In the state of New York one semester of health must be taught during middle school, yet only 57 percent of eighth graders in the city completed it. In local middle and high schools, 97 percent of health instructors aren’t licensed, and cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea are creeping up in students ages 13-19. The Bronx has the highest teen pregnancy rates in the state.
This is the condition of health education in New York City, predominantly the Bronx.
These statistics and more were presented in a report by New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer, titled “Healthy Relationships: A Plan for Improving Health and Sexual Education in New York City Schools.” Government, educators, parents and students all play a part in its chapters.
Some teens on the verge of adulthood have the benefit of open communication with their parents about wellness concerns, including sexual health. One Mott Haven teenager told The Herald that even her friends consult her mother but are too afraid to talk to their own.
One of her peers, not comfortable talking about sex with his mom and dad, turns to his older brother for information as well as the internet, including YouTube blogger Laci Green—an online personality supported by Planned Parenthood, who spouts information about every health topic preoccupying the adolescent brain.
Most parents, like Mott Haven local Mary Lou, “hope and pray” for open conversations with their kids. Though her daughter is only seven, Lou is adamant about creating trust now, so these important discussions flow freely in the teenage years.
“I’m all for health education,” she said while walking with her daughter in St. Mary’s Park. She emphasizes that everyone—even parents—are still learning. “We don’t even know what do to sometimes. We’re teaching ourselves.”
Fortunately, families who crave reliable information have several Health Department programs to tap into. There are currently eight sexual health clinics that offer confidential services for sexually transmitted infections. New York City Teens Connection partners with community groups and schools to reduce unintended teen pregnancy, accentuating areas with the highest teen birth rates. That includes the Bronx, where the organization is in 65 percent of public high schools.
There’s also a slew of school-based efforts happening outside the classroom that city agencies including the Department of Education collaborate on, like health centers and the high school condom availability program.
Specific repercussions for failing to meet health curriculum standards remain unclear. What is clear, is the confusion surrounding accountability throughout the different agencies and levels of government. The New York State Education Department says it “will continue to remind districts of their obligations,” though it would not identify any specific consequences for schools that don’t comply with state mandated curriculum. New York City’s DOE says it’s “committed to providing all students with a comprehensive health education,” but then deflected responsibility saying, “health education requirements are mandated by the state. In NYC, we don’t mandate curriculums for schools.”
“Someone needs to be held accountable,” said Community Education Council District 7 President Lisa Rivera, whose territory includes Mott Haven, Port Morris and Melrose. She noted asthma and obesity as the two biggest health concerns for the district’s 24 schools.
Rivera is critical of the current top-down approach to curriculum, stressing the importance of parent involvement and input, particularly when it comes to students’ health beyond academics. Ultimately health and sex education start at home, with supplemental “positive influence from schools.”