When walking through the parking lot on the way into Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, you’re quickly alerted to the fact that they do things a little differently. The “Flamboyant Minister Parking” sign in one of the spots is a dead giveaway.
Upon entering the lobby, you’re greeted by seven-foot tall signs with messages like “No one left out” and “Whoever you are, whatever path you are on, you are welcome here.”
“When you walk in, there’s nothing in here that would typically push out folks, especially those in the LGBT community,” says Christian Zsilavetz, executive director of Pride School, a K-12 school for LGBT educators, students and families.
That’s one of the reasons that, after two years of planning, hustling, connecting, fundraising and more, Zsilavetz chose UUCA as the first home for Pride School, the first of its kind in the South. And Zsilavetz and all those families and educators he’s gotten to know are counting down the final days until the first day of Pride School.
‘Families are coming from all over the place’
For Zsilavetz, a transgender educator, Pride School is personal. He came up with the idea in March 2014 while working at a small private school. He realized that even though he had transitioned eight years prior to that, he was not out to families and most of the staff.
“I realized that it was inhibiting my ability to be the best educator I could be because I could not be authentic on the job and be the best educator,” he said at the time to Georgia Voice, the first media outlet to report on Pride School.
He currently has four students signed up to start school next month with a goal to start the school year with seven—they’re hoping to open on August 8 to follow the Dekalb County school calendar.
“We may back the start date up a few weeks to continue to get everything in alignment, but we as a community have already been together building the community in the last two years,” Zsilavetz says. “Families are coming from all over the place—Alpharetta, we’ve got somebody in Vinings, we’ve been talking to someone in Woodstock.”
The current four students range from 13 to 16 years of age, but they also have a 10-year-old part-timer and they have a 17-year-old they want to bring on board. The $13,500 tuition can be a hurdle for some, but some students are on partial tuition and some are doing volunteer work.
“The amount of tuition that people are paying is varying because we really want to make this accessible,” he says. ”We also have rolling admissions, which is really nice, especially for once you start school and you realize things aren’t working well, we can be someone’s backup plan. That’s one of the reasons we exist.”
Fundraiser scheduled for July 30
Luckily for Zsilavetz and the families and educators at Pride School, they got their first choice of locations in UUCA. The North Druid Hills area church has incubated three other schools in recent years, each of which branched out and now have their own facilities around town. Plus the location had to be LGBT-friendly and UUCA had that in spades.
“They have a huge allied community, a huge presence at Pride,” Zsilavetz says. “They’re really about social justice, which I think is unusual for a lot of faith communities.”
Pride School is renting out three rooms totaling 1500 square feet, which Zsilavetz says is more than enough room for 10 to 15 students. And the amenities were hard to pass up, including a keycoded door, a fenced-in playground that’s wheelchair accessible, a large patio, a vegetable garden and a butterfly garden. The school will use the rooms during the day on weekdays while the church will use them for various functions on nights and weekends. “So we pay very little rent for the use of this space knowing that we were sharing the space,” he says. “And we knew as a fledgling school, that was how we needed to start.”
The fact that he’s gotten to that point—starting—is a fact that Zsilavetz calls “absolutely frightening.”
“I’ve been around people in my life who have a great idea, and it’s a great idea for five minutes, and then they move on because they realize that 350 other people have already done the same thing,” he says. “To be here two years later, and going, ‘Wow, we’re still doing this,’ is really something else.”
But to get where they need to be, they need to keep raising money. They just got their 501(c)3 status, they are actively seeking grants and have a big fundraiser coming up on July 30 at the school.
As the school’s status has grown, Zsilavetz occasionally fields questions about the need for a school for LGBT students, educators and families. He directs the answer at the parents of LGBT kids.
“There’s a difference between being openly affirming and acting as if everybody has a great time with your kid being gay or gender diverse. We know that every parent struggles. All of our parents have struggled. And if you hang out with people who get it, then you’ll get it faster. You can be upset about it for the next 50 years but we can take care of your kid in the meantime.”
Pride School Atlanta Family Festival Fundraiser Saturday, July 30 from 12 p.m. – 8 p.m. Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta 1597 Frontage Rd. NE Atlanta, GA 30329 www.facebook.com/events/1296909553660520/