ohio landscape. Brown and gray clouds flattened the scenery and cast their melancholy over silos, fields, and farmhouses. The ticker board in front of a roadside church reads “Stop Drop and Roll Does Not Work In Hell.”
This is the landscape in which The Arts and College Preparatory Academy in Columbus hides.
My brother, who lives in Columbus and teaches 10th Grade English at ACPA, wove us through this meandering, rustic terrain and pulled into the parking lot of what looked like an office building with tinted windows. The school is located between a gravel factory and a run-down water park. My brother drove around the lot before pulling into a spot. Train tracks ran behind the grounds. He pointed to an old trucking container near the building. “That’s where they store extra supplies,” he said.
Every time I’ve spoken to my brother since he landed this teaching job a few months ago, he’s told me one unbelievable fact after another about this school: the only physical education required of all students is dance. No school sports teams – only dance. Any visitor to the school whether a parent, a prospective staff member, a mayor, or a superintendent, is given a student-led tour. Planned Parenthood comes in to do their sex-ed classes.
The most foundational characteristic of the school, however, is their zero tolerance for bullying policy. Students who were bullied out of other public schools, if they are lucky enough to know that this place even exists, join the ACPA community. As a result, the school is comprised of poor kids, queer kids, teenage drag queens, gender-non-conforming kids, the black kids from the predominantly white schools, the Asian kids from the predominantly black schools, the geeks, the suicidal, the disabled, the artists. Every student at ACPA has a specific reason for being there. They all know what it’s like to be different and they all treat each other with immense kindness. My brother says students can be affectionate with their same sex classmates, wear bunny ears to school if they feel like it, and even complete their classwork on the floor underneath their desk if they’re having a bad day. But god help you if you give anyone else a hard time.
He recalled picture day: the district sent a photographer – that day, the director and both principals happened to be out of the building. The photographer proceeded to do his job by giving the kids combs, one by one telling them to fix their hair, tuck their shirts in, take off silly hats, and smile pretty. The students, who on one hand spend most of their time in a place where the adults don’t care what they look like or what they wear so long as they show up, participate, and don’t keep anyone else from being who they want to be, were also well-trained to be polite. When the director came back to school the next day and heard from several students about their experience on picture day, she became irate. She called the district and had them send the photographer back to re-shoot every picture so they reflect how the students actually wanted to present themselves.
Sounds too good to be true, huh?
Well when my brother took me there, I saw that he wasn’t exaggerating. Money is so scarce that there is no library and no new books. Space is so limited that several grades have to share single classrooms for language arts, history, and math. Yet with so little to run on, there are separate designated rooms for drama, art, music, and dance. Maintaining these facilities is just as important as their science lab. There is brilliant student art on all the walls.
After the school day ends and the final bell rings, a sullen girl with a septum piercing and a stocking cap stands in a doorway playing guitar and singing to another girl, sounds from the drumline boom through the this walls, and a group of seniors gather in an empty classroom to take turns playing video games.
At the other end of the crowded, narrow hall, which basically constitutes the entire length of the school, is the all-purpose room. A group of students set up a makeshift stage while a cluster of kids kill time in the corner, and an adult drag queen holds up sequined dresses by their hangers in an adjacent room. They are all preparing a final run-through of the upcoming drag pageant.
Yes, the school was holding their first student-run drag pageant. Throughout the semester student leaders arranged for local drag celebrities to come into the school to run workshops on drag performance (with titles like, “Genderqueer vs. Drag: What’s the Difference?” “Facial Hair 101,” and “Dissecting Your Stage Presence”), which culminated in a student drag performance.
My brother introduced me to the student leader who’s been heading up all the drag pageant events. So polite, well-spoken, engaged, and queer as a 3 dollar bill, he looked me right in the eye and welcomed me, and made sure I knew who I could talk to if I had any questions about the event. “We’ve really got our hands full here!” he said as a flurry of helpers fastened the planks of the stage into place.
ACPA is a small charter school with a golden rating from the Ohio Department of Education. The waiting list is through the roof. Students thrive here.
(You can go to the school’s website for videos, mission, stats, and more.)
This tiny school quietly goes about its radical business of operating and maintaining a welcoming, community-based, academically serious, safe, learning environment for some of the most socially and economically disenfranchised students in the area.
My brother, who’s struggled (like so many artists and thinkers) with un(or under)employment for several years, and who was also bullied growing up, swears by ACPA’s mission and approach to education. After visiting ACPA I wondered how I, as an introspective, queer, writer might have turned out differently had I come of age in such an environment.
When I returned from my Ohio trip, I met up with my new tutoring client, a Freshman at UC Berkeley who has cerebral palsy. I will be assisting him in his rhetoric and other writing classes. He asked how my trip was and I told him about ACPA and what a special place it is. I told him it’s a school so committed to creating a safe learning space for their students that it is filled almost completely with students who were bullied out of their regular public schools. I told him it felt like a sliver of what a utopian educational institution can look like. Immediately my student jumped in: “Yeah, but,” he began in his labored speech. “If you remove everyone who’s different, that’s not good either.”
He’s got a point. What good will it do to cart off anyone who’s different to the outskirts of town? “They [the schools] need to be educated,” my student says. Doesn’t sending these kids away teach schools and administrators that they can continue turning their backs on students who are bullied? That they don’t have to foster a safe place for all students to grow?
Yes. One one hand, sending the kids who don’t fit in away does send the wrong message to school boards, administrators, and even other students about treating people with dignity. However, we tend to think of education reform as anywhere from daunting to impossible. Why should students who are being bullied, humiliated, intimidated, and harassed every day of their formative years, have to suffer adults’ ignorance and uncaring if indeed an alternative does exist? Why should they be denied the opportunity to prosper while we lobby for schools to prioritize the physical and emotional safety of its students?
My brother says ACPA is proof that it is possible to create places that promote kindness without sacrificing academic focus – that if we wanted to, we could make spaces like ACPA all over the country. We have to admit that the problem of hate and intolerance in schools is not a rite of passage for (certain) students. it’s a detrimental reality that we can actually change. But we have to want it. We have to recognize that making schools safe does not only benefit the kids being harassed. it benefits us all.
I hope that I can go back to visit ACPA again and I hope to see this school’s activities covered more in local and national media as an example not of segregation, but of what is possible in all schools.