Sex Ed Suffers Under Standardization Regime

Erin Thompson Feb 6, 2006

Kenneth, a 15-year-old 8th grader at a public school in Sunset Park, Brooklyn received information on STDs from his school nurse, who gave him a pamphlet shortly after he had learned that his 8th-grade girlfriend was pregnant with his child.

“[There were] no health classes. If there was a class, I would have taken it,” Kenneth told The Indypendent.

Kenneth started having sex when he was 12 years old. He knows that HIV/AIDS can “kill people” and has been tested. At least three girls are pregnant in his middle school, and it’s only the beginning of the second semester.

Since 1987 New York City has mandated a K-12 yearly curriculum of six lessons pertaining to HIV/AIDS education. It also requires that students get one semester of health education, including sex-ed, in both middle school and high school. High schools are mandated to provide limitedaccess to condoms in health resource rooms.

Kenneth’s school is on the list of Schools Under Registration Review. It is overwhelmingly Hispanic, with many recent immigrants, and over 90 percent students qualify for free lunches. Children whose families are at or below 130 percent of the poverty level qualify.

Here, students graduate 8th grade without ever having been given sex-ed, or information about reproductive functions, safe sex, or basic health and hygiene.

“In our school, it’s hard to find an aspirin you can dispense, let alone a condom,” said Sang Park, who teaches language arts at Kenneth’s school. “It’s outrageous what’s happening to students – what is allowed, dismissed, overlooked.”


On Dec. 1, 2005, World AIDS Day, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Department of Education (DOE) released the updated HIV/AIDS curriculum. It’s meant to be a comprehensive and age-appropriate overhaul of the 20-year-old curriculum. Plans are to introduce it by the end of the school year.

According to Betty Rothbart, the director of health education and family living for the DOE, this curriculum, represents a “tremendous statement of commitment” by the DOE to educating students about the dangers of HIV/AIDS.

While commending that some action has been taken, Joe Pressley, Executive Director of the New York AIDS Coalition (NYAC), claims that the material was developed without adequate input from advocates for HIV/AIDS awareness.

According to Pressley, the curriculum needs more discussion on methods of contraception, provides too little teacher training and implementation, only represents the LGBT community as vectors of disease, and lacks a method for verifying the implementation of the program. Condom demonstrations
in the classroom are still banned and the overall emphasis is on abstinence.

Speaking at “Overhauling Sex-Ed: The New Curriculum for NYC Schools,” a Feb. 1 New School forum, Pressley held that the curriculum should focus on teaching students how to use condoms. Any HIV/AIDS education “has to meet students where they are… AIDS is more than just a science project.”


Whatever the new standards are, the DOE seems to lack a system of accountability to ensure that any mandates, new or old, are being followed.

In January 2004, the New York AIDS Coalition released a report stating that 63 percent of public schools violated the mandated six lessons per year of HIV/AIDS training. In early 2005, Youth Organizers United, a youth-run advocacy group focused on reproductive health and HIV/AIDS education, completed a survey of 486 students attending five public high schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan. They found that one fourth of all students said they had not received any of the mandated HIV/AIDS training over the past year.

“Nobody even knows about it,” said middle school teacher Seth Rader of the new curriculum. Rader teaches 7th and 8th graders at an East Harlem K-8 public school. The school is 99 percent Black and Hispanic, with 99 percent of students qualifying for free lunches.

“Our literacy coach was a [former] HIV educator,” said Rader. Occasionally the teacher will “pop in for a few minutes,” if for some reason the topic of HIV/AIDS is broached. “As far as I know, it’s not part of her job description or role,” said Rader. He gave his 7th grade students about 90 minutes of health education last year, but it was his own initiative.

Michele Sarrie, who teaches art in a South Bronx middle school, said that teachers have heard “not a word” from the school board on sex-ed or the new HIV/AIDS curriculum. “As far as I know, it doesn’t exist,” she said.

Sarrie’s school is classified under registration review, with 80 to 90 percent of students scoring far below the national averages on tests. The school is 99 percent Black and Hispanic with 95 percent of students qualifying for free

There are no sex-ed or HIV/AIDS lessons taught at the school. There is no condom program, and according to the principal, it doesn’t offer sex-ed classes, so much as a program on “hygiene.”

Laurie Behrman received a masters in health education from Columbia University’s Teachers College, has New York State teaching certifications in health and social studies with over five years experience of health education, and is fluent in Spanish. Despite all this, she hasn’t been able to get a full-time job teaching health in New York City. Instead she has substituted for health teachers at several public schools.

“It’s actually easier to get a job teaching health in the suburbs than in New York City,” Behrman said. “To me, it seems strange that the kids who need the health education the most, are not getting it.”

“New York City needs to hire health teachers,” said Behrman. “Students deserve teachers who want to be teaching health and enjoy doing so, not just those teachers who are willing to teach health.”


Students with the best chance of receiving any sex education and HIV/AIDS information attend more selective, affluent schools. At FDR and Brooklyn Tech, 52 percent of students had received all six HIV/AIDS lessons. At open enrollment Fort Hamilton High School, only six percent said they had received four or more lessons and 58 percent hadn’t received any lessons.

“We had a whole semester of sex-ed. We started by writing a five-page paper on HIV/AIDS, and we did a little mini-relationship unit, a long section on STDs, and HIV/AIDS in particular,” said Hallie of her 10th grade health class at Hunter College High School, a select admissions high school. The school employs two health teachers.

Hallie reported having attended assemblies discussing HIV/AIDS in the 7th and 9th grade, as well as a semester in 8th and 10th grade dealing specifically with health and sex-ed.

Kevin Tobar remembers having 7th and 8th grade health instruction at his middle school, William H. Carr J.H.S. 194, a school that is 70 percent white and Asian, with 16 percent of students qualifying for free lunches.

“We learned about anatomy, all that stuff. I think they touched upon sex. They didn’t talk to us about contraceptives, gay people, anal sex. Nothing like that,” Tobar said.

Tobar is now a 12th grader at H.S. 525 Townsend Harris High School, a selective admissions school that is over 80 percent white and Asian, with a student body that averages above 600 on both the verbal and math SAT.

Tobar attended HIV/AIDS assemblies in his 9th grade, and took a 10th grade health class. “We did get into condoms, and how to put condoms on,” said Tobar. “There were no demonstrations. They showed slides of STDs, what they looked like.”

According to a physical education teacher at Kenneth’s school in Sunset Park, students in Phys-Ed were supposed to have an HIV unit, but didn’t. In case the school district inquired, the principal put on paper that students were receiving health instruction. “We [the teachers] wouldn’t sign off on it,” the teacher said.

This year, teachers were supposed to address health issues in science class, instead of phys-ed. But it’s not being taught there either. When asked what he learned in science class Kenneth replied, “All we learn about is animals.”

“Every year, we put teaching health education on the list of classes we would prefer to teach, but instead we are assigned to lunch duty. They don’t have enough teachers here,” the physical education teacher said.

Schools Under Registration Review have a strict curriculum of testing in order to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Under the act, a school’s “Adequate Yearly Progress” is measured by standardized testing in English, language arts, mathematics and science.

Individual students must not only meet the state-defined level of proficiency each year, but the entire student body must also accrue progress by a certain percentage per year – to the purpose of all schools being 100 percent compliant with federal standards by 2014. Schools that don’t meet yearly progress for two consecutive years are considered “Schools in Need of Improvement.”

Schools Under Registration Review are designated as needing improvement by not having met the state requirements in English and math. Once designated, schools are put through a five-year restructuring plan. If adequate improvement is not made by year five, schools must either reopen as a charter school, replace all or most of the school staff, including the principal, contract the school management with a private company, or be taken over by the state.

“I think probably the biggest obstacle to sex-ed… is the competition with testing,” said Rader, whose school was formerly under registration review. The school was taken off the list four years ago, but Rader says that there is constant pressure to perform well on tests.

“All the measurement of improvement is based on test scores. There’s a big push for that,” said Rader.

At Michele Sarrie’s South Bronx school, the story is much the same. “They’re too busy telling us how to teach the kids to take the English and math tests together… everything is about the tests.”


In the 2004 survey done by Youth Organizers United, schools with the largest number of sexually active students also had the least HIV/AIDS education. According to a 2001-2002 report on AIDS by the New York State Department of Health, 77 percent of the 796 new AIDS cases reported in the state were young people between the ages of 20 and 24. Of those, 85 percent were Black or Hispanic. Most of them must have been infected in their teens.

“It’s deplorable that we overlook [HIV/AIDS education] and put it by the wayside for academic pursuits,” said Sang Park. “For the people in charge to not seriously look at this matter is condoning the socio-economic discrimination. You’re saying it’s okay because it’s this group of people.”

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