Just a few days before my high school graduation I wrote a reflection about my fourteen years at my beloved K-12 school, where I asked myself questions about life and what I had learned over the years. “[Life] is sort of like figuring out the right mold for your cookie shape. Will it be the basic circle made with the rim of a cup? Or something a little more interesting and unique?” A valid question. And one that the Park School of Baltimore would view as an embodiment of the educational philosophy. To read between the lines. To look past the obvious. To seek more.
In the Fall of 2008, the Park School of Baltimore hired an openly gay headmaster, Dan Paradis. A political statement, certainly—but not the objective.
As a lone wolf in many fronts, Park opened its doors in 1912 as a private independent school specifically for Jewish families who had been turned away by other schools because of their faith. As religious equality became the standard, Park began welcoming families of all backgrounds. And in 1954 Park became the first school in Maryland to integrate—cementing Park’s history as rooted in progression.
Fast forward 50 plus years: what does it mean to bring on an openly gay man as the head of school? What does it say about the future of education?
Filling the holes in a community, as well as having the insight and strength to stand alone, was just one foresight which led Park to be nationally recognized as a leader of the progressive school movement.
The school defines concepts of conventional learning at every turn. Park is not known for churning out cookie-cutter students who follow the herd like sheep, but rather, for teaching kids how to think.
At most schools, students are expected to refer to their teachers by calling them Mr. or Mrs.: an old-fashioned, yet commonly used prefix to show respect for authority. However, teachers at Park are referred to on a first name basis—which in turn delivers more respect than any pretense could ever demand.
The school’s foundation is rooted in trust of the individual’s intent to grow, which goes hand in hand with the philosophy which regards learning as a community investment.
“There was very little room between the teachers’ desks and the students,” said teaching legend of the humanities and arts, Jack Ramey. Ramey started teaching at Park in 1955, which coincided with the year that the first African-American student began at Park.
Paradis, who identifies as a gay man and father, believes that although his sexual identity does not define him, it is a part of him—an aspect he could not leave behind or hide. “I would have not considered Park if I believed Park was not addressing LGBT issues or if I could not bring my full self there on the work that I do,” Paradis said in an interview with 429Magazine.
“My identity as a gay man, my identity as a gay father, those are pieces of who I am that I share openly, not simply because it is comfortable for me but because I really believe that it’s one of the ways in which I model for kids what adult lives look like, what it means to be fully present for kids.”
Park School not only encourages progressive thinking but practices it. During the summer break Park holds a program for faculty which is meant to better the school. Faculty and Curricular Advancement (FACA) is a project designed for educators to meet as a small group and work together to conduct research. The end goal is to create a thorough guideline of their findings, which is made available for the entire faculty to use and incorporate in their curriculum for the upcoming school year.
In 2011, fifteen faculty members, “gay and straight,” joined forces to focus on “putting gay in a positive context…[and]in addition to the research and the discussion they had, they put together resources for the larger faculty to tap into,” Paradis said.
“The school institutionally has committed funding to really promoting a more deliberate, more dramatic component of this work and that’s happening now. Whether it is Upper School electives on gay and lesbian history to a middle school GSA where the faculty sponsors [are]a gay male and a straight male,” the school is progressing forward, Paradis explained.
The student group “GSA” is commonly known as the Gay Straight Alliance. At Park, GSA stands for “Gender and Sexuality Advocacy,” an initiative taken by the students. “[The new name] is more reflective of what the group is all about.” It’s just one indicator (among many) of how Park students think outside of the box—and the teachers fully support them.
To that end, when a group of action-taking students petitioned to have a gender-neutral bathroom in the middle and upper school, their advocacy measures were taken seriously, and all-inclusive bathrooms were implemented.
“[We had] several what we call ‘anybody’s bathrooms’ in the lower school,” Paradis explained, but were lacking with bathroom options in the middle and upper school; thus, change was made.
This is just one example of how students take the reins to become change-makers and advocates for themselves. In 7th grade, students are asked to participate in a project meant to honor societal trailblazers. The “Monuments Project” asks students to research a social movement and/or a person who took an active role in changing society. The concept here is for the student to conduct a project on why the cause or individual mattered, what they did which sent them apart from the rest, and finally to make a monument to that person; a creative way to honor their life and the work they did.
“I am struck every year by the fact that among those monuments, there are always monuments related to LGBT issues,” Paradis said. “So I think, starting certainly in middle school, kids are not simply coming to understand and appreciate this as part of the human experience but they are also understanding these issues as civil rights issues, and issues in past generations, and still in today’s generation there [is]struggle around these issues.” Park students are learning what matters most to them; which issues are important enough to take a stand on, regardless of any outside influences.
To model equality, Park takes each individual seriously. “If a student identifies [as]transgender in [the]lower grades then it is our job to figure out how we support that student and how we support that family,” Paradis said.
Park, as an academic community, makes sure each individual is being supported fully; failure to do so would be at the fault of the school, not the student.
Support comes from visibility—if the student is being ignored or treated as invisible (which many minorities are treated as), then the student cannot achieve success. How can a person flourish if their core is being stifled or denied?
Communication and visibility are key for achieving higher education. “If we are talking about kids who are part of gay or lesbian families then we are not supporting that family and supporting that child if we are not allowing that family to be fully a part of that child’s experience in kindergarten, which means that [they have]to be a part of our kindergarten classrooms.”
Paradis continued, “change happens in schools because we are fully aware of and supportive of the many shapes and sizes that kids come in and families come in.”
School is a place which is meant to foster an individual’s growth and knowledge of the world. It is a place where learning should be at the forefront of the institution—and anything that hinders an individual’s learning, safety, or potential for success should be considered a serious matter. One where change and understanding is not only important, but vital. No student should have to sacrifice learning because they are forced to defend who they are, what occupies their interests, or what their family looks like.
“Change happens in schools when individuals believe so strongly in what they are doing and the importance of the work with kids, that they are willing to rock the boat; they are willing to do things differently,” Paradis said.