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Editor’s note: To protect the privacy of students and families, we have chosen to refer to students and their families by their first name only.
Last Friday evening in Birmingham, Alabama, parents, guardians and friends sat under rows of twinkling garlands, waiting in joyful anticipation for the Magic City Acceptance Academyinaugural graduation ceremony.
Charity Jackson, Academic Director of Magic City, stood center stage in front of a ring of white, gray and purple balloons. Mike Wilson, the school’s founding principal, led faculty and staff into the main space of the Magic City Acceptance Centerthe LGBTQ+ all-ages organization that spawned the South’s first charter school dedicated to affirming LGBTQ+ students.
Finally, a single file of 12 elderly people, dressed in caps and purple robes, entered the space. As Jackson began to introduce the graduating class, the crowd erupted in cheers of pride, appreciation and love.
Since the Acceptance Center had been where the Academy was inspired and created, this moment came full circle. It was also a moment that seemed long overdue.
In its early days, Magic City Acceptance Academy suffered three rejections from the Alabama Public Charter Schools Commission. However, the school was eventually approved and opened in fall 2021 in the Birmingham suburb of Homewood, Alabama with 250 students in grades 6-12.
When the students first entered space, Wilson said, they were “enveloped in their trauma.” They came from environments where they had been bullied and marginalized. At the Academy, staff and faculty have worked to educate and empower their students.
Clover, a senior graduate, said it wasn’t until they came to the Academy that they saw their grades blossom. Along with the good grades, they’ve also bonded with students they never thought they’d have. Clover said,
Clover’s mother, Rachel, said that from the beginning of the year until now, she has seen a change in them. Previously, Clover was “miserable” at school and there didn’t seem to be many options. But when Rachel discovered Magic City Acceptance Academy, she thought it might be a solution. Rachel said,
“Seeing your child blossom and become their own person is an experience I never expected. I mean, I knew they were going to improve and make friends, but seeing them come out of their shell and become who they are was one of the greatest parenting experiences I’ve had.
To support traumatized youth, adults need to change the way they think
To create an environment that focuses on both the mental and social development of students, Magic City Acceptance Academy is a trauma-informed space. Trauma-Informed Care helps professionals stop asking “what’s wrong with you?” to ask “what happened to you?”
Making that change was difficult, said Lexia Banks, a history professor at the Academy.
“It was a bit like having to relearn how to teach because we focus on different parts of the students here and put more priority on their mental and social development and our overall mental health,” she said.
The reward was evident at the promotion ceremony for eighth-graders, held earlier in the day. Students seemed full of joy as they played with friends and approached teachers to offer heartfelt goodbyes and even handwritten letters.
Banks said she saw how students went from shyness and fear to being able to demand things that, in the past, they would never have had the courage to ask of close friends.
“It’s been an honor to be able to provide that kind of support,” she said.
Providing trauma-informed support is a key part of the Magic City Acceptance Academy model, but it’s also just one piece of a larger puzzle. Principal Wilson said the Academy speaks about social justice initiatives, practices restorative justice, and weaves together social and emotional learning, while providing strong academics.
After political setback, community intensifies
Magic City Acceptance Academy has moved forward despite some political backlash.
In April, a gubernatorial candidate in Alabama published a campaign ad criticizing the Academy for “exploitation” of children and “not education”. Because of this, the Academy had to tighten security to protect students from strangers who showed up on school property to film students or shout Bible verses at them.
However, after that, the Academy started garnering more support from the community. They received encouraging messages on a blog that a parent had posted, emails, and even postcards and signs from nearby churches.
Last Friday large colorful signs from different churches including Alliance Baptist Church, hung along the walls of the cafeteria and the first floor with messages like “You are beautiful” and signatures of its members. Handmade posters displayed inclusive and encouraging phrases such as “You are perfect just the way you are”.
Some of the posters even came from beyond Alabama. A lecture :
“Remember to just breathe. Smell the roses and blow out the candles. You are loved and important. You are doing your best. Black Forest, CO.”
Closer to home, the local community has connected with the new school in many ways, whether through local staff members who have been with Wilson for years, or through the school’s partnership with Aids awareness in Birmingham.
This bond also emerged during graduation, when Denise Bishop, a school supporter, and the Mystic Krewe of Apollo, a Mardi Gras Krewe for the LGBTQ+ community, presented two scholarships to Gwen senior. The news prompted one viewer to shout, “I’m proud to be your aunt!”
“It was a lifesaver”
These connections between students, faculty, staff, community and families create a palpable environment of love and acceptance. Danny Carr, the Jefferson County District Attorney, made note of this in his opening remarks.
“When I walked into this room and was sitting here, you know how I felt? I felt love. I felt respect. I felt an opportunity. I felt honour. I felt all those things that we need so badly in our community,” Carr said.
After Carr’s speech, the students received their diplomas and Wilson gave his closing speech. “Two and a half years ago I sat right behind these books to write this proposal so we could have this school, now look at you,” he said.
“We’re the best school in the country,” Wilson proclaimed, jumping with emotion. “Today and every day I am proud to stand up and say I am who I am in this building, in this school, in this city, in this state. I am a gay cis man who has the best school in the state because we have the best staff in the state,” he said. “God bless you all, and know…there is this group of people who will always be there for you. I love you. Thank you for sharing your senior year with me.
After the ceremony, a grandparent approached Wilson and said, “I’m not exaggerating; it was a lifeline.
Wilson hears distinctions like this with deep ambivalence. Although he is grateful that the school is living up to its mission, he wants to live in a world where no young person should be in danger of death because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
But in the world Wilson lives in – Birmingham, Alabama of 2022 – it hurts to tell a youngster there’s no place for them at Magic City Acceptance Academy. They already have enough applications to meet their enrollment goal of 350 students. Wilson hopes to add another counselor and social worker to the staff to meet the needs of more students.
This story was originally posted by Ed Post