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How is health being taught in metro Atlanta?

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Atlanta has many school systems but few options for comprehensive health education

Since sixth grade, my mother made it her mission to keep me informed about everything concerning me at the time. That included having The Talk every morning on the way to school, which was 15 minutes every day. Though I was miserable enduring her conversations about the human anatomy and body functions, she was more informative than my ninth grade health class. All I remember is failing my CPR test, people shouting “penis!” randomly, and Coach Carr’s words from “Mean Girls:” “Don’t have sex because you will get pregnant and die … just don’t do it, okay, promise?”

Seeing that I didn’t have a high-impact or informative health class, I wanted to investigate and see if times were changing and students were getting the information related to sex education and disease prevention they need.

In Georgia, the local board of education has the most power over what goes in a school sex education curriculum, according to Lauren Barineau, training and technical assistance coordinator for the nonprofit Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power & Potential (GCAPP). She designs and delivers skills-based trainings for professionals related to reproductive health, effective sexual health education curricula, and other topics that enhance adolescent health. “The state law says that the course can include topics such as: human biology, conception, pregnancy, birth, STDs/AIDS … but [the state board of education] doesn’t say very much on things that shouldn’t be included.” So, what do metro Atlanta’s counties and city schools teach?

FLASH in DeKalb

Last summer, DeKalb County adopted the FLASH curriculum for their K-12 health courses for this school year. FLASH is an “interactive and comprehensive science-based sexual health education curriculum designed to prevent teen pregnancy, STDs, and sexual violence.” Schools can use the curriculum or its activities to shape the learning in the classroom, but they’ll still be following their state or county standards. This curriculum can be applied to state and national standards and can serve as guide to tackling specific topics that arise throughout the course — meaning: Schools use the curriculum’s activities to shape classroom learning, while following their state or county standards.

According to the curriculum publisher’s website, “FLASH lessons prepare students to:

  • Abstain from sex
  • Use condoms and birth control when they do have sex
  • Confirm consent before engaging in sexual activity
  • Communicate with their family about sexual health
  • Make decisions that minimize risk to their sexual health
  • Seek medical care in order to take care of their reproductive health.”

According to FLASH, their program is based off the “Theory of Planned Behavior.” The theory targets teens to create beliefs and health habits that reduce sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancies and abusive relationships. DeKalb requires K-12 students to have a parent sign a waiver of consent, which acknowledges the course and the parent’s choice to opt their child out of it.

Not all of the local school systems are using this widely known curriculum. In the past, Cobb, Fulton and Gwinnett Counties only had overviews of health that focused on meeting the Georgia performance standards through equipping students with the skills to make lifelong healthy choices from textbook publishers like Hartcourt and Glencoe. Here are the counties’ general policies:

COBB: According to the county’s website, their motto is, “A student’s health directly influences his or her success in school and beyond.” The curriculum focus allows students to “…make decisions, become advocates of healthy living, and choose healthy behaviors for life.”

FULTON: Although it is one of the counties with the highest new HIV infection rates among youth, Fulton County promotes physical education more than comprehensive health for its high school students. Abstinence-based programs are rooted in the notion that teens will keep their pledge to remain abstinent, but young adults ages 16 and 24 make up about 50 percent of all the new HIV infections. The county has been in the local news this fall for considering updates to its health curriculum.

GWINNETT: Here, parents are the main health educator and can opt their student out of sex education.

Choosing the Best

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Choosing the Best” (based in Atlanta) is one of the more widely used abstinence-centered sex ed curricula in the U.S. — used in 47 states. Materials for “Choosing the Best” have been revised several times in recent years in response to input and criticism. Unlike the FLASH curriculum used in DeKalb County, this curriculum “does not provide information about how to use contraceptives,” Tasha Guadalupe, health and physical education coordinator for Fulton Schools, told the AJC in September. Even with the changes to the curriculum, such as new statistics and visual aides, the main objective is to advocate that students should wait until they are married to have sex.

Each system to its own

In Atlanta Public Schools, the philosophy of health education is “…to support students’ development of skills and habits that contribute to overall health and well-being. Emphasis is placed on safety, nutrition, mental health, substance abuse prevention, disease prevention, healthy decision-making and relationships.”

City of Decatur Schools emphasize a student’s healthy habits and how they will affect them in the long run. Nutrition values, the importance of exercise and CPR are a few examples of the healthy habits they want students to know. Each county or city school system is left to make its own decision, and some seem to lack areas of health education that others provide.

The more limited programs seem to be based on the assumption that parents will be the ones who will educate their children about sexual activity and sexually transmitted diseases — including HIV and AIDS. Comprehensive programs seem to tackle those specific subjects from a science-based perspective.

However, even comprehensive programs allow parents to acknowledge the content being taught and decide whether they want to opt their child out of the particular unit due to personal reasons. Both types of programs come with their flaws, but in today’s society, should we let the statistics or one’s morals guide the classroom?

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