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Sex Ed: Schools Step Up, Parents Get a Break

On a winter afternoon at Ames Middle School in Logan Square, Aisha Jean-Baptiste tells her sex education class to count off by threes. After reviewing a list of sexual behaviors posted on the board, each group is assigned to identify those that are either high risk, low risk or no risk.

The discussion is energetic, the giggling minimal. After listing their decisions, a volunteer from each group confidently reads them aloud to the class. “Flirting” is judged among the safest activities, “vaginal sex without a condom” among the most dangerous.

Aisha Jean-Baptiste, from the Chicago Women's Health Center, conducts an eighth grade sex education class at Ames Middle School in Logan Square, part of the Elev8 program and mandatory this year at all Chicago Public Schools.

Gordon Walek

Last spring, Ames became the second of Chicago’s five Elev8 schools to offer comprehensive sex education to its middle school students. The Atlantic Philanthropies, an international foundation supporting Elev8 programs in four U.S. locations, made comprehensive sex education a requirement for receiving the four-year grant, which totaled $18 million in Chicago.

One goal of the project is to show how improved student health can lead to higher academic achievement, and helping kids avoid unsafe sexual activity is a part of that, said Alice Duff, a program executive at Atlantic.

Parents and educators at Elev8 schools were uneasy with the requirement at first, said Chris Brown, director of education programs for LISC. While comprehensive sex education promotes abstinence, it also teaches adolescents how to protect themselves from pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases if they do become sexually active.

“Nobody thinks that middle-schoolers should be having sex,” he said, “but unfortunately some are, and we have to give them information to make responsible choices.”

New CPS requirement
Chicago Public Schools came to a similar conclusion after a federal study released last year revealed that 25 percent of girls between the ages of 14 and 19 carry a sexually transmitted disease.

Previously, the district had strongly encouraged, but not required, schools to offer comprehensive sex education. A new policy requires it for all students in grades 5 to 12 beginning this spring, although their parents may opt them out.

At Ames, a series of presentations about sex education reassured nervous parents, said Adriana Portillo-Bartow, the school’s Elev8 director. “I think that they understand that it’s a need and don’t feel equipped to do it,” she said.

During one class exercise, students consider the advantages, disadvantages, and "worst thing that could happen" in a particular sexual scenario.

Schools typically assign sex education to a health or science teacher. Using $6,000 in Elev8 funds, Ames was able to hire Jean-Baptiste from the Chicago Women’s Health Center to lead four to six classes for the school’s 800 students. The district recommends hiring an outside provider because kids tend to be more open with an adult like Jean-Baptiste who, unlike their science teacher, they don’t see every day.

As Jean-Baptiste moved into a presentation on barriers and contraception, students peppered her with questions. For the shyer among them, Jean-Baptiste passed a box for “secret questions.” A boy in the back row slipped one in after sharing it with several smiling buddies; some classes drop in five or six, she said.

“They ask questions about masturbation, things that might seem silly, like, 'Are you still a virgin if you use a tampon?' ” she said. “Can you hurt yourself if you have too much sex? Can you get pregnant from anal sex? I’ll answer any question that they ask.”

Not just saying 'no'
The course also covers puberty, male and female anatomy, sexual orientation, sexually transmitted diseases and infections, responsible decision-making, and what Jean-Baptiste calls “refusal skills.”

“They stand up and read a ‘no statement’ assertively using eye contact,” she explained. Kids learn to say “No, I’m not ready,” to a request for intimacy and “in a voice that [lets] people know that they mean business,” she said.

During the final session of the four-week workshop, students are instructed in the use of contraceptive devices. “It’s scary to think about giving young people this information,” Jean-Baptiste acknowledged, but rejected the idea that talking about topics like contraception sends kids the wrong message. “I don’t think they’re more likely to be sexually active. I think they end up making better decisions.”

Eighth-graders who completed her workshops agreed. “I didn’t know the risks of having sex – now I do,” said Yeselmi Perez, who said she had never heard of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, before Jean-Baptiste’s class.

Other kids said that they knew about AIDS but not other diseases like gonorrhea, syphilis or herpes, “some that can’t be cured,” noted Rodrigo Arellano.

Felipe Aguilar said the most important message he got was to “pause, and think. Is two or three minutes of satisfaction worth giving your life away?”

Teens are more likely to choose abstinence when they have all the facts, the kids insisted. “I don’t want diseases or babies,” explained Rocio Sosa. She added that the arguments against sex education make no sense to her. “If they don’t teach us [at school] where are we going to learn it from? Our parents are not going to teach us about that, so we have to learn in school.”

“If you don’t teach [kids] what they need to know, they’ll end up with a mistake that they can’t [undo],” Felipe agreed. “There are some choices that you just can’t take back.”

Posted in Education, Logan Square

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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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