The high-profile embarrassments led to the abrupt departure of the school’s first principal, William Salzman, a former Wall Street executive. He was replaced in February 2004 by Daniel Rossi, a seasoned educator with sixteen years of experience in the classroom and three and a half years as an administrator at the Satellite Academy, an alternative high school in midtown. A short, dark, intense, gay 38-year-old, Rossi tightened admissions procedures and generally lowered what one teacher calls the “tension” that had existed under the former principal. Today, staff and students say that the school is running more smoothly, and, Rossi says, “there has been an absolute reduction in the level of violence and dysfunction” that plagued the school’s first year.
Which is not to say that the student body is no longer made up of youngsters with a lot of baggage. “A majority of our kids are what we call Title I, poverty level,” says Thomas Krever, associate executive director of programs at HMI. “About 20 percent qualify as homeless, or living with someone other than their immediate parent or guardian. They are very academically challenged. The way they see it, high-school graduation isn’t really something in their future.” But Harvey Milk’s mission is not simply to fill gaps in the students’ education; it is also to help them in the process of coming to grips with their sexuality, and the emotional trauma associated with it. “These kids are volatile, aggressive, hostile, as a way to protect themselves,” says Maria Paradiso, HMI’s director of supportive services. “They’ve been harassed and bullied and beaten up so often, they have a thick armor. We’re trying to teach them how to manage difficult emotions, how to be confident about who they are. We help them with coming-out issues, and the struggle of gender identity.”
“Imagine waking up every day,” adds Krever, “and having to be so safeguarded about the lisp in your voice or the way you hold your body, your mannerisms—every moment of your life in public—then suddenly coming into a building where that’s not as much of an issue. All those layers have to get unpeeled, all those defense mechanisms, all those levels, have to be worked out.”
The suit says Harvey Milk is a waste of city money and illegal under sexual-bias laws.
Tenaja Jordan, 19, is one student who Harvey Milk officials say is on the way to such success. A dark-skinned girl of Brazilian and West Indian descent, Jordan ran away from her Staten Island home after coming out to her Jehovah’s Witness parents when she was 16. Excommunicated by the church and rejected by her disapproving parents, she spent several weeks “bouncing around” between friends’ couches, then ended up at Hetrick-Martin. “When I got to HMI, it was like, ‘Real live gay people beside myself! Wow!’ ” Jordan says. She transferred to Harvey Milk for her final year, graduated in 2003, and is now attending college. She credits Harvey Milk with helping her to grow up—fast. “It’s more than just being gay or lesbian or queer,” Jordan says. “Most of the people I knew had also been kicked out by their parents. So we were all talking about getting housing, getting jobs, getting through school—not about the new episode of American Idol. We didn’t have time.” Jordan credits HMI and Harvey Milk staff, the majority of whom are gay themselves, with knowing how to talk to her, and how to listen. “They weren’t trying to tell me how I felt,” she says. So closely bonded do kids become that the school has had to institute an “aging out” policy: At 21, you must leave. “I’ll ease out at 21,” Jordan says. “But I’ll carry this place wherever I go.”
Principal Rossi stresses that there is no special gay slant to the teaching, and that a condition of the school’s expansion is that it operate under Department of Education mandates to teach a city-approved curriculum of math, English, science, and other core subjects. At the same time, English teacher Orville Bell admits to addressing gay issues with greater frankness in the classroom than he would in another high school. In his late fifties, Bell is an exceptionally dedicated and skilled educator with 29 years of experience in the classroom, and who is, like many of his students, both black and gay. Described by his students as one of those magical and inspiring instructors, he brings a wealth of diverse life experience to bear in his teaching, having worked in theater, run a diving and fishing business in Mexico, and done voice-over work. Bell was ready to retire from teaching, but reversed himself when he heard about the launching of Harvey Milk. “I thought it sounded wonderful,” he says. At Harvey Milk, Bell teaches works “that I would never touch in a secondary classroom,” he says, citing as an example Bent, a play about homosexuals persecuted in the Nazi death camps that includes a sex scene between two men. Bell is aware that such an admission could create controversy—especially when the public-relations person who is monitoring the interview begins to fidget and interrupt. But Bell is unapologetic about his belief in tailoring at least some of his teaching to his gay students. He’s similarly unapologetic about what he sees as the importance of having gay teachers at the school.