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Newark Builds Case for Fifth-Grade Sex Education

June 21, 2008

By Todd R. Brown, The Argus, Fremont, Calif.

Jun. 21–NEWARK — Pointing to new state standards for sex education, local school officials are strengthening their case for teaching fifth-graders about the urge to merge.

“We need to provide information to students early and quickly,” said Katherine Keleher, coordinator of education services for Newark schools. “We do have a relatively high teen pregnancy rate in our district.”

Keleher gave the school board an update last week on what curricula the district can choose from in order to provide accurate and age-appropriate sex education.

In the spring, the state Department of Education adopted hotly awaited guidelines on when and how to enlighten students on sex, recommending that sexual health classes begin in fifth grade and recur in grades seven and eight and during high school.

Keleher said district staff found that the Focus on Kids course now being used for fifth- and sixth-graders in Newark is effectively the only “research-validated” option on the state’s list of programs, meaning it has been shown to improve behavior.

The course, approved for a wide age spread across grades four through 10, includes lessons on HIV and condom use, defines values and helps youths set goals. It also encourages students to ask their parents about health and sexuality.

A program designed in the early ’90s for special education students was the only other possibility for fifth-graders, but fell far short of the state standards and was

sometimes medically inaccurate, Keleher said.

A new report compiled for Newark trustees included statistics on why students should learn about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs, long before high school, and how to make confident decisions regardless of peer pressure.

This past school year’s California Healthy Kids Survey showed that 20 percent of freshmen in the state had had sexual intercourse, about 8 percent before they turned 13.

Alameda County research on teen birth rates from 2002 to 2004 showed that Newark had nearly twice the teen pregnancy rate as Fremont and was on par with the overall county rate.

“Folks are starting to wake up from a health standpoint and say, ‘We have to do something,’” Keleher said Thursday. “Many of the STDs that are going around are causing sterility or worse.”

By contrast, she said, pregnancy and STD rates in Europe — where some educators call for sex ed to begin in kindergarten — are half or less than those in the United States.

“They talk about this stuff,” she said. “It’s just not the hidden topic that we make it to be.”

In the Netherlands, where students start sex education at age 12, contraception use among youths is highest in the world, and the teen birth rate is the lowest in Europe. The average age when youths first have intercourse is 17.7, according to U.N. research.

In the United States, about 7 percent of children reported having had sex before age 13, according to a 2007 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The figure was almost 12 percent for Hispanic males.

The most recent Census data from 2000 showed that nearly 29 percent of Newark residents were Latino, while Fremont’s population was about 19 percent Latino.

Along with the district report, Newark’s curriculum council recommended that the board uphold the 2005 edition of Focus on Kids for fifth-grade sex education and that teachers get mentoring on how to discuss the touchy subject.

Responding to complaints from some parents about not being adequately informed of the content of the sex education class, the board suggested at a meeting Tuesday that the coursework be available on the district’s Web site instead of at the district office.

“We had a very poor showing of parents to come and view the curriculum,” trustee Nancy Thomas said.

The board plans to consider the curriculum again in August, after free comprehensive sexuality education trainings take place July 23 and 29 at the Alameda County Office of Education in Hayward.

Newark parent Jody Montgomery, who led opposition to Focus on Kids over the past school year among a small group of residents, said she just doesn’t buy that the course is the right choice, given that administrators have rearranged and edited the content.

“That right there tells me this isn’t age-appropriate,” she said of the program, originally designed for at-risk, inner-city black teens. “It’s a great program, but not to be used at the fifth-grade level when kids are not sexually active.”

Despite the district’s data, Montgomery said she is following her own opinion on sex education but added that she hopes to see a study done on pregnancy and STD rates among Newark fifth-graders to settle the matter.

In the meantime, she said she had pulled her children out of the district and will send them in the fall to Sunol Glen School. She has a daughter entering sixth grade and a son entering fifth, she said.

“My kids hopefully will come back,” she said. “It’s important that (we) make sure we’re really trusting our authority figures.”

Reach Todd R. Brown at 510-353-7004 or todd.brown@bayareanewsgroup.com.

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