Why NOLA Needs Sex Ed
A Q&A with the Founder of the [Program Name Redacted]
I first met Jarratt Pytell back in 2008, when I hired him to teach 7/8th grade math at Dr. Charles R. Drew Elementary in New Orleans. It was one of the best decisions I made, as he quickly gained my respect as a great teacher who always went above-and-beyond for his students. Although Jarratt eventually left the classroom to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor, he remained committed to serving children in New Orleans public schools. In 2011, he founded the [Program Name Redacted] ([Program Acronym Redacted]), a sex education program for local high schoolers, taught by volunteers from [School Name Redacted] in New Orleans.
With lawmakers considering bills that would mandate sex education for 7–12th graders in New Orleans, I reached out to Jarratt to ask about [Program Acronym Redacted], its impact, and what lessons he could share from his experience with the program. Thankfully, Jarratt found the time to respond (reproduced below) before he graduates from [School Name Redacted] later this month.*
Q: Tell me a little bit about your sex education program: When did it start, who are the teachers, what grades does it serve, how many students have you impacted?
The program is the called the [Program Name Redacted] ([Program Acronym Redacted]). It started back in 2011 as a project for my Albert Schweitzer Fellowship. The instructors are inter-professional students from all of [School Name Redacted] schools (allied health, medicine, nursing, dentistry, public health) who volunteer to lead a class through a comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights curriculum which takes place over multiple sessions. We go way beyond the standard anatomy lessons, STDs, etc., and go further into what positive relationships look like, what sexual coercion is, how to access healthcare, and students rights — a true comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights curriculum. Currently, the focus has been on the 10–12th grades and have reached hundreds of students at a local high school in New Orleans. We developed materials using model programs identified by the CDC.
Q: What motivated you to start this sex education program? Was a there a demand/need in the community for education on sexual health?
I was moved to act through my experience in the classroom with 8th graders who were participating in risky sexual behaviors in school and a student who had a baby. School teachers were unprepared to talk to their students about sex, and as a math teacher I commiserated. When I went to [School Name Redacted], there was a large pool of motivated healthcare students with knowledge and desire to have a positive impact on the community. Luckily, we had a contact at a local high school where they have the same struggles as many local high schools in terms of teen pregnancy, risky sexual behaviors, and lack of practical knowledge about reproductive health and rights. The school had a desire to serve their students and invited us to host the program.
Q: What has your experience with this program been like? How have students responded to the program?
There are 3 main stakeholders. First, the students at the high school. They are genuinely interested and very mature in the discussions. The curriculum is conversation based which allows each class to lead the discussion. Personally, at the start, I was amazed at how much students knew about their bodies, yet how certain misconceptions persisted, and how little they knew about their rights and how to access healthcare.
Second, the teachers and administrators at the site are appreciative and usually join the discussions. Last, the instructors ([School Name Redacted] students) find value in interacting with students and helping the students succeed in school by keeping them happy and healthy. It’s also an opportunity to develop cultural competencies.
Q: What have you learned from teaching sex education to New Orleans high schoolers? Any surprises?
The students have lots of access to information on the internet and friends. With that comes false information. Instructors need to ask specific, open ended questions in order to appraise what students know about topics and find misconceptions. Students also want to have mature discussions. There is always a smirk or chuckle when discussions on any number of topics arise, but who doesn’t do that? It’s not unique for high schoolers to be uncomfortable talking about sex — many surveys show healthcare providers are just as bad at talking about sex.
It is also a good lesson on the effect of policy on public health. The current law doesn’t allow for students to be questioned/surveyed on the sexual/reproductive activities or beliefs. In order to stay on the very safe side, we can’t collect data on how effective the curriculum is. Also, the way the sex ed law is written, we must teach abstinence until marriage. This leaves instructors in a difficult place when talking to gay or lesbian adolescents, for example, since he or she can’t get married!
Q: Given your experience teaching sex education, what lessons or advice do you have for those lawmakers would will be considering bills that would launch a citywide sex education program in New Orleans?
It’s a move towards protecting the sexual and reproductive health and rights of certain adolescents in NOLA. Two things to consider is that the bill only makes it mandatory for grades 7–12. I believe sexual and reproductive health and rights education should be taught in earlier grades. First, many students are held back or behind in school. These students should not lose out on valuable information that could prevent teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and keep them being healthy and able to succeed in school just for being behind. Second, all people, from the youngest children to the oldest adults are sexual beings. We might not talk about it, but it’s true. Sexual and reproductive health and rights should start early with age-appropriate, evidence-based best practices.
While the two bills (sex ed requirement and ability to ask questions) are a step in the right direction, they are just one part of a larger policy change that needs to take place. Last year there was legislation that limited who could teach sex ed in schools. The law states that instructors who work for organizations that provide abortions (e.g., Planned Parenthood) are not allowed to teach sex ed in schools. Given that teachers are already over-extended, there needs to be a pipeline of skilled educators who are trained to deliver the instruction.
*I removed the name of the medical school and the name of the sex education program at the request of Jarratt, after some high-ups freaked out about it.