by Sarah Benjamin
University of California-Berkeley senior Hilary Vansell knows how difficult it is for teenagers to access accurate information about pregnancy prevention. She has been dispelling myths and raising awareness about contraception in Oakland public high schools as a peer health educator since she was a sophomore.
“We encourage lots of questions, especially in this [pregnancy prevention] workshop, there are just so many questions,” Vansell, 22, explained. She delivers part of what is most likely the only sexual health education these teenagers will receive during high school, and she does it all as a volunteer for an organization called Peer Health Exchange.
At cash-strapped public schools in Oakland and around the Bay Area, comprehensive health education has been cut, and non-profit organizations are stepping in to bridge the gap. San Francisco-based Peer Health Exchange now provides a series of health education workshops to nearly all ninth grade students in Oakland public high schools.
Each workshop covers a discrete aspect of health education and is delivered by a team of two undergraduate “experts” on that particular topic. The sex ed series is four workshops long and includes topics like sexual decision-making, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), pregnancy prevention and rape/sexual assault. Peer Health Exchange provides trained college student volunteers and teaching materials – including student workbooks – all at no cost to schools.
When California passed Senate Bill 71 back in 2003, it appeared the state’s murky sexual education requirements had finally been clarified. The bill replaced 11 separate and often contradictory sex education laws with one statue governing sex education and HIV/AIDS prevention in public schools.
SB 71 made abstinence-only education illegal in public schools, and required all secondary schools to cover the prevention of HIV/AIDS and pregnancy with evidence-based, medically accurate information. But by 2009, California faced a financial crisis and school funding was on the chopping block. In order to makes ends meet, some public high schools began to cut corners with health education.
“There is an irony in that district officials recognize that health is a very important component of holistic well-being and educational achievement by virtue of building these school-based health centers,” said Peer Health Exchange’s Bay Area director Emily Gasner. “But health education is just not able to happen…there is so much direct need for actual health services. If they’re going to choose one, it’s going to be the counseling services and drug screenings and all the things they are doing now.”
The Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health published a report detailing the teen pregnancy prevention dollars cut in California since 2008.
In the 1970s, California was a leader in supporting innovative, community-based teen pregnancy prevention programs. Now much of that state funding is gone, making school-based sexual education that much more important.
“The health education mandate is a black hole – schools are not held accountable and are not given funding to make it happen,” said Gasner.
Peer Health Exchange is not funded by state dollars, but instead relies entirely on institutional giving and private donors. It was founded in 1999 when six Yale undergraduates began giving health workshops in New Haven schools.
It now operates in the Bay Area and five other cities: Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, D.C.
The peer to near-peer model is at the heart of the program; college student mentors approach teaching high school students in much the same way an older sibling might give advice to a younger one.
The fact that a non-profit with private funding is the exclusive health education provider in Oakland high schools raises larger questions about public education.
“It’s insane that college students are the only form of sex ed that all Oakland [public] high schools are getting right now,” Vansell said. “I mean, it’s awesome to be able to do that, but at the same time – with the education system – when did that not become a priority?”
–Sarah Benjamin is a graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. She wrote this story as part of her coursework for a class called Journalism for Social Change.