When Kailee Hernandez told her friends at Central High School last year that she’s gay, things changed between them.
Girls she was once close to mocked the then-sophomore, acting as if she was hitting on them. When she entered a classroom, they sometimes just stared at her.
Kailee, 15, dropped out before the school year was over.
This fall, she is back in class, at Q High, a program for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths that offers high-school courses and other activities in what its founders call a harassment-free environment.
Kailee said the change has been dramatic. At Q High she can focus on schoolwork, preparing for college and a career as a pharmacist without being distracted and demoralized by taunts.
“At my regular school, I met people every day that had something negative to say about who I am,” she said. “I’m getting support here. For the first time in my life, I was very excited to go to school.”
Phoenix Union High School District officials declined to comment on specific students or incidents but said bullying isn’t tolerated on its campuses.
While state law and school policies prohibit bullying, advocates and education experts say safe-harbor programs such as Q High are needed for situations where schools don’t do enough to protect gay and transgender students.
When bullying endangers students or causes them to drop out, these programs can keep children safe and on track academically, some experts and advocates say.
“In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need a separate school, but until we can get rid of homophobia, I think we are still going to need special environments,” said Stephen Russell, a professor at the University of Arizona who studies health and development of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths.
Q High, short for Queer High, is technically not a school.
One-n-Ten, a local nonprofit that provides gay youths with mentoring and other services to promote self-acceptance, healthy choices and work preparation, partnered with the online public-charter school Arizona Virtual Academy to create the hybrid program. It’s the first in Arizona and one of only a handful nationally.
Classes are held at the nonprofit’s downtown-Phoenix headquarters, but the Virtual Academy issues the diploma.
One-n-Ten officials set out to create Q High after learning young people participating in their LGBT youth program weren’t attending school because they had been bullied.
“We found that staggering,” said Stacey Jay Cavaliere, programs manager at One-n-Ten.
The school is geared toward gay youths but is open to any student.
With private donations, the nonprofit set up a computer lab with enough equipment for about 25 students. In March, the group launched a pilot program with 10 students.
Q High’s first full year of coursework began in August, with 14 students. Students enroll in either an 18-week program of six to eight classes or special “block” programs of three classes over nine weeks.
One-n-Ten’s headquarters has been converted into a high school with bell schedules, study periods, lunch breaks and group activities to provide structure the students would not get taking online courses.
They take classes together in the computer lab under the supervision of a Virtual Academy teaching aide who answers questions about coursework.
The Virtual Academy offers free tuition, academic counselors, textbooks, bus passes and supplies to the students. One-n-Ten supplements the school program with tutors, counseling, medical care, meals and extracurricular activities such as field trips and yoga.
The online-charter school has worked with at-risk youths at YMCA centers, but Q High is its first partnership with a nonprofit serving gay youths, said Megan Henry, head of the Virtual Academy.
According to the Arizona Department of Education, in the 2011-12 school year, the Arizona Virtual Academy, a K-12 school, got a C, or average, grade under the state’s ratings.
Arizona is one of eight states that prohibit instruction that “promotes a homosexual lifestyle” or “portrays homosexuality as a positive alternative lifestyle.” The law was originally created to regulate AIDS instruction, but experts say its ambiguous wording can be interpreted as restricting how educators talk about homosexuality in all classroom situations.
Such laws make school leaders wary of mentioning gays in a positive light or intervening on behalf of gay students, Russell said. Those rules can also make school leaders reluctant to improve resources for gay students and deter bullying based on a student’s sexual orientation, Russell said.
In recent years, many Arizona schools have established more programs for openly gay students, including gay-straight student alliances. And some school districts, such as the Phoenix Union High School District and the Litchfield Elementary School District, have policies that specifically prohibit bullying based on sexual orientation.
The Arizona Department of Education doesn’t track incidents of bullying related to a student’s sexual orientation.
Overall, during the 2011-12 school year, Arizona schools reported 18,815 cases of bullying, harassment, intimidation or hazing. About 3,100 of the incidents involved sexual harassment, which includes bullying based on sexual orientation, said Molly Edwards, spokeswoman for the Department of Education.
Education experts said hybrid programs like Q High will continue to crop up until states and schools implement policies that specifically protect gay students and adopt a school curriculum that includes positive portrayals of gays. Other hybrid programs include the Alliance School in Milwaukee, Harvey Milk High School in New York, and Opportunities for Learning Hollywood Center at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center.
“It is wonderful that the schools are stepping up, but it is also an indictment,” said Catherine Lugg, an associate professor at Rutgers University who studies educational history and policy. “They have been bullied in a system that says we are to serve all students regardless of their identity.”
Educators have mixed views of creating separate learning programs for students.
Separation limits students’ experience of diversity, said Ann Hart, director of special-populations programs at the Arizona Department of Education.
“Isolation of any type of learning won’t give diverse experiences with other cultures, traits, ethnicity or traditions. That is what solidifies the education journey,” Hart said.
Almost all the students at Q High tell similar stories about bullying, intolerance or feeling shunned at previous schools.
Andrew Alejo, 16, was encouraged to sign up for Q High by his mother. On a recent school day, Andrew wore a shoulder-length wig with blond highlights, dark-red lipstick and blush on his cheeks. His look would have turned heads at Carl Hayden Community High School, his old school in Phoenix.
But at Q High, being different is normal.
“At my old school, I kept myself to myself. I never went to school in drag,” said Andrew, a junior.
Phoenix high-school district officials said they make accommodations for transgender students, including allowing use of preferred bathrooms and permitting them to dress in drag as long as students wear items that abide by the school dress code.
Q High freshman Kristoffer Abel, 15, dropped out of Paseo Hills Elementary School, in Phoenix, when he was in the eighth grade.
Kristoffer, who was born a girl but identifies as boy, said that before he left Paseo Hills a former friend along with others began threatening him at school.
Another student reported the threats to the principal. The bully was suspended, but the threats persisted off campus, Kristoffer said.
Deer Valley Unified School District, which includes Paseo Hills, declined to comment about specific student cases and discipline, but the district has a zero-tolerance bullying policy, a bullying hotline, prevention counselors and prevention clubs that teach about bystander responsibility, said Ashley Morris, a spokeswoman for the district.
Still, Kristoffer continued to face harassment.
“It was very difficult to get him motivated to go to school. The fear factor started to set in,” said Paul Abel, Kristoffer’s grandfather.
Abel and Kristoffer’s parents suggested that the 15-year-old enroll at Q High.
There he isn’t judged for being different and workshops have taught him to embrace who he is and the differences in other people, Abel said.
Kristoffer’s friends are mostly fellow students at Q High. He’s working through classes such as algebra, English and digital photography and said he feels safer at his new school.
“Nobody is mean to each other here,” Kristoffer said.