Teaching Kids Whole-Life Skills
Thursday, December 6, 2007
At the Arts and Technology Academy in Northeast, sex education is taking a distinctly different tack. Moving far beyond anatomy, educators at the charter school are using what they call an "above the waist" approach to help prevent teen pregnancy.
Teacher Willa Reinhard walks around the circle of students assembled for Power Group, a weekly mental health support session. "What are you thankful for?" she asks on this Monday afternoon. "What would you like to change?"
The fifth-graders, dressed in maroon polos and khaki pants, dutifully draw the answers in their journals. TaeJohn Diggs, 10, is thankful for his family and friends, the school and its staff. He would like to change his behavior. "I'd want a powerful attitude, not a violent one," he says. "I'd want to pay more attention."
Down the hall, La Tasha Vanzie's class is getting a crash course in free enterprise. "What does CEO stand for?" a student asks. Anfeni Carroll knows because she's interviewing for the position in tomorrow's class. With a shy smile, the 10-year-old pulls out her r¿sum¿ to show she's prepared.
Next door, Neal Blangiardo starts Family Life class with an art activity: Draw what a "real man" and "real woman" look like. And no, he adds, he doesn't mean the private parts. A fit of giggles erupts. The students pick up their pencils as Blangiardo launches into a discussion about gender roles.
How do CEOs, gender roles and Power Group have a hand in preventing pregnancy? They're part of the Children's Aid Society Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program, a nationally recognized teen model that is being implemented for the first time in the District. Using a holistic approach to sex education, the program, known as the Carrera model, has been shown to cut in half the rate of teen pregnancy among participants. Young people in the program have increased their use of contraceptives and delayed the start of sexual contact by an average of 18 months. The successes extend to the classroom: Students involved get higher grades and raise their SAT scores. More go on to college.
The Carrera program was established at the academy through a partnership with the Children's Aid Society and the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust, an organization that creates after-school programming. Since August, the school has incorporated three weekly classes into the school day, as well as a voluntary half-day Saturday session. A few new staff members have joined the faculty to administer the program to the 70 fifth-graders. And to ensure that it's no mere blip on the adolescent radar screen (which is often better attuned to pick up signals from friends, movies and other cultural influences), the program will continue to work with the students until they graduate from high school, meaning a eight-year commitment.
"We stay in their lives and will grow with them as they grow," said Aarti Shastry, program coordinator at the academy. "It's about developing a sexual literacy that keeps them informed and educated. [In the program] you're slowly gaining control of your choices and your life."
The D.C. Trust, Children's Aid Society and D.C. Department of Health, along with a variety of foundations and individual donors, provide for the program's expenses. These funds support uninsured medical and dental care for the participants as well as needed specialty care not covered by insurance.
The program's organizers say the timing couldn't be better. While teen pregnancy rates in the District and across the nation are decreasing, so is the age of the first sexual encounter. In the past 10 years, the number of adolescents who report having their first sexual experience before age 13 has risen by 15 percent.
The Carrera program was created in 1984 by Michael A. Carrera, a New York City physician who has run pregnancy prevention programs at the Children's Aid Society since the 1970s. He and colleagues developed sexual health workshops for children in central Harlem but found the messages often dissipated when the students left the center. To combat the cultural and community-driven influences that could lead to pregnancies, they created a more comprehensive model. Sex education alone was not enough.
"I expected that just talking with them about sexuality was going to be enough of a deterrent for them to avoid risky behavior," Carrera, 69, recalls. "It wasn't durable enough. It needed to be linked to all the other things that made a kid whole."