What started as a self-evaluation by a committee of health and physical education teachers led to an external evaluation by students and parents, and a challenge to the Arlington School Board.
"Considering the alarming rates of teen pregnancy and the scary consequences of STDs, HIV, and AIDS, I want to know what the School Board can do to make sure schools are providing teens with the information we need to make healthy decisions," charged Amy Gray, a Yorktown High School junior.
As part of the School Board's new "Policy Monitoring" initiative, a committee of current and retired Arlington health and P.E. teachers analyzed all aspects of health and physical education in county schools, from elementary through high school, including curriculum, facilities and class size.
The committee's report, delivered at the School Board’s Sept. 26 meeting, highlighted positive elements of the Health/P.E. department, including staff enthusiasm and a high level of parental support for the program.
Board members commended the evaluation report not only for its description of the department's successes, but also for its frank discussion of the department's shortcomings.
Large class size, sometimes exceeding 40 students, inadequate teaching space, outdated textbooks and a decade-old sexual health curriculum were some of the problems identified by the evaluation.
<b>THE MOST DIRECT</b> challenge to the school system's policies on health and physical education came from a group of students and parents, who asked the School Board to reexamine the Family Life Education program, often referred to as "sex ed."
"Students need complete information about their sexual health, encouraging abstinence but also providing information about contraceptive options and access to contraception," said Gray.
She delivered one of three speeches on the topic and was accompanied by seven other students and four parents, who appeared at the meeting to show support for revising the Family Life Education curriculum.
"We know that high schoolers are having sex, and we cannot deny that fact, or the fact that they deserve comprehensive education about it," Roxanne Stachowski, another junior at Yorktown, said to the Board. "By ‘comprehensive,’ I mean to encourage abstinence and then provide teens complete information about sexual health."
With more information, teens will make better decisions, Stachowski said. As proof, she cited a May 2001 study funded by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
<b>THAT STUDY CONCLUDED</b> that talking to students about sex does not increase the likelihood that they will engage in sexual activity. In addition, the study showed that comprehensive sex ed programs can decrease students' sexual activity.
Stachowski said later that her involvement in this issue comes from her belief that better education about contraception can help decrease "the need for abortions."
Gray challenged Board members to take notice, for the sake of all of Arlington. "Sex ed. is not only important to the teens who receive it but also to the community as a whole," she said.
The Board discussed Family Life Education along with other aspects of the Health/P.E. evaluation. Board member Frank Wilson expressed concern over the curriculum but suggested that revising it could be a slow process due to the controversial nature of sex education, and to the need for input from the community.
Gray's mother, Patricia Forbes, urged Board members "to listen to the views of these girls," who offered the voice of experience on the school system’s sexual education courses.
"They have been in … Family Life Education throughout their time in school," she said. "They can actually tell you what is being provided to the children and what is not."