What's Next for Austin's Sex Ed Program Targeting Teen Pregnancy?
Between 2005 and 2010, Austin school district saw the number of pregnant students in the district steadily increase. By the end of the 2009 school year, the district identified 400 students who were pregnant or who were already parents. (The district doesn't separate whether or not the student parents are male or female.)
In 2010, AISD partnered with Planned Parenthood and the non-profit Lifeworks to implement a program aimed at preventing teen pregnancy in middle and high schools.
The program was funded through a five-year, $2.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The program, REAL Talk, targets students at middle and high schools in the district where teen pregnancy is high.
Tracy Lunoff, AISD’s health education coordinator, says the program expands on human sexuality courses already taught in district schools. This program tries to put student’s decisions regarding sexual health in perspective.
“Thinking about short term, long term goals, what those goals are and how they can reach this goals by making smart decisions about being sexually active," Lunoff explains. In other words: how could getting pregnant keep a student from achieving their ambitions?
Students who participate need parental consent and the course stresses abstinence, in keeping with state laws. Right now, 600 middle school and 500 high school students take the classes, which involve lessons, activities and computer programs.
Since it was implemented the number of teen pregnancies among district students dropped by more than 21 percent overall. Among middle schoolers, the number of pregnancies dropped by 45 percent. But Gavin says it’s hard to tell whether or not REAL Talk is the reason for that.
“We’re having trends across country of significant reductions during the past two years of teen pregnancy rates. That is great that we’re staying in line with the trend and we certainly feel the REAL talk program contributes to that," she says.
Right now, it’s unclear what will happen when the grant ends in two years. The district is part of a national evaluation to measure success. Meanwhile, she says the district is looking at ways to incorporate lessons learned from the program throughout the district.
‘What are those strategies?" Lunoff asks. "What are the strategies that we can implement that do not require additional funding sources – that may be just a shift in behavior or how we educate students around human sexuality and sex education.”
Peg Gavin with Lifeworks says the key to success is expanding the number of students beyond the current 1,100 in the REAL Talk Program. “And that means there are thousands of students throughout Travis County who are not able to participate in these services," she says.
But Gavin says it can be a challenge in Texas, where state laws can scare school districts from providing more comprehensive sex education.
“There’s a fear of how parents might react and in some communities there’s concern about religious values that may be influencing what schools feel they can and can’t do," she says.
One way to reach more kids is to educate parents on how to talk with their kids about sex education. The grant also allows AISD to offer classes to parents who want to learn how talk to their kids openly about sexual health.
“From a very young age, kids are watching television and they’re seeing these very adult scenes and scenarios playing out on TV and in the movies and parents need to be able to have that comfort level to talk to their young child or talk to their adolescents about what they just saw," Lunoff says.