Evan M. Lopez
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Ericka Johnson, 18, learned about sex all over the place: from music, from gossip on the street and, especially, from watching her peers. "Mostly all my friends became pregnant," says Johnson, a college student and graduate of a Philadelphia neighborhood school. "My closest friend became pregnant and dropped out. And another one just had her baby."
One place she didn't get much in the way of sex education, she says, was from her teachers.
That's because Philadelphia public school students rarely get taught about safe sex, and then almost never before high school, according to teachers and sex education advocates.
This is despite a shockingly high rate of pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease among Philadelphia teens. A sampling of 2010 city data and 2009 stats from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): The rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia infections of youth between age 15 and 19 are, respectively, four and six times higher than the citywide average. And 15 percent of all births in the city in 2008 were to mothers age 19 or younger.
"Philly falls far below what would be considered the gold standard," says Karen Fitchette-Gordon, vice president for education and professional development at Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania. "It depends on the school what education gets taught. There's a certain amount required in the curriculum, but it's mostly just anatomy, and it's mostly just the upper grades."
The Philadelphia School District rejects the accusations. A spokesperson says they "offer a comprehensive sexual education curriculum," and that "to say the curriculum focuses mostly on anatomy would be a vast understatement."
Johnson says her education was hardly comprehensive.
"The only time we got a chance to really talk about it was, like, half a class. We had a gym class and the lady took us to a room and talked to us. But that only happened like two times," she says. Condoms were not demonstrated or distributed. Most of the class focused on "how periods come on, and how you know either you're pregnant or not, and how the baby was born."
Simply explaining pregnancy does not help youth prevent it; a total of 3,528 children were born to teenage mothers in the city in 2008, the most recent year for which CDC data are available.
"When you're 15 and someone is pressuring you into something you may not want to do, knowing what your fallopian tubes are won't help," says Brenda Green, executive director of Concern for Health Options: Information, Care and Education (CHOICE). She argues that sex education should be pragmatic and focused on decision making.
Johnson says that she received no more health education after ninth grade, and doesn't recall any courses in elementary or middle school. And that is where it matters most: Fifteen percent of Philly teens lose their virginity before age 13. Many high school students have already had sex when they are first taught how to do it safely; some are already pregnant.
"By then," says Fitchette-Gordon, "it's way too late."
The CDC 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 63 percent of Philly teens have had sex. Twenty-six percent of Philly teens reported having had sex with four or more partners.
The school district says that it's following state standards. Pennsylvania law requires schools to teach students only HIV/AIDS prevention, but does not spell out what that means and does not mandate teaching condom use. In an email, a district spokesperson insisted that Philly schools have "in fact exceeded state standards for education."
Last year, advocates throughout Pennsylvania rallied behind the Healthy Youth Act, which would create statewide standards for sex ed. The legislation has stalled now that Republicans control both the legislature and governor's mansion. Though Philadelphia could move independently to improve its sex education standards, it has not?.
The district says that every health teacher is certified and properly trained, but the CDC found that just 39 percent of Philadelphia schools had a health teacher "who received professional development during the [prior] two years."
One former teacher in a Philadelphia neighborhood high school tells City Paper that her students had received no sex ed when they arrived in her classroom.
"They gave me the health class. They told me that there was no curriculum for it and to just make it up. I have no experience in that field at all, and I asked the kids what they wanted to learn about. And they had so many questions about sexual everything because there was no sex education. So I ended up teaching it for half the year. But I wasn't required to do it," the teacher says. "If they had not had me, they would not have had it at all."
Christina Long, a Philly teacher who received her doctorate in education at Temple, wrote her dissertation on local girls moving from eighth to ninth grade. She says what little is taught depends entirely on a school's teachers and principal.
"I saw so many promising young women not graduate," Long says. "You have so much hope for these kids, and two to three years later, they're pregnant."
Especially in lower-performing schools, Long says, the intense focus on boosting standardized test scores has decreased time spent on health.
"It should be mandated," Long says. "We should be as concerned about the health education of the children of Philadelphia as we are about their reading and math scores."
And there's the funding crunch, meaning little money to pay outside health educators.
"No one funds prevention education," says Tiffany Thompson, communication and operations supervisor for Philadelphia Fight's Youth Health Empowerment Project. Thompson, who previously worked at CHOICE, says that principals and teachers frequently prevented her from demonstrating how to use a condom.
Howard Waxman, a physical education and health teacher at the school district's Philadelphia Military Academy at Elverson, says that though he focuses his lessons on abstinence, he must pack sexual education into a three-month ninth-grade health course that also deals with issues like drugs and mental illness. And though the school district says it makes condoms available at every high school, Waxman does not.
"Of course we educate on it, but we don't do that," says Waxman. "We're more along the lines of advocating abstinence. Obviously, of course, they're going to do it. I bring in condoms, show them what they look like, how to apply one, how to take it out of package without damaging it. But we don't bring them in and say, 'Here you go, guys.' We're not going to encourage it. I couldn't do that personally."
Philly's new Health Department-run safe-sex campaign, TakeControlPhilly.org, distributes free condoms to teens. They'll even mail them to you. But the school district seems unwilling to rock the boat, adopting a variation on the "abstinence-only" theme: denial.
"There's no uproar," Long says of the district. "So they just ignore it."
CHOICE's Green says it will take a movement of parents to force the district's hand and, perhaps, change its outlook. "We look at sexuality as a problem ... something that needs to be fixed, instead of as a normal part of development," says Green.
Sexuality is about more than danger: It's a normal, healthy and good part of life. It's a poorly kept secret, and the kids will definitely find out.