Sex Ed in the City: A Look at Schools' Curriculum

Email a Friend

Sex education for New York City teens takes many forms and occurs in many settings – all in an effort to reduce the risk of pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted disease.

Some offer workshops in public schools. Some hold sessions at teen centers, health centers, even churches and laundromats.

"We did a survey of NYC voters and found that 85 percent of parents want comprehensive sex ed taught in schools,” said Haydee Morales of Planned Parenthood, "and when they learn that it's not part of the curriculum, they’re just stunned."

New York State requires schools teach health, including nutrition, physical fitness and sex ed. There's a loose outline, but school districts don't have to follow a detailed curriculum. New York City actually does have a detailed sex ed curriculum, but the Department of Education doesn’t require schools follow it. This isn’t unusual. The department on most subjects gives broad mandates and lets schools decide how to fulfill them, according to Lori Rose Benson, the schools' Director of Wellness Programs.

"There might be a school that faces some very specific issues in their community, and they really want to hone in on their area, and they should be able to do that," Benson says. "It's the educational vision to really empower principals to make those very specific choices for their schools."

Benson says about 64 percent of middle schools use the recommended curriculum, and the department is still trying to figure out how many high schools are — somewhere between 38 and 81 percent, according to a survey of principals. The department said it's still analyzing these surveys, so it can’t be more specific about the high school numbers, and it can't say what the rest of schools are teaching for sex ed, if anything.

City Council Education Committee Chairman Robert Jackson said schools are under such pressure to get good math and reading test scores that it's easy to imagine sex ed joining a list of things many principals let slide, like gym, art and music.

“When principals have to cut, they cut things they feel are not the most important,” Jackson says. “[The recommended curriculum] should not be voluntary. It should be mandated, in order to teach children about healthy living, about communicating with each other, about protecting one another, about teaching young high school teenagers how to say, 'No.'"

Jackson said he approves of the city's sex ed curriculum, which is an off-the-shelf series of lesson plans, workbooks and group exercises called "Health Smart" and "Reducing the Risk." He cites data suggesting the program — developed by ETR Associates, a California-based non-profit — can help delay many students' first sexual encounter by as long as two years. Postponing sexual initiation, in turn, is instrumental in reducing pregnancy and STD’s.

Last year, the NYCLU acquired the city’s internal evaluation of the sex ed program.

"By all measures, the program was really a great success,” said Melissa Goodman, director of NYCLU’s Reproductive Rights Project. "Teachers, students, parents administrators – they all said that it works, that it was effective, that they would use it again."

City education and health officials said they’re pleased with the number of schools that have adopted the program and are confident more will in the future. The department didn’t respond to requests to observe its programs in action.

The Door, Planned Parenthood and dozens of non-profit groups around the city teach sex ed. The Door, a teen center and health clinic, invites teens to learn about sex through discussion and games.

Eurekka, 16, of Harlem comes to The Door several days a week – not just to talk about sex, but because she likes hanging out with people here. She said both the games and the more serious discussions have helped her think and act more maturely.

“They explain to us about healthy and unhealthy relationships,” she said . "Mainly, my relationships had been unhealthy, arguing and fighting all the time."

She said discussions at The Door have helped her “get out of a relationship and start a new one on a healthy role."

She is one of many who say they’re not impressed by sex ed in schools: "At schools, they just give you the information, and they explain it, but they don’t explain it really thoroughly. ... At The Door, they’ll sit down and give you the information that you need."

Jay Dido, 18, at The Door, explaining how teens use trivia games to explain facts about sex. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)