McKinley Elementary Principal Ashley Benjamin believes a healthy school starts with students who feel safe and supported. 

In May, the Principal — whose school recently earned a California Pivotal Practice Award Program, or CAPP, award for innovation during the pandemic — gave a presentation during Mental Health Awareness Month, focusing on initiatives in the school community designed to “foster the whole child,” according to Benjamin. Specifically, Benjamin and two educators, Melanie Levitt and Katy Buckner, spoke to the School Board about one such enterprise: Rainbow Club.

Rainbow Club, made up of fourth and fifth grade students at the MidCity Santa Monica elementary school, is dedicated to support and inclusivity for LGBTQIA students, families and allies — kids who may identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and/or asexual, or who consider themselves allies.

Benjamin described how the Club — currently 15 students strong — began with a group of fifth graders at the school who identified themselves as LGBTQIA approaching her to discuss how the school can be more inclusive and supportive of them and students like them. 

“I was just blown away by these students, and so impressed with their confidence and passion and thoughtfulness,” Benjamin said, later adding, “This inspired me to think about additional ways that McKinley could support our LGBTQIA students, families and allies, and I thought about potentially adding a student club, so I called the students back to my office and asked if they would be interested, and they were thrilled at the idea, and said they’d talk to all their classmates.”

With the help of Levitt and Buckner, Benjamin said Rainbow Club was born. 

“I sent out a blast to the whole school community, parents and staff, announcing the Rainbow Club and explaining its purpose so everyone was informed. We received a lot of wonderful feedback and great support from the McKinley community regarding this inclusivity,” Benjamin said. “I also provided a parent permission slip so parents could sign up their fourth and fifth graders if interested. While at the middle and high school level a parent permission slip might not be as needed for extracurricular clubs, at the elementary school level, just given the age, we wanted to make sure parents were informed and involved. Permission slips are a consistent practice with all of our enrichment clubs.”

The new Rainbow Club joined the ranks of other enrichment clubs at McKinley such as Film Club, Student Council, Green Team and Student Newspaper, according to Benjamin. For Rainbow Club, meetings are held twice monthly during lunch recess.

Benjamin said many club members are also Student Council members; a handful of participants described their experiences with the Club in a video presentation at the May 19 School Board meeting.

“Rainbow clubs are important because they create an anti-bullying message and promote support of all students,” one club member said.

“Rainbow clubs are important because it teaches kids that it’s OK to be LGBTQ and it’s completely normal,” another added.

Levitt said she felt it was important that students receive the message that it’s “just another club in school, just like the dance club — that’s so impactful for development now, for later development — it just can’t be overstated.”

In the Club, students play games, speak about current events, learn about LGBT history and participate in community building activities, including planning for Pride Month, which begins June 1. 

emily@smdp.com