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How a High School Capstone Project Introduced LGBTQ+ Education to DCPS

“I had a little bit of trouble understanding how I fit in, where my identity lay,” Will Beckerman, an 18-year-old recent DCPS graduate said, “which certainly played into a lot of my role in high school with my GSA [Gay Straight Alliance] and why I put such emphasis on the importance of creating a safe space in school.”

Beckerman’s emphasis on making safe spaces manifested into a senior year capstone project, then a bill and finally a resolution pushing for LGBTQ+ inclusivity and topics in mainstream curriculums.

Beckerman attended School Without Walls High School in Washington, where each senior is required to complete a capstone project that consists of writing a 15-page paper, partaking in advocacy work and giving a formal presentation all on one major topic of their choice.

Beckerman, 17 at the time, chose to focus on LGBTQ+ education within DCPS, not only because he is dedicated to LGBTQ+ causes, but because of his own personal experiences as a queer individual.

“Middle school was rough,” Beckerman said in an interview, “but that was, I think, mostly because I was unsure of my identity and, you know, understanding that you’re a queer person in middle school and not really knowing what to do about that is rough for a lot of students.”

Beckerman began to come out as transgender in middle school, and though he recalled enjoying all his school years, he understood the difficulty of finding representation and an accepting environment.

By the time he entered his high school, Beckerman was completely open and confident in his gender identity, and while he had a supportive friend group, a lot of self-acceptance stemmed from the groups he found on social media.

“I was very lucky in having good relationships with LGBTQ people in my personal life and having good representation that I saw in the media and through social media, particularly,” Beckerman said. “But a lot of people don’t have access to those things or don’t know where to look to find that kind of good representation.”

“I knew I wanted to, at the very least, advocate for better representation in our schools,” Beckerman continued. “I know other people have experienced similar issues.”

Beckerman served as president of his high school’s Gay Straight Alliance club (GSA) for three years, overseen by biology teacher Adam Vrooman, who has been at School Without Walls for the past five years.

Vrooman explained that GSA is meant to empower students to be strong advocates, not just for the LGBTQ+ community and their peers, but for themselves. His GSA met once a week aiming to create a space for students to collaborate on short- and long-term goals surrounding LGBTQ+ issues and initiatives.

Vrooman recognized Beckerman’s passion and spoke of his natural ability as a leader and supporter for his peers. And though Vrooman was not an official mentor for Beckerman’s capstone project, he was kept in the loop on the progress being made.

“This passion, this enthusiasm, this advocacy work, this empathy for peers and the ability to connect,” Vrooman said in a Zoom interview, “I think, to see that from an initial concept or an idea to a fully developed plan through the senior project class, but then to take that a step further, even after graduation and beyond. I think it just speaks volumes to the character and the tenacity that Will has.”

Beckerman took the work and conversations students had within GSA to create forums that educated faculty on LGBTQ+ history and people, use of proper pronouns and overall navigation of LGBTQ+ identities.

Jason Bulluck, Beckerman’s senior year capstone teacher as well as an art teacher in the high school, echoed many of the same sentiments as Vrooman in regards to Beckerman’s work ethic and passion.

“Suddenly I go into one of my professional development sessions and there’s Will leading a session on identity, especially around sexuality and how to create a space in the beginning of the year in your classroom,” Bulluck said in a Zoom interview.

Bulluck, despite never having Beckerman in a class before his capstone course senior year, knew Beckerman simply from his active role on campus and his “available presence” towards his peers. He then went on to praise Beckerman for a “phenomenally” done capstone paper and presentation.

Throughout Beckerman’s senior year, Bulluck pushed him to get involved with local offices to learn more about DCPS curriculums.

“Next thing I know, Will emails me this year to say, ‘oh, they’re voting on the State Board of Education about this [his resolution],’” Bulluck said.

Beckerman’s capstone project, originally formatted as a bill before being updated to a resolution, received backing by two representatives from different wards over the summer. In October, Beckerman’s resolution was presented twice — first at a State Board of Education working meeting then at a public meeting where the board voted on the resolution.

Beckerman’s resolution, now officially titled the State Board of Education Resolution On LGBTQ+ Inclusive Education Standards, passed unanimously on Oct. 20.

Currently, Beckerman is taking a gap year to work for AmeriCorps in the District public school system doing early literacy education with kids grades kindergarten to third.

Beckerman was accepted to Middlebury College, but decided to defer for a year. He was inspired by his older sister who took a gap year to travel and he also wants top surgery before beginning college.

Though Beckerman is still interested in education policy, he cannot see himself pursuing a career in education. During his interview, he expressed interest in potentially studying neuroscience or biology and going to medical school, but still sees policy work in his future.

“I love doing policy work and I think, no matter what I’m going to do, I’m going to keep doing policy work,” Beckerman said.

Peyton is a student at American University in Washington DC and is HCAU's Editor in Chief. Majoring in journalism and double minoring in political science and creative writing, Peyton intends on graduating in May 2022. Peyton's goal is to write for a major news organization as a print or online journalist. She also wants to continue traveling, exploring and writing about her experiences. To learn more about her and her work, visit https://peytonbigora.wixsite.com/website.
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