Published Online: February 5, 1997

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Teaching About AIDS

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As he plucks a shiny Gold Coin condom package off the shelf to check the price, the 14-year-old admits he hasn't yet had occasion to use one. He says that when he does, however, he'll feel less intimidated about the making the purchase.

Erika Mendez, a petite 14-year-old, nods in agreement. "When I'm older," she says, "I'll know how to protect myself."

'If you want to be abstinent, I applaud you. But if you're having sex, you need to protect yourself from something that will kill you.'

Paul Carreras,
Teacher, John F. Kennedy High School, Denver

When the four students return to class, teacher Paul Carreras is standing next to a collage of multicolored prophylactics. He rips open a foil package and rolls a condom onto two fingers, seeming quite at ease discussing such intimate topics with his students.

"If you want to be abstinent, I applaud you," the 53-year-old teacher tells the two dozen freshmen. "But if you're having sex, you need to protect yourself from something that will kill you."

Long after the final bell, students fire questions at him: Are condoms reusable? How many sperm does it take to get pregnant?

Like most 9th graders in the 63,000-student Denver district, those in Mr. Carreras' class are not sexually experienced. But he believes it is vital that they be prepared for eventual sexual activity.

"We know that 100 percent of these students are not going to be celibate," he said. "So we have to make sure they're safe."

Both the condom demonstration and the information-gathering exercise are part of a curriculum called Skills for Life, which was first tested in Denver in 1993 by the CDC.

The Denver schools require AIDS education, but the district doesn't dictate a particular curriculum. Skills for Life, which uses the nine strategies detailed in Mr. Kirby's study, is one of only a handful of AIDS education curricula endorsed by the CDC.

Does Teaching Promote Sex?

Although there has been little opposition to the curriculum here, some religious organizations and parents' groups across the country have condemned approaches like these.

Often, critics have argued that explicit talk about AIDS and contraceptives encourages young people to become sexually active. Conservative groups have successfully used this argument to derail efforts to adopt courses on sex and AIDS in dozens of school districts in recent years.

Such courses are "a 'how to' to have sex," said Gracie Hsu, a policy analyst for the Family Research Council, a Washington-based research and advocacy group. "If you go through explicit demonstrations, you undermine your own message of abstaining until marriage," she said.

Much recent research on AIDS education, however, contradicts that argument.

"The overwhelming weight of the evidence demonstrates that sex and AIDS education programs do not cause harm, as some people fear," Mr. Kirby writes in his 1995 review.

In fact, the research found that courses that employed a combination of the nine strategies helped delay the start of sexual involvement, he said. The courses also helped reduce the frequency of sexual involvement among students who were already sexually active and increased the use of condoms and other contraceptives among sexually active young people, Mr. Kirby said.

Other Approaches

Programs that make condoms available to students on school grounds are also promising, many researchers believe, although the evidence to confirm that opinion remains sketchy.

AIDS-education courses are "a 'how to' to have sex."

Gracie Hsu,
policy analyst,
Family Research Council

Many experts suspect that the addition of free condoms in student health centers and administrative offices can increase condom use among sexually active students.

More than 430 public schools and 50 districts have adopted condom-availability programs, according to a study published by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research group based in New York City.

A three-year study by the Academy for Educational Development, a national education research and policy organization, promises to shed some light on the issue. Set to be published later this year, the study compared condom-distribution programs in two big-city districts and is expected to provide the best documentation so far of the theory that making condoms available in schools can reduce risky sexual conduct among students.

The bulk of the research on "abstinence only" curricula--which promote sexual abstinence until marriage and eschew discussion of contraceptives except to detail their failure rates--has been less convincing, researchers say. "The weight of the evidence indicates that these abstinence-only programs do not delay the onset of intercourse," Mr. Kirby writes.

However, Ms. Hsu argues that such an assessment is premature. A study last year of a sex education program in the District of Columbia schools showed that abstinence-only teaching can yield positive results, she said.

The evaluation of the program run by Best Friends, a Washington-based organization that promotes abstinence education in schools, found that 1.1 percent of the girls in grades 5-12 enrolled in the course became pregnant, compared with a 25 percent pregnancy rate among girls of the same age in the city's population as a whole. "This study found that participants were far less likely to have engaged in sex than were non-participants," Ms. Hsu said.

Funding, Time Constraints

Often, the public debate over the content and tone of AIDS curricula overshadows some of the practical dilemmas faced by educators in the classroom, said Brenda Z. Greene, the manager of school health programs for the National School Boards Association.

Curriculum and teacher training costs can be prohibitive, especially in schools that are struggling to improve academic achievement.

"Many districts face inadequate resources," Ms. Greene said, "and so they're going to focus on the core subjects." Even in schools with both the funding and the enthusiasm for effective AIDS education, she added, there still may not be enough time in the school day to teach it.

In Denver, Mr. Carreras sandwiches his three-week Skills for Life course in between lessons on Mesopotamia and the evolution of human culture.

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