DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Kids walking past the classroom windows would point and yell, like kids in a zoo. “THAT’S A GIRL!” They’d grab his chest and groin, to see if the rumors were true. All day, he’d avoid the middle school restroom, to avoid boys sliding under the stall. “Dyke.” “It.” Maybe it’d have been less hellish if students were his only tormentors. One time, Kiwie got the courage to raise his hand for help, only to have the teacher enunciate the stab. “Yes, ma’am?”
“It felt,” Kiwie said, “like my heart was squished.”
Kiwie is 14. He’s an eighth grader. He faces an uphill battle to get to ninth. No child’s learning experience should be like this. Yet for Kiwie, it’s like this, year after year.
His only reprieve: Two months in a Christian “voucher school.”
Kiwie is slim, athletic, stylish. Round-ish frames and a black T-shirt pair with a puff of honey-brown hair. He likes lasagna and Chick-fil-A. He likes Odell and Conor McGregor. His dad is an amateur boxer. His ethnic blend – Italian, Croatian, African-American — turn heads. Maybe it’s no surprise he wants to be a model or a boxer.
Kiwie grew up in Jacksonville, 90 minutes north of Daytona. He struggled from the start in public schools. By the time he was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD, his mom, Stella, said he’d already been held back in second grade. By then, he hated school. (For security reasons, Stella requested she and Kiwie’s last names not be used.)
Meanwhile, his gender identity was emerging. He never liked girl’s clothes. Never liked pink. “I didn’t know why,” he said. “I just knew it wasn’t me.”
By fourth grade, he was asking teachers to call him Kiwie, a pet name his father gave him. By fifth grade, he was becoming enraged when they botched the pronouns. “They didn’t care,” he said. “They thought I was just confused.”
Rage alternated with depression. At home, Kiwie would bang his head into the wall. He ran a pocket knife across his wrist.
In sixth grade, Kiwie googled “trans.” “I said, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ ”
When he felt slighted, Kiwie began walking out of class. He flipped a table. Knocked a computer off a desk. One time, police were called. A few times, he was “Baker Acted.”
“I felt like the world was crumbling on us,” Stella said. “Why can’t they just accept him?”
America’s schools can be brutal for LGBTQ students, who number 1.3 million plus in high school, including 150,000 who identify as transgender. They’re more likely to be bullied. To suffer mental illness. To attempt suicide. The pressure is especially intense for transgender students, ensnared in legal, policy and political battles that generate non-stop headlines.
In a handful of places, LGBTQ supporters have established specialized schools to help. To date, there are none in Florida. But the education landscape here is rich with possibilities for new options.
Eventually, the school district assigned Kiwie to a school for behavior problems.
Kiwie began staying home for days at a time. Stella said the school didn’t call.
Two years ago, she and Kiwie moved to Daytona. (She and Kiwie’s dad had split up nine years ago.) They found a modest townhouse next to a city park, with a lake they could jog around. Stella, who makes a living as an Uber driver, said they both needed a fresh start. But for Kiwie, the move just meant another “alternative” school – no windows, no hope – that felt like jail.
“I hate my life,” Kiwie told Mom. “Why am I here?”
Stella said she was responding to so many calls from school, she was unable to keep jobs. In desperation, she reached out to her mom in Jacksonville. Could Kiwie return? Grandma said yes.
Then, the stars lined up. Kiwie was shopping when he saw one of his former teachers – one of the helpful ones. She was teaching in a private school.
Come see, she said.
The Foundation Academy is a Christian school. It’s big on project-based learning. Emphasizes the arts. Fosters environmental awareness. There’s Bible study. Tai Chi. A solar-powered aquaponic farm. Students learn to build sets for theater productions. They take a “three R’s” class to recycle, repair and reuse things like old furniture. The floor in the foyer is made from discarded vinyl records.
Call it a welcome mat for square pegs.
“The design of our school is because kids generally feel like misfits,” said founder Nadia Hionides, in a 2017 interview. “But when they come to The Foundation Academy, they see everyone’s a misfit.”
Hionides founded the school 30 years ago to help kids who need a second chance. Today, 77 percent of its 329 students use school choice scholarships, including 132 who use Florida Tax Credit Scholarships for lower-income students and 119 who use McKay Scholarships for students with disabilities. (The FTC program is administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.)
The academy has served at least two dozen openly LGBTQ students, said Hionides, who counts a son, brother and niece as LGBTQ. “We’re living in this divided world where everybody has a friggin’ label and now we want to kill each other,” she said. “We love Jesus, and Jesus loves everybody. We must affirm and accept everybody.”
Some private schools do not share this view. On its website, one says “homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality, transgenderism, bestiality, incest, fornication, adultery, and pornography are sinful perversions of God’s gift of sex and identity.” Another says “any form of deviant gender identity is incompatible with enrollment.” Yet another, 30 minutes from Kiwie’s home, says, “We believe that God disapproves of and forbids any attempt to alter one’s gender by surgery or appearance.”
On the flip side, some private schools are LGBTQ friendly, including some, like The Foundation Academy, that are faith-based.
In September, it welcomed Kiwie.
When Kiwie isn’t on the defensive, he’s confident, caring, charming. He was all those things at Hionides’s school. “In a strange way,” she said, “he’s a leader.”
“I was finally doing work,” said Kiwie, who used a McKay Scholarship. “It felt good to learn. To think. To use your brain.”
Miss Nadia set the tone.
“She said, ‘I’m going to get it right. I’m going to tell all the teachers to get it right,’ “ Kiwie said. “Nobody ever said that before.”
Unfortunately, bad habits don’t fade in a snap. Kiwie wandered from class a few times. He nearly fought a boy over a girl. After allegations of marijuana use at a movie theater, Hionides expelled him.
Over decades, she’s fine-tuned strategies for re-wiring hurt kids. Kiwie’s behavior wasn’t unexpected, she said. After he accepted responsibility, she allowed him to return.
But the hole in the universe had opened again. A few days later, something happened at grandma’s.
Kiwie was back with Mom.
Stella is searching for another private school. She knows finding one that is LGBTQ welcoming, and willing to give Kiwie a chance, is a challenge. She loves The Foundation Academy but says she can’t afford to move again.
For now, Kiwie is out of options.