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Revamping Sex Education: A New Approach to the Birds and the Bees

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Co-written by Dr. Michael A. Carrera, Director of The Children's Aid Society-Carrera Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program

New York City School Chancellor Dennis Walcott and Mayor Michael Bloomberg should be commended for their push to improve family life and sex education for public school students in grades 6-12. Current data indicate African-American and Latino teens in New York City have extraordinarily high rates of pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and sexual risk-taking. Public education has an obligation to address this frightening trend. However, the Department of Education's narrow approach, using genital-sexual issues as the driving theme, must be significantly broadened in scope to effectively address this daunting public health and personal development issue. The City should consider a more comprehensive initiative that takes into account all aspects of a young person's growth and development, not solely strategies associated with understanding and reducing sexual risk-taking.

The harsh reality facing many young people in New York is the absence of the vision of a hopeful future and promise in their lives. A program that more fully serves youth emphasizes an understanding of sexuality including abstinence, puberty, body image, gender and social roles, along with understanding explicit sexual expression issues in an age-appropriate fashion. This is a more effective strategy for the Department of Education as it positions itself to serve the broadest needs of young people in the New York City public schools.

An example of this approach is the evidence-based Children's Aid Society-Carrera Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program (CAS-Carrera), which has won a White House-supported Social Innovation Fund award, and is rated effective in reducing teen pregnancy by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This model is proven to help young girls and boys avoid becoming parents during the second decade of their lives. The "above the waist," long-term approach ensures effectiveness by combining academic enrichment, mental health services, family life and sexuality education, understanding the world of work, sports, self-expression, and comprehensive no cost medical and dental care during the school day. The program begins with middle-school participants, 11 to 12 years of age, and continues with them year round through high school graduation and college admission. It is this dosage and duration that make an essential difference. Adults do not reduce teen pregnancy and births; young people do. They achieve this through educational repetitions centered on the benefits of abstinence, the importance of acquiring sexual and reproductive health knowledge, the conscientious use of contraceptives, the essential importance of acquiring primary health care, and the life-long benefits of educational achievement and developing aspirations for a career or profession.

Parents and policymakers are more likely to embrace school-based family life and sexuality education programs that are age and stage appropriate, while not obsessing over public health outcomes to the exclusion of all other dimensions of a young person's development. This type of common sense, multidimensional school-based program resonates with parents during these frightening times. And while parents realize they are the primary sexuality educators of their children, they will be comforted in the knowledge their loved ones are receiving sensitive and developmentally appropriate educational exposure during the school day. In our nearly three decades of working with young people in New York City's most under-served neighborhoods, CAS-Carrera has not had a single parental opt-out.

There is still time to think strategically about how to unfold this extraordinarily essential initiative in the New York City public schools. We owe this to our young people and to their families.