CLEVELAND — A new School of One, run by the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD), is focused on creating a space for students who identify as LGBTQ+.
During the pandemic, classes are online, but once hybrid learning is available, leaders at the school hope to have some students at the LGBT Community Center just west of the city's downtown district. CMSD says it is the first of its kind in the country.
"It blows my mind. I didn't honestly think it was going to be this easy," said DaJon Battle, a program administrator with the district. Battle, who identifies as queer, said representation in schools is important.
It's not the first School of One the district has established. The program has eight other sites. The School of One is based online and students work at their own pace.
Battle said the only roadblock to starting the school was the pandemic.
"There was no pushback," Battle said. "Not from the board. Not from Mr. Eric Gordon. Not from a principal. I literally walked up to my principal one day and said, 'I would like to open up a School of One at the LGBT Center.' And he was like, 'Okay.'"
Funding for School of One programs comes from the district's general fund.
Battle is leading the charge in the district to add more inclusive learning opportunities for students.
"They didn't feel like their story was being heard," Battle said of LGBTQ student experiences. "And, so, I felt that it was really important to open up a school that just allows our students to be normal."
So far, Battle said, the response from students has been good.
"They really felt like 'I can be seen,'" she said. "'My voice is being heard and I'm now comfortable in who I am.'"
Roman Sardo-Longo is a new student at the School of One. He started at the end of 2020.
"Growing up I've always really liked math. I've always excelled in math," he said.
Sardo-Longo is now taking classes online through the School of One program.
"And so I liked it because it made me feel smart. And I feel like if everyone else felt smart in math, they would like it, too," he said.
The online structure of School of One differs from the traditional school structure that has been translated to virtual schooling. Students in the School of One program through the LGBT center can go to either a morning session or afternoon session of online learning.
Even though he's only been with the program for a few weeks, Sardo-Longo said the transition was seamless.
"It's really easy to just get caught up in all the mean things people say to you or the weird stares they give you at school," he said. "But here it's like everyone knows what you're going through. Everyone knows everyone's been there."
Battle said the School of One program accepts students through rolling enrollment and students do not have to identify as LGBTQ+ to apply, but "you just have to respect the culture and the environment."
"You know, when you're surrounded by people who are also LGBT, like, it just feels, like, normal," Sardo-Longo said.
Despite the pandemic, Battle is already looking toward the future. The partnership between CMSD and the LGBT Community Center means students could take classes through the district at the center if they want, then transition to the center programming when classes are done for the day.
Soon, Battle hopes to implement LGBTQ history into the coursework.
"I'm really excited because I feel like a lot of even LGBT youth don't really know our history that well," Sardo-Longo said. "I mean I won't claim that I know it super well."
And for Sardo-Longo, the opportunity for an inclusive school environment happening in Cleveland makes the School of One an even better choice.
"It's very comforting that, like, Cleveland can be a place where we can feel safe, and it feels really nice."
This story was originally published by Caroline Sweeney on WEWS in Cleveland.