The Student Newspaper of Poly Prep Country Day School

The Polygon

The Student Newspaper of Poly Prep Country Day School

The Polygon

The Student Newspaper of Poly Prep Country Day School

The Polygon

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Students Inspire Change in Poly’s Approach to Gender Inclusivity

How Poly Prep, a school built and designed to fit the needs of students and faculty over a century ago, is now adapting to a student body from the most gender-identity-diverse city in the nation.

(Originally published in The Polygon April 2023 issue.)

In 2014, three Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) members gathered in front of a Poly Prep Upper School division meeting to present why the language of the dress code was alienating to genderqueer students. “This isn’t about not wanting to have a dress code,” said a panel member, according to Sarah Bates, Head of Upper School. “We are not asking you to change anything about what’s allowed…we are asking that you remove the gendered language from our written policies.’’

Prior to this meeting, the Poly dress code was divided using gendered language of only “boys” and “girls” with columned lists describing appropriate dress for solely these two categories. GSA’s presentation opened with internet images of “non-gendered” outfits that, according to the dress code at the time, followed the dress code guidelines but did not necessarily fall directly into one category of “girl” dress or “boy” dress. The following slides demonstrated that removing the labels of “boys” and “girls” from the dress code would not change the guidelines, but rather make them more inclusive. This inclusivity would allow for the updated dress code to recognize everyone and refrain from diminishing the validity of someone’s identity because of how they dressed.

“Well, what if a boy comes to school in a skirt?” said a faculty member.

“I can’t wait to see how they answer this,” Bates remembers thinking, confident that the students would deliver a thoughtful and educational response back.

“And what would be wrong with that?” answered the GSA panel, presenting a landmark question that would provoke Poly’s first steps in recognizing the changing binary present in their institution and the wider world. Shortly following the roaring applause that concluded the 10-minute presentation, the administration honored the requests of the students and updated the handbook to have a non-gendered dress code, one of the first of many gender-identity-related adaptations to come.

In an era of defying and abandoning traditional binaries, according to NYC Chalkbeat, a nonprofit education newsroom, New York high school students statistically lead the nation in the percentage of genderqueer identities, with numbers having almost doubled in the last few years. Spending an average of six and a half hours at school per day, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, school is the setting that dominates almost a third of New York City’s high schoolers’ days. As the binaries that define students shift, schools, many designed to fit the needs of students decades ago, must follow.

Official Language

Following the language changes made to the dress code, Poly has continued to update other aspects of their official language, such as their Non-Discrimination Policy, as listed on the website. In 2016, the document stated, “Poly Prep adheres to a long-standing policy of admitting students of any race, color, religion, national or ethnic origin to all rights, privileges, programs and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school.”​​ This policy, according to Senior Manager of Communications and Engagement Laura Grimm, is updated annually and was most recently updated this year. The Non-Discrimination Policy now maintains the same promise, but has extended its statement to include various other identifiers, including students of any “gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation.”

Senior Isobella Gordon, who uses all pronouns, agrees that Poly’s current Non-Discrimination Policy is accurate to their lived experiences. “In terms of restrictions from the school, I don’t believe anything has been barred off for students who fit outside of the gender binary.”

Despite successful first steps in updating the language of Poly’s dress code and Non-Discrimination Policy, Poly’s “Fast Facts” website statistics continue to be gendered with a pie chart that represents 47 percent of the student body as “female” and 53 percent as “male.” “I’m not quite sure why [the statistic] is there to begin with,” said Gordon. “My main issue with it is that a lot of times … people might not feel comfortable with what they tell the school,” Gordon said, resulting in potentially inaccurate statistics.

Although peer schools, including Brooklyn Friends, Riverdale, Hackley, Fieldston, and Dalton, do not include gendered statistics on their facts page, Bates explained that Poly’s collection of this data serves a legitimate purpose for gender balance. “Considering we were an all boys school until the ’40s, [these statistics are valuable] to properly integrate women into the community,” said Bates. “One thing we definitely pay attention in the course registration process to is gender balance between classes.”

At Poly, the data that composes the pie chart statistics are inputted by students and their families at home through the Veracross platform. Within this platform, students and families have the two options of male or female. Although the options of only “male” and “female” within Poly’s Veracross system result in potentially non-representative data, according to Ellen Kinnane, the associate director of enrollment operations, this system remains not updated for safety reasons. “The way our data is currently collected in Veracross is male and female, due to the fact that there are students here that present or identify differently than they do at home. We are trying to figure out the best way to collect data that doesn’t in any way not support these children.”

In 2009, Researcher Sarit Golub of Hunter College and CUNY conducted a study in which he surveyed 6,456 U.S. transgender or gender non-conforming adults ages 18 to 98. From this study, Golub concluded that people who faced a moderate amount of family rejection were about twice as likely to report attempting suicide than those with a low amount of family rejection. Considering the detrimental effects of either being outed or not being accepted, with student safety at the forefront, “we have to come up with a methodology that’s going to work in order to protect [the students]. And we’re working on it,” said Kinanne.

Facilities

Built in 1916, Poly’s Dyker Heights campus was constructed with facilities and bathrooms to meet the needs of students and faculty over a century ago. Although people have been challenging the gender binary for thousands of years, according to Mother Jones, an American progressive magazine, the movement for gender-inclusive bathrooms in public facilities, including high schools and universities, only started around 2009 in the state of Vermont; it was not at the forefront of importance during the construction of a New York City private school in the early 1900s.

The official introduction of labeled gender-neutral bathrooms at Poly was in 2017. Following one of the first open transitions of a student during the 2016-2017 summer, the administration was prompted to reflect on how they could best, and most supportively, aid their transition. “[This transition] was really instructional for us because we needed to reconsider: … What is our physical plan saying about acceptance here at school?” said Bates.

Supportive and aware of the facility adaptations necessary to support students who may not identify with their gender at birth, in 2017, the single-stall bathrooms in the dance hallway and in the alumni building had “gender neutral” plaques installed to designate them officially. Despite this step, the multi-stall bathrooms in the Novogratz building, completed in 2015, along with both the first and second floors of the main building, remain gendered. On the first and second floors, signs labeled “girls” and “boys” over the bathrooms highlight this distinction even further.

As the majority of Upper School classes take place on either the first or second floor, with a five-minute passing period, it can be almost impossible to go from a class on the first or second floor to use a gender-neutral bathroom in either the dance hallway or alumni building. “I definitely think that there should be at least one more [gender-neutral bathroom],” said a junior who uses they/them pronouns, and asked for anonymity for privacy reasons. “The current one you have is so secluded and far away from everything else.” As for when the gender-neutral bathrooms are either too far or unavailable, using a gendered bathroom is a “bit uncomfortable, that’s for sure,” they added.

According to a 2017 study published in the National Library of Medicine surveying 23,000 sexuality and gender-diverse US students, “almost 43 percent of students avoided toilets at school due to safety concerns or feelings of discomfort.” Similarly, a 2019 national survey conducted by GLSEN, an educational organization, found that 45 percent of LGBTQ+ students specifically avoided using gender-segregated school bathrooms.

Brooklyn Friends School, a peer Brooklyn independent school, has converted their multi-stall restrooms into fully gender-neutral restrooms on their first and third floor, which are the main student spaces that have classrooms, their commons space, and their lunch room. “[Having widely accessible gender-neutral bathrooms] is important because if anyone needs to use the bathroom at any point, they should be able to comfortably find the place that they need and that they feel safe in without having to go down multiple floors,” said Upper School Dean of Students at Brooklyn Friends School, Brian Sullivan.

As the Brooklyn Friends high school building was opened only eight years ago, compared to Poly, which was built over a century ago, Sullivan recognized the possible challenges that may come with attempting to change the infrastructure of older buildings. “The biggest challenge is that it’s hard to take a bathroom that was designed for the needs of schools 50 years ago and suddenly fix it so that it meets the needs of schools right now,” said Sullivan.

Currently, according to Bates, there is no current plan to officially designate Poly’s multi-stall bathrooms as gender-neutral or to change their infrastructure to non-gendered. Until changes are made, to ensure each student is able to express themselves freely, “Students are allowed to use the bathrooms of any gender they want,” said Phoebe Aberlin-Ruiz, a Poly health and wellness faculty member of over 20 years.

Health Curriculum: A Look Into the Future

Last school year, former Director of Health and Well-Being Sarah Zuercher, the mother of Lulu McDonald, a junior who uses she/they pronouns, was inspired to help implement new, modernized lesson plans into the health curriculum after McDonald’s “outdated” experience in her “Technology and Wellness” class freshman year. “Our health curriculum was old and had not been edited in a while. It needed to be modernized,” said McDonald.

Dissimilar to the trajectory of the health curriculum prior to last year, English and history curricula had already been updated to include a more comprehensive range of gender studies in the past few years. According to Upper School History Department Chair Maggie Moslander, the class “Queer Histories” was introduced in 2021, and there has also been a consistent presence of different gender-related history classes for over six years. This year, students also have the option to take an advanced “Gender Studies” English class.

After various meetings with students, despite recognition within the English and history curricula, Zuercher concluded that many students outside the gender and sexuality binary did not feel adequately represented specifically within the health curriculum. “A big issue is awareness,” added McDonald. When people don’t understand a lot… it can feel isolating for [queer] people.”

Hearing the students and their needs, Zuercher introduced various health lesson plans in both the Upper School and Middle School. These new plans aimed to create a health curriculum that helped students develop a more comprehensive and complex understanding of sexualities and gender identities outside of the traditional binary. The first plan implemented was introductory lessons that included covering terminology used in the discussion of sexuality and gender identity. According to a study done by the American Psychological Association, “On average, gender diverse individuals were 15 years old before they had the vocabulary to understand and communicate their gender identity.” Despite being a seemingly simple lesson, learning vocabulary helps build a base understanding that can help individuals better understand the identity of themselves or others. The newly implemented lessons following the introductory ones aimed to inspire a deeper dive into what the implications of these words actually mean, along with the experiences that can come with them.

These seemingly small yet impactful changes led the administration to consider how the health program as a whole could be better modified to support and educate students as they continue to mature and explore their identities throughout high school. This year, Bates has named it one of her “utmost priorities” to “reinvigorate the health curriculum for the courses that we have,” along with introducing an additional health class for our 2023-2024 curriculum guide.

Currently, at Poly, health classes are offered throughout middle school, but stop following students’ freshman year. While the average age of a high school freshman is 14, according to research done by Jae A. Puckett of Michigan State University, in the Gen Z generation, the average age for individuals to identify as trans is 15, and the average age for individuals to officially live in their affirmed gender is 17. With a health curriculum that currently ends after freshman year, students experiencing changes in their identity as they mature have less of an official space to be educated through these shifts. “The fact that those really important conversations happen in ninth grade is wonderful,” said Bates. “But we know very well that students, especially as they get into older years, are coming into contact and facing decisions that they have to make on their own.”

Working with a team of seven people that consists of administrative, health, science, and student wellbeing faculty, Bates and her team are taking all the necessary steps to expand and further improve Poly’s health curriculum. In January, this team attended the Gender and Sexuality Workshop hosted by the New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS). “As health teachers, it was very validating to see a lot of what we are already doing in our classes in many of the presentations,” wrote Aberlin-Ruiz in an email to the Polygon. “We definitely walked away with some new ideas and language about how we may present certain topics in class. I have already implemented some of this in my middle school classes, and it has been going really well.”

Currently, the only roadblock Bates and her team are facing with introducing more classes is staffing issues. “We are continuing to work with our Business Office to see if we can create additional faculty lines or at least one line for an additional health teacher,” said Bates. “If we can’t add an additional health class for next year, I’d love to think creatively about how we can get additional programming in for our school students, whether that’s through assembly programming, extra activity courses, or any sort of other engagement.”

Similarly to how a health curriculum created ten years ago is not appropriate for the needs of students today, what we consider to be an “updated” curriculum today will likely not be fully representative of students in five years. “Health class is a little different than a history class, because [gender identity] is always a fluid and changing thing [our health class] also always has to be,” said Aberlin-Ruiz. “Everything has to progress and change because concepts of gender and identity are always changing. Therefore, we try really hard to [progress] all the time.”

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About the Contributor
Charlotte Roberts, Head Layout Editor
Charlotte Roberts is a current Head Layout Editor for the Polygon. Charlotte has been a layout editor for two years and has written for the Polygon for three years in total. Her favorite pieces to write are in-depth news stories and op-eds. Outside of the Polygon, Charlotte also writes for outside-of-school publications. Within school, Charlotte is a Co-Captain of the crew team, an elected Honor Council member, a peer tutor, a Co-President of the Criminal Psychology Club, a yearbook photographer, a member of Women's Affinity, and a Blue Key leader. Outside of school, she enjoys spending time with her family and friends and trying new recipes. 

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