“Coming Out” – Two Student Perspectives: MVP Part II

A junior at Adams City High School, Jorge is charismatic and extremely confident. Theater is his main love and he hopes to one day be an actor. His eyes are set on the future. Will LA or New York offer more opportunities? He wants to go as soon as he graduates. Living in a big city is important to him, and he can’t wait to live in one as soon as possible. He also doesn’t want to live with regret. Jorge believes in following his dreams.

Jorge is also out. He’s out to his family and he’s out within his school. Most of the students he encounters know he is gay and it hasn’t been a big deal. He likes school, for the most part, and has been able to attend and participate just like any other student.

Yet coming out for Jorge, as it probably does for many students, starts earlier than high school.

“It usually starts happening in middle school. You know, you fall for someone,” says, Jorge.

But when it first starts happening, Jorge explained, it can make you feel alone and isolated. Many young LGBTQ youth fear that if they come out, they will be kicked out of their house—and forced to be homeless. Urban Peak, an organization serving youth experiencing homelessness in the metro Denver area, says that 28 percent of the youth they serve identify as  LGBTQ. This is much higher than the general population were estimates usually range between five and ten percent.

LGBTQ youth can become desperate as they believe that they have no options. They can also feel as though there is no one who understands.

“I turned to YOUTUBE and watched videos, coming out videos. It helped me not feel alone.”

“This particular video really helped me with accepting who I am, made me feel less alone, and helped me explain to others what I was going through when words weren’t an option for my feelings at the time”:

Jorge also got into clubs where he could hang out after school. One of the first clubs he attended was the robotics club. Then he got into theater. In fact, he first came out to a group of older theater students, who put him on the spot. Made to answer the question in jest, Jorge felt he could only answer the question truthfully.

Another important club for Jorge was No Place for Hate hosted by the Anti-Defamation League. No Place for Hate is “designed to rally an entire school around the goal of creating a welcoming community committed to stopping all forms of bias and bullying.” Jorge enjoyed being part of a broader coalition aimed at making the school climate better for everyone. He thought it was more approachable than a club focused on LGBTQ students. Eventually, he became involved with both types of clubs.

GLSEN, a national organization that was founded by teachers in 1990, publish a great deal of research around LGBTQ students. Their “flagship report” called The National School Climate Survey looks at the experiences of these students and notes the successes and challenges for them within the school system. The report shows that 57.6 percent of LGBTQ students felt unsafe within their school. 27.0 percent said that they had been physically harassed (pushed or shoved) while 13.0 percent had been physically assaulted. According to the same survey, 3.4 Percent of LGBTQ students did not plan to finish high school. Of this group, 86.3 percent cited mental health concerns.

“Yeah, I know people who dropped out because they didn’t fit in,” Jorge explained. Leaving school because of fear of bullying or because of the inability to relate or fit in is a real concern for many LGBTQ students.

One other important support for LGBTQ students are “GSA” Clubs or Gay Straight Alliances. Like any afterschool club, a GSA is meant to bring students together around an important issue. GSA Clubs are part of a national network that extends into most colleges as well. And like any club, anyone can “sponsor” one and get them started. No two look the same, as some clubs take on broader issues, but what they have in common is that they work directly within the school to create a more accepting culture.

Another student, John Paul Zuni, attends Colorado High School Charter. John Paul loves music and is concurrently taking classes at Metropolitan State University in Denver. He would like to be a music producer someday and be in a band. Coming out wasn’t that hard for him as other people are already out within his family. In fact, when he came across the coming out videos on YouTube it was an eye-opening experience as he truly did not know what some LGBTQ youth were going through.

Last year, John Paul got involved with newly created GSA program, which was started by a Colorado Youth for a Change (CYC) AmeriCorps member. Their main focus for the year was to get people to stop using the word “gay” derogatively. Their approach was to speak with teachers and other school administration and ask them to create a positive culture where using the word negatively would not be acceptable.

For the most part, John Paul says, it was a success.

“You need teachers to help,” he said.

LGBTQ students are at higher risk for dropping out of school. Because of this, CYC focuses on these students, and broadly defines them as “MVP students” or Most Vulnerable Populations of students. Depending on the support they receive at home and at school, they can also be at risk for running away and becoming homeless. CYC works with community partners to provide supports. We also work with schools to help improve school climate.

With so much happening during high school, and with the additional risks, these students need just a little more support to ensure they finish school. If they have left school early, finding the right school where they will be accepted can make all the difference to their future success as well.

The Rise of Colorado’s Dropout Rate

As we start the new school year, we reflect on last year’s dropout rate. After eight years of steady decline, the dropout rate in Colorado has gone up. While the percentage itself doesn’t seem like a wide swing, when you look at the raw numbers and imagine the future for each of those youth, a sense of urgency returns. Ideally we would see this number continue to go down until disappearing. After all the hard work schools and communities have invested into developing systems and supports for these students, why is it going up?

Before looking at those questions, let’s take a quick look at the numbers. If we go back two years or at least two cycles ago for the data—to the 2012-2013 school year—the dropout rate was 2.5 percent. It was 2.5 percent last year too. Here’s a quick view of dropout numbers:

  • 2014-2015: 11,114 Students, 2.5 Percent Dropout Rate
  • 2013-2014: 10,546 Students, 2.4 Percent Dropout Rate
  • 2012-2013: 10,664 Students, 2.5 Percent Dropout Rate

You’ll notice that while the dropout rate was the same, there were 450 more students who dropped out last year compared to 2012-2013. This is because there are more students attending school in Colorado, which is impacting both the number of students and the rate. However, I think we would all agree that 450 students is a lot. And 11,114 students are too many.

So what is happening? It is uncertain right now, but we have two lines of thinking.

Our first line is that the improved job market is providing students with other avenues besides graduation. In the past, there were no jobs and so school increased the prospects of getting a job. Connected to this issue is the increased cost of living in our rapidly changing state. The high cost of rent is requiring some youth to work to support their families. For the long term, we know that having an education is absolutely essential.

Our next line of thinking is that these students are facing extreme barriers. While the schools and communities have made dramatic steps forward in helping these students, we might be nearing the end of those developments. The issues they face, like extreme poverty, sexual orientation, homelessness, court involvement, and the foster care system—to name just a few—go beyond what any single agency or school can solve.

As things move forward we hope to understand why the rate went up. Whatever the exact answers might be, we believe it will take broad coordination between all youth-serving agencies and organizations to see the next eight year reduction in the dropout rate.