The Palo Alto school district will continue to teach a controversial sex-education curriculum this year, with some slight changes to content and a commitment to communicate more transparently with parents.
The curriculum, which has long been taught in the high schools but was added last year for fifth- and-seventh graders to comply with a new state law, sparked outcry among some parents last year. They argued that the content was age inappropriate for middle schoolers and encouraged rather than preventing risky behaviors, such as underage drinking and sex. They also criticized the district's adoption process as lacking transparency and parent involvement.
The California Healthy Youth Act requires school districts to deliver comprehensive sexual health education, covering topics like reproductive health and abstinence as well as gender identity, social norms and body image, at least once in middle school and once in high school. Palo Alto Unified contracted with Redwood City nonprofit Health Connected, which has for several years trained the high schools' Living Skills teachers as well as district nurses in sexual health education, to provide the mandated instruction to seventh-graders.
This year, trained Health Connected instructors will again teach sexual health to fifth- and seventh-graders in a two-week session. At the middle schools, however, the nonprofit will start to train district teachers so they can take over the instruction.
First-year seventh-grade science teachers will observe the Health Connected educators, while teachers in their second year or later will be trained on the curriculum so they can teach it themselves. (Last year, sexual health educators employed by the nonprofit taught the curriculum, with students' regular teachers present in the classroom.)
Though Health Connected's intention was to shift instruction to district teachers, the change was also made in response to survey results that indicated a majority of middle school faculty prefer teaching sexual health themselves, said Executive Director Abi Karlin-Resnick. Having an outside presenter come into a classroom for a short period of time makes it difficult to "establish rapport" with students, one teacher said on the survey, and they are less familiar with students' backgrounds.
Health Connected also changed and updated some of its curriculum for this year as part of an annual revision the organization does every summer, Karlin-Resnick said. Palo Alto parent concerns did not drive any significant changes, she said, but informed their thinking about how to frame different lessons.
One lesson that caused particular consternation among Palo Alto parents, for example — called "Am I Really Ready?" that included a checklist for students to go through to consider when they would be ready to have sex — has been slightly edited. Health Connected replaced the word "orgasm" with "it felt good" in different scenarios in the lesson.
This is "not because we're afraid of the word orgasm but in that context, it wasn't making the message of the scenario any clearer," she said.
Health Connected is "still being very consistent with the content we're delivering … but delivering it in a slightly different way that helps parents understand the broader messages without zoning in on specific words that maybe were distracting," Karlin-Resnick said.
At the suggestion of Palo Alto teachers, Health Connected also made this year's lessons more inquiry-driven to align with the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards.
Both Health Connected and the school district are taking steps this year to address criticisms about communication and transparency. Health Connected will provide its course materials to the school district in the next few weeks so they will be available for parents to view at every school and at the district office.
Each school will host an informational session on the curriculum at least a month before instruction begins and send notification letters home to parents. The letters will be translated into Mandarin, Spanish and Korean.
The district will offer lesson-specific opt-out forms up to the day of each lesson. Last year, 3.8 percent, or 78 of 2,052 elementary and middle school students in the classes that received instruction in Palo Alto Unified, opted out, according to a report from Health Connected. This is higher than the average rate Health Connected sees at all the schools it serves, but is typical in the first year "as parents get familiar and comfortable with the content and implementation process," the report states.
The district also added a sexual health education page to its website with more information and resources.
A district survey indicates last year's curriculum had a significant impact on students. Just under 80 percent of fifth-graders who participated said they felt more comfortable with their body and the "changes that may be happening" after the lessons, and 71 percent said they felt more comfortable going to a parent or trusted adult with any questions they might have. After the lessons, 90 percent of fifth-graders said they would tell a friend to stop making fun of a person because of how they look.
Similarly, there was an increase in the number of seventh-graders who said they can talk with their parents or a trusted adult about sexual health — 71 percent before the curriculum and 89 percent afterwards. Almost all seventh-graders said after the program that they would tell a friend to stop if they were making fun of someone for being gay or transgender.
In response to the question, "What would you do differently after participating in this program?" seventh-graders said they would delay sexual activity, use safer sex practices in the future, be more aware of different sexual orientations and gender identities and communicate with parents, peers and partners.