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Teachers Gather To Discuss AIDS

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Long Beach, Calif--Stephen Sroka, an Ohio health teacher and curriculum creator, came to a national meeting on aids here in a T-shirt emblazoned on the front with "aids Education Today."

The back, in stark black-and-white letters, stated: "Tomorrow May Be Too Late."

Mr. Sroka's message was not lost on the 200 teachers who traveled from 20 states to attend the meeting, an informal seminar designed to provide participants with practical strategies for teaching schoolchildren about the deadly disease.

Organized by Mr. Sroka and another health teacher from California, the day-long session this month was meant to fill a gap that the two say is woefully evident in communi4ties across the country: The gap between the need to teach students how to protect themselves from acquired immune deficiency syndrome and the ability of the education community to do so.

While much progress has been made in the effort to provide formal aids instruction in the nation's schools, these and other experts say, much remains to be done. Policymaking is slowed by controversy, and even where no debate exists the process of developing and disseminating curriculum guidelines and materials has been slow, teachers concerned about the situation say.

"These kids are doing everything now they need to be doing to catch the disease," Mr. Sroka told the group. "And what's happening is that the health of students is taking a backseat to political and economic8concerns around the country."

No surveys have yet measured the extent of aids instruction in schools across the country. But a few smaller studies provide some signs of widening concern. Among them:

Researchers at Texas A&M University's college of education surveyed Texas principals last spring and found that although 9 out of 10 principals questioned said formal aids instruction was needed, only 2 of 10 said they provided it.

Sixty-five of 100 California school districts randomly surveyed last spring by the state education department said they were offering "some form of" aids education.

In Maryland, where sex education has been mandated since 1970, state education officials have found that 22 of the state's 24 school districts reported having taught about the disease.

In a survey last winter of the nation's 73 largest school districts, the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that 87 percent of those questioned had begun or were planning to offer a program on aids.

Slightly more than half of all state boards of education have adopted or are considering guidelines or curricular materials for aids instruction, according to a National Association of State Boards of Education survey conducted last June.

In addition, nine states have moved to mandate such instruction in some or all of their schools.

The New York Board of Regents, for example, on Sept. 18--after six months of debate--approved regulations requiring both public and private schools to teach about the disease in kindergarten through 12th grade.

And Gov. James R. Thompson of Illinois the same week signed bills mandating instruction on aids and sexual abstinence in school districts where sex education is already offered.

"The problem with a lot of this is that it doesn't start until next year or January," Mr. Sroka said. "I had kids asking questions about aids on the first day of school."

Taking the Lead

Mr. Sroka and other experts interviewed last week said the good news about progress in providing aids instruction fails to take into account the lag time between the decision to provide a program and actual classroom instruction.

Around the nation, they said, numerous local school districts are waiting for guidelines on teaching about the disease to come from their state education officials. And the state education officials are waiting for guidelines now being developed by the U.S. Education Department and the federal Centers For Disease Control in Atlanta, Ga.

Secretary of Education William J.4Bennett intends to announce his education plan near the end of this month, an aide to Mr. Bennett said.

Jack Jones, who heads the cdc's aids education program, said he "could not predict" when that agency's curriculum would be published, but the agency this week plans to begin distributing $7.2 million in grants to states and national organizations for school aids education.

"Do not wait for your traditional upper-level leadership to make the guidelines," said Donald Francis, a cdc epidemiologist who is working on assignment with the California aids Program. "The way I see it, it's just not going to happen," he told the teachers meeting in California.

Similar thinking prompted Mr. Sroka, who has written a teaching guide on aids, and Ric Loya, a Los Angeles health teacher and consultant, to organize the meeting here--despite failed attempts to persuade either national organizations or federal and state agencies to underwrite it.

"Two health teachers shouldn't have had to do this," Mr. Loya noted.

Those who came to the session included classroom teachers whose specialties ranged from elementary education to mathematics.

James Rudolph and Amy Tavaglione, two California mathematics teachers, said they took it upon themselves to teach their classes about aids last year after they realized that such instruction in that community's biology and home-economics classes reached only a few students.

"The kids were like sponges. They couldn't get enough," Mr. Rudolph said.

'A Real Crisis'

In Maryland, the same sense of urgency inspired state education officials to urge lawmakers to approve their proposed aids-education mandate as an "emergency" regulation.

If legislators agree to it, that tactic would allow state officials to trim approximately six months from the time necessary to enact the proposal, according to Russell Henke, a health-education specialist in the8state education department.

"We're talking about something that is a real crisis," Mr. Henke said in an interview last week. "This is a disease that causes death 100 percent of the time."

Even though most Maryland school districts already are teaching about aids, Mr. Henke said, the lessons are only offered in high schools.

Existing state laws prohibit schools from teaching elementary-school students about any sexuallytransmitted diseases, including aids. The proposed by-law would require schools to teach about aids once during each level of schooling--elementary, middle, and high school--but not before the 3rd grade.

Calls for Caution

Mr. Henke's efforts are being opposed by some who argue for a slower, more cautious approach.

"On something that sensitive, we believe the public ought to have plenty of time to comment and understand it," said Maureen Steinecke, executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. She said the emergency request also conveys to nervous parents the idea that such instruction is being "railroaded" through.

Such comments help to underscore some of the most basic obstacles to immediate aids education. The subject inevitably touches onel10lhomosexuality and sexuality--topics that have long proven controversial for schools.

And efforts to force schools to teach about the disease can tread upon treasured notions of "local control" in education.

Those kinds of controversies have divided state education officials in California, where Gov. George Deukmejian recently vetoed a measure requiring the showing of videotapes on aids in public schools. Though State Superintendent of Instruction Bill Honig supported the measure, the state board of education fought it.

"We opposed the bill on the basis that it's a mandate," Perry Dyke, chairman of the state school board, said at the meeting.

The bill's passage in the California legislature followed months of debate, during which opponents of the measure said they feared that aids instruction would promote homosexual lifestyles and encourage early sexual activity in children.

New Questions

For those districts and state education departments that have already resolved such controversies, a second generation of difficult issues is emerging.

Primary among them are difficulties posed by the need to make certain that aids instruction reaches minority students.

Hispanics, who make up 6.5 percent of the general population, account for 14 percent of all aids cases. Another 25 percent of all aids vic4tims are black, although blacks constitute only 12 percent of the general population.

In contrast to the disproportionately high number of minorities stricken with the disease, few teaching materials are geared to the different cultural values of those communities, minority advocates say.

"Sex is never talked about in our family nucleus, for example," said Arturo Olivas of the Hispanic aids Project in California.

In addition, the traditional concept of "machismo " thrives in Hispanic communities, he said.

Demonstrating that value at work, Mr. Olivas noted that Hispanic men, when asked, often deny that they may have had homosexual experiences. However, a greater percentage of men may answer in the affirmative if the question becomes, "Have you ever had sex with a man?"

"You need to talk about specific behaviors," Mr. Olivas said at the aids seminar here.

Few Training Provisions

Another emerging issue is that of teacher training, according to educators and teachers' unions.

In a public announcement applauding the New York Board of Regents' decision, the New York United Teachers noted that state officials made few provisions for training the teachers who must carry out the mandate.

"In secondary schools, it will be taught by health-education teachers," Robert Rice, a spokesman for the state teachers' union, said in an interview. "But the mandate also includes elementary schools, where it'll be taught by regular classroom teachers who have no experience in that area."

Apart from elementary-school teachers and health educators, any teacher may be faced with questions about aids this year, according to Mr. Loya.

"If you're an effective teacher and you have a rapport with students, those kids are going to come to you," he said. "Right now, a lot of kids are being told, 'You need to go home and ask your mom and dad.'"

"Some kids will and some kids won't," he said.

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