‘It’s another way to help a segment of society that needs attention.’ --Principal Warren L. Steinberg : Fairfax Pilot Project Quietly Seeks to Cut Gay Student Dropout Rate
A counseling program for homosexual high school students, the first of its kind in the Los Angeles Unified School District, is being tried at Fairfax High School to reduce the dropout rate among the school’s gay and lesbian adolescents.
The program, which has operated quietly at Fairfax since September, 1984, is a district pilot project. It was developed at Fairfax after teachers noticed a high incidence of academic and discipline problems among avowed homosexual students.
If the project is successful in persuading homosexual students to stay on through graduation, administrators and school officials said, it might be used at other schools where there are similar problems among gay students.
‘Attempt to Relieve Some Pressures’
“This is not an advocacy program,” said Virginia Uribe, an avowed lesbian health teacher and counselor who founded the project. “It is an attempt to relieve some of the pressures on gay kids so that they can go on to graduate instead of dropping out.”
Uribe named her counseling program Project 10, for the statistical portion of the general population (10%) believed to be homosexual. “It’s the same way at the school,” she said. “We have no idea exactly how many kids have a same-sex orientation, but that’s probably the best figure we could get.”
Uribe said that since the fall of 1984, when word of the program was first carefully spread through Fairfax’s small clique of openly homosexual students, she has counseled more than 50 students.
“Not all of them are kids you would immediately classify as definitely gay or lesbian,” Uribe said. “I’ve talked with some kids who are confused about their identities, but were afraid to tell anyone else about their feelings.”
The school district is providing $6,000 a year for the project. Uribe meets with gay students at least one period each school day.
But because school officials were reluctant to add to their original funding request, they asked the neighboring city of West Hollywood to pay for books and other materials for the program. Last week, the West Hollywood City Council approved Uribe’s $1,800 funding request.
Community Support Wanted
“You can only tap Board (of Education) resources for a pilot program up to a certain point,” said Fairfax Principal Dr. Warren L. Steinberg. “It was our feeling we should also seek support from the community as well, and West Hollywood was the community to go to.”
West Hollywood Councilman Stephen Schulte was involved in early discussions about the program. And West Hollywood Councilwoman Helen Albert, a former teacher who introduced the request, agreed that West Hollywood had an interest in the fate of the Fairfax program. “It’s the high school where our students go,” she said. “and it helps us by making sure gay students graduate instead of ending up on our streets.’
Uribe added that West Hollywood’s large gay community--estimated at more than 30% of the city’s population--also played a role in the funding request. “Since there’s a large gay constituency in West Hollywood, I thought they would see the need for it,” she said. “I thought they would be more sensitive to some of the conflicts that our gay kids have.”
Homosexual students at Fairfax, according to Uribe and other school officials, had been showing visible signs of those conflicts before the counseling program began a year ago. “The social and educational pressures are hard for any high school students,” said Lee Saltz, a counselor and health teacher who heads an anti-drug project at Fairfax. “But they’re even worse for gay kids.”
Problem With Graffiti
Taunts from other students were common, Uribe said. Anti-gay graffiti, identified by the letters VTH (Violence Toward Homosexuals) scrawled on school walls, was another problem. And there were incidents between gay students and punk-rock students.
“The punkers like to prove how tough they are so they pick on gay students,” said Leah Fein, a UCLA student and 1985 Fairfax graduate who helped Uribe develop the counseling project.
Some gay students withdrew into drug and alcohol abuse, Saltz said. “We found a high correlation between questions about sexual identity and drug use,” she said. “And in most of those situations, grades suffer.”
Other gay students reacted by flaunting their homosexuality. “Some kids were dressing outrageously,” Uribe said. “There was a bad situation when two girls started kissing each other in public. It was obvious something had to be done.”
Uribe’s response was to start an informal talk session with openly gay students in her classroom during her lunch period. “They had no one else they could talk to,” Uribe said. “Their parents either didn’t know, or else did know, but wouldn’t listen. They obviously couldn’t talk with the straight kids. And a lot of these kids were very intelligent, but their grades didn’t show it.”
As the sessions continued, Uribe found that she required more time. “These kids were in danger of dropping out and I couldn’t help them with just a few minutes a day,” she said.
She broached the idea to Steinberg, who responded enthusiastically. “It’s another way to help a segment of society that needs attention,” he said. “We have programs at Fairfax for deaf students, for orthopedically handicapped, for immigrant students, for the gifted, for the educably retarded. Why not gay students?”
After developing the concept for Project 10, Uribe was startled to find immediate backing from two Board of Education members, Alan Gershman, who represents the Fairfax area, and Jackie Goldberg. “I thought there would be some resistance,” Uribe said, “but everyone’s been supportive.”
According to one Board of Education official, there was some initial reluctance among district administrators. But the reluctance eventually gave way to approval. “I think it’s a legitimate function of the school,” Gershman said. “I can see there’s a need and I think it’s appropriate that professional staff is available.”
Uribe has operated the program so quietly that many of Fairfax’s students and teachers do not know of its existence. “It was very underground,” said Fein, who worked with a variety of troubled fellow students while at Fairfax and sometimes referred students to Uribe. “We were very careful not to say anything about who was coming in for help.”
The need for a low profile was reinforced last April when school officials learned of a controversy in New York that had developed over that city’s decision to set up a separate high school for homosexual students. Although Uribe’s intention is for gay students to adapt within the general population at Fairfax, she saw the potential controversy of a program geared exclusively to gay students.
“It’s a touchy issue,” she said. “These kids have to adapt to society. We aren’t helping them if we segregate them. But when you start a program like this, you’re taking an obvious risk.”
At the end of the 1985-1986 school year, Uribe will report on the program’s results and the district will then decide whether the project might be appropriate for other schools.
For now, Uribe said, it is still too early to determine whether the program has had any success. “All we have are indications,” she said. “At least gay students have someone they can talk to. And there are some kids who made it through graduation last year who were in danger of dropping out. Some of them are still in touch. I think that’s a hopeful sign.”