Be Proud, Be Bold: Students Celebrate Pride & Belonging
Earlier this spring, classroom paraeducator Carlos Mendez asked the 7th and 8th-graders of Ventura Charter School’s LGBTQ+ Club to rank their satisfaction with various aspects of their life: creativity, health, friends, education, etc. 90% of students who participated in this “Wheel of Life” activity indicated that they were unhappy or unsatisfied in the areas of both “support” and “joy/happiness.”
As EL Education’s Better World Day rapidly approached, Carlos set out to co-construct a Better World Day project alongside these students that would change this narrative by ensuring that “every child and every person who is at our school can see themselves and know that they belong.” Their efforts culminated in designing an art project set to be installed at the school’s entrance that will “beautify our school” while also promoting a “climate of purposeful inclusion and belonging” at Ventura Charter School. Students say, “This school is incredibly inclusive and accepting, and we want people to know this the moment they walk on campus. VCS values student ideas and encourages us to be who we are.
Inspired loosely by the yellow brick road from The Wizard of Oz, members of the Ventura school community will soon be greeted each day by a rainbow spiral at the school’s entrance that will stretch to the building’s first few classrooms. The art installation will incorporate colors that represent the LGBTQ+ community as well as Black and Brown students, educators, and community members while featuring phrases like “Be Proud,” “Be Bold,” “Be Strong,” and “Be Kind.”
The project’s alignment to the “Character” aspect in particular of EL Education’s Three Dimensions of Student Achievement is prominent; the affirming words are a reminder to members of the Ventura school community to “become ethical people: treat others well and stand up for what is right (e.g., empathy, integrity, respect, compassion).” Students co-designed the project to help contribute to a Sense of Belonging for Ventura’s students, which we know to be vital to students’ academic and personal success. By co-creating this work of art, Ventura’s LGBTQ+ community members are directly contributing to a sense of belonging through Crew at their school, which is particularly important for students who identify as LGBTQ+.
On Better World Day 2022, students from Ventura formalized plans for the art installation. The school’s Kid Captains, Leila Martinez (She/Her) and Milo Petrushkin (He/Him), also presented their project plans at a virtual Community Circle designed to lift Better World Day projects worldwide:
Ventura’s Director of Education Lisa Hildebrand says, “Being involved in Better World Day was a huge moment of joy for them. It was really awesome for them to be able to see themselves represented in a national and an international forum.”
EL Education school coach Sarah Purdy describes the Better World Day project as a “landmark” by which to recognize the growth of both students and educators at Ventura that has taken place since they joined the EL Education community in early 2020. It was also around this time that educator Carlos Mendez formed the LGBTQ+ Club and then worked alongside students to write an Equity Statement for the group–a practice he learned from Sarah after she worked with Ventura’s staff to write a schoolwide Equity Statement. The LGBTQ+ Club has served as a platform and vehicle for these students’ natural leadership and genius, who have since advocated for a more open discussion of pronouns at the beginning of each school year as well as offered feedback on inclusivity in the school’s human growth and sex education coursework.
When completed, the art installation will not only be a visible reminder of the legacy left behind by the school’s first-ever LGBTQ+ Club and a powerful contribution to a sense of belonging at Ventura Charter School, but it will also be evidence of the impact that students can have on Better World Day and every day.
Carlos Mendez, M. Ed, is collaborating with Michael Tyler, award-winning author of The Skin You Live In, on an upcoming children’s book entitled Perfect For Me. Carlos says, “When writing this book, I was very inspired by the core values of EL Education and everything it stands for.” The book will be about inclusivity, acceptance, and love.