Pride Prevails

School aims to create safe space for LGBTQIA+ youth

Christian Zsilavetz (far right) founded Pride School Atlanta.

Emilia Couture

When Christian Zsilavetz was told that he couldn’t be an openly transgender teacher, he decided to create his own school. This school would be a place where students and teachers alike could be themselves. After years of planning, Pride School Atlanta opened this past August.

The school is a non-profit organization housed in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta and accepts students 5 to 18 years old.

“In the space of education, acceptance means honoring who they are and showing them respect,” Zsilavetz said.

Zsilavetz has been out of the closet since 1998. He is a queer-identified transgender man with a wife and two children. He worked as a math teacher before founding Pride School Atlanta.

In March 2014, Zsilavetz first devised the idea for the school. He was working at a school that his friend had opened when he had a conversation with her about co

ming out as a transgender teacher. The school director was nervous that her students would “take their money and run” because they wouldn’t accept his gender identity.

“My dream school would be a school where all my experiences were honored,” Zsilavetz said. The director encouraged him to start that school.

This was “the moment” it all began for Zsilavetz. That night, he put an ad on Craigslist looking for someone to help him open the school.

After receiving a response to the ad, Zsilavetz began raising money and looking for a space to house the school. He also partnered with the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO), which helped him get support and connections with other start-up schools.

Zsilavetz spent most of the time between March 2014 and the school’s opening in August 2016 “out in the community.”

He held conversations with LGBTQIA+ people in Atlanta, asking them questions about their concerns and hopes for the school. He also spent time raising funds for the school by hosting a comedy show, hosting potlucks, going to pride parades and attending LGBTQIA+ family events.

“Wherever we were invited, we would go,” Zsilavetz said.

It was at a LGBTQIA+ family picnic where Zsilavetz met Dana Schaffner. Schaffner serves on the board of the school as the treasurer. Schaffner helped the school acquired its status as a 501(c)(3) non-profit. As a 501(c)(3), Pride School is exempt from federal income taxes because of their educational purpose.

The school then created a board and began media work.

“Being willing to put ourselves out there is a huge part of our mission,” Zsilavetz said.

Zsilavetz would speak at LGBTQIA+ events like transgender summits, conferences and educational panels.

Some have reacted negatively to the school, and this is not necessarily because they are homophobic, according to Zsilavetz.

“This is because they believe that segregating a child is coddling them and that they should buck up to public school,” Zsilavetz said.

Other negative reactions are mostly “it’s a shame this is still necessary”according to Zsilavetz.

“The school is not trying to segregate queer kids from the mainstream world but is trying to create a safe space where they don’t have to be on the outside looking in,” Schaffner said.

Pride School Atlanta accepts students as young as five, and Zsilavetz hopes that this will draw some children who “haven’t had to suffer because of who they are yet.”

“Most of the kids we get here have already been through the wringer,” Zsilavetz said. “They have had a difficult time at school or at home because of their gender and sexuality.”

The main issues that give LGBTQIA+ students a hard time at school are lack of safety and acceptance, according to Zsilavetz.

“Without safety, you might absorb about 10 percent of what’s handed to you. It’s possible to learn academics in a war zone because you know that education is your only ticket out,” Zsilavetz said.

Pride School Atlanta aims to create a safe environment where students can learn comfortably, according to their mission statement.

Tharyn Grant, an Atlanta social worker, believes his LGBTQIA+ clients would benefit from attending a school like Pride School Atlanta. Bullying is a challenge that makes kids not want to go to school, according to Grant. Unfortunately, Pride School Atlanta is not easily accessible for all.

“Race, culture and class are obstacles that some may face going to the school,” Grant said.

The school has a $13,500 tuition for full time students which would be difficult for low income families to pay. Students can apply for financial aid.

Grant also acknowledges the argument against segregation, and agrees that it is an important one, but also thinks there is not enough “accepting culture” for LGBTQIA+ students yet.

“If that’s going to work for that individual person right now and ultimately deter some of the mental health issues, then that’s what we should support,” Grant said.

To Zsilavetz, acceptance is a big part of student support and is similar to unconditional love.

“Acceptance in education is about letting students be who they are and helping them to be the best versions of themselves,” Zsilavetz said.

“We’re not perfect at Pride School, but that is what we have.”

All photos courtesy of Robin Rayne Nelson