Youth and Adults Changing Sex Education

by Yessenia CervantesIllinois Caucus for Adolescent Health

Three years ago, students from a Chicago high school joined forces with the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health (ICAH) in order to press the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to provide comprehensive sex education. Unfortunately, Chicago Public Schools had inconsistent standards regarding sex education, including a very ambiguous definition of what information teachers could provide.

A group of students at Curie High School, along with their history teacher, Michael Smith, created an activist leadership class called Forefront-which in life's mysterious ways, ended up partnering with ICAH. Later these students and ICAH reached out to other schools and organizations to join in the struggle to implement a realistic, reliable and responsible sexual education curriculum. Students themselves were clear about the need for such a curriculum. They reported that a majority of their health instructors presented either abstinence-only programs or no sexual education at all! Plus, there was inadequate funding for comprehensive curricula and no real training available for teachers who would be responsible of these classes.

The first step at Curie High School was to meet directly with the principal and physical education teachers, the ones responsible for teaching sexual education to the freshman class, the only grade where these topics were discussed at all. Unfortunately, the teachers did not welcome the concerns that the students voiced. Nevertheless, Forefront, with advice, training and guidance from ICAH, continued with a series of meetings with the local school council and principal. After a year, Curie's local school council provided a bit of money that the students used to purchase materials so that they could take on the role of sexual educators themselves, and so that they could continue to pursue this issue outside of their school. The principal also implemented a comprehensive sex education curriculum in a particular class.

In the second year of "the struggle," ICAH convened other youth working across the city to advocate for similar changes in their schools. The coalition took its concerns to the streets, organizing two rallies downtown at the CPS headquarters. One was held in a summer downpour and the other during a winter freeze.

Finally, the students got a seat at the table with top officials within CPS to shape a new policy. The coalition mobilized other organizations, parents, teachers, doctors, legislators, and even clergy to show up at the school board meeting in support of a comprehensive curriculum. On a beautiful spring day in April of 2006, the Chicago Board of Education unanimously passed the Family Life and Comprehensive Sexual Health Education policy mandating the teaching of comprehensive sex education in grades 6-12 and training for all teachers providing this education, and seating a student representative on the panel that approves all curricula used in CPS.

There is still much work to be done to implement this policy, to pass policies in other communities throughout the state, and to redirect our federal and state tax dollars to programs that really serve the needs of Illinois youth. However, we know that with a collaborative effort between youth and adults and with commitment to see our efforts through to real change, we can make sexual education a reality in this state and in our country.