By Antonie Boessenkool
The Los Angeles Unified School District will test new sex education lessons this year for children as young as 9 years old.
“Puberty: The Wonder Years,” a course authored by renowned health educator and nurse Wendy Sellers, is among the lessons that will be offered to fourth-grade students, as well as those in fifth and sixth grades at a handful of schools.
Why is sex ed necessary for students who are so young? Because ignorance doesn’t help anyone, Sellers said.
“(Students) should be able to learn about the very normal natural changes that happen for everyone as they grow,” she said. When they reach puberty — sooner now than in decades past — students need to be armed with information.
Sellers, who lives in Michigan, says her curriculum of about six to 11 lessons has been used at schools in 27 states. If it’s adopted here on a permanent basis, LAUSD would be the largest school district to use it.
TIME FOR A CHANGE
“Sex education has not changed much over the decades,” Sellers said.
Among the hundreds of teachers she has trained on her curriculum, most told her their own sex education consisted of a video on menstruation for girls in the sixth grade and something separate for the boys in another classroom. It was highly secretive, and not a positive memory.
Sellers said her course aims to change that. It’s also inclusive of LGTBQ identities and doesn’t assume traditional gender roles in describing relationships. There’s no specific lesson to define same-sex relationships, but rather examples of same-sex couples are integrated into lessons, she said.
“Kids are just unflapped by this,” she said. “It’s old people that are having a hard time getting used to it.”
CONTRACEPTION LESSON OPTIONAL
Sellers’ “Puberty” course also promotes delaying sex. But schools can include — in sixth grade — an optional lesson on condoms and contraception.
In LAUSD, teachers will decide whether to use that lesson, said Timothy Kordic, in charge of sexual health and HIV/AIDS prevention education for the district.
“We’re not talking about overload. We’re talking about the basics, what kids need to know so they don’t freak out when something happens,” Kordic said of Sellers’ course and others the district is testing out. “We’re sensitive to the idea that this is a sensitive topic.”
Public schools in California can’t teach “abstinence-only” sex ed, according to California’s Education Code. And most kids in middle school are not having sex, he said. So an “abstinence-based” focus is still important.
However, past LAUSD surveys show some middle school students are already having sex. A 2015 report said that among eighth-grade students, 10 percent had had intercourse and 11 percent had had oral sex.
Kordic said LAUSD is testing Sellers’ course, plus a few others for this age group, in anticipation that the district will have a new health textbook in two to three years. The state Board of Education is working on that textbook now, and the district might adopt one of these sex ed courses to augment the textbook, he said.
MODERN RESOURCES ‘DIFFICULT TO FIND’
But the other reason LAUSD is testing out new sex ed courses is to standardize those lessons across the district. Starting in the fourth grade, students get some information on sexuality, and then more is offered in fifth grade, Kordic said.
“It’s also been very difficult to find updated, modern resources for middle school” on sexual education, he said. “Our goal is to have something that’s medically accurate, current and nonbiased.”
Sellers is set to visit Los Angeles at the end of this month to train LAUSD teachers on the curriculum. The district has bought enough teaching sets, with a $24,000 federal grant, to use the curriculum in up to about 50 schools, though 10 or 15 schools are more likely.
It will be up to teachers to go to the training and bring Sellers’ course to their classrooms, Kordic said. Then “Puberty” could be taught in LAUSD schools as soon as October.