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Saturday, Sep 29 2012 10:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: KHSD's new approach to sex-ed

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    Robert Price

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For years, the sex-ed discussion among educators has focused on one simple but controversial equation: abstinence or contraception? The first method is 100 percent effective when practiced faithfully but an unrealistic solution for every kid in every circumstance. The second is nearly as reliable as the first when practiced responsibly but raises the hackles of critics who believe such instruction encourages early sex and co-opts parents' roles.

Some regions of the country, aided by helpful demographics, have figured out that delicate balance quite well. Teen birthrates have fallen across the U.S. over the past 20 years -- and drastically so in cities that have thoughtfully and aggressively attacked the problem.

Bakersfield is not one of those cities. Nor are any towns in Kern County. The national teen birthrate is 34 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19, same as the statewide rate. Mississippi has the highest rate among all states at 55. Kern County's rate is 56.

Last year, The Californian's Opinion editors rounded up a local group of health experts who've been studying our teen pregnancy situation and the stunning array of self-perpetuating social and economic problems it fosters. They brought along quite a list: ongoing reliance on welfare programs such as food stamps, gang involvement, low educational attainment, the liklihood that these young mothers' babies will themselves become young mothers. High teen birthrates even impact a region's overall economic productivity. So, not only was Kern County's inability to put a meaningful dent in its teen birthrate facilitating a profound setback in the lives of individual girls (primarily), it was hurting every taxpayer in the county.

What was the Kern High School District doing about it? By some accounts, not enough. The largest 9-12 district in California hadn't updated its health curriculum (which includes sex education) since 1999. Had other cities and school districts devised better ways to get the message out to teens? No doubt they had, but the KHSD wasn't learning from others' successes.

KHSD trustee Martha Miller had been reading the series of editorials and op-ed articles in The Californian describing the issue, and she decided the district needed to act. So Miller sat down with Stockdale High School health teacher Sloan Holmes and, with the district's blessing, did something. Holmes convened a group of health teachers as part of the district's Professional Learning Communities dialoguing program and, over the next several months, they very quietly devised a new sex-ed curriculum.

What those educators came to realize was that just teaching high school students about condoms and birth control pills was, as Holmes put it, "expecting the least out of them." And that simple but controversial equation, abstinence or contraception, didn't begin to capture the essence of what they needed to convey.

"We've known for quite a long time that it's more about the whole kid," she said. "What would cause a kid to go into a back room (to have sex) as opposed to not? How assertive do they need to be with others? Does no mean no? What do they want out of life? Do they want a career? It almost cheapens it to say it's just about condoms."

Students are learning about the communitywide ramifications of irresponsibility, about how their actions have consequences that affect not only their own lives but entire populations -- over generations. Perhaps most important, Holmes said, she is seeing buy-in from health teachers, some of whom might have been inclined to -- well, "phone it in" might be overly harsh, but you get the idea.

Can all of this put a dent in Kern County's abysmally high teen birthrate? The hurdles are many, and one school district alone isn't going to push the needle as far as we might hope. But this seems like a start. Check back in two years.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@ bakersfield.com.

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