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One School Shows Prevention Requires More Than a Health Class

Resource type: News

Washington Post |

Inside the Arts and TechnologyAcademy in Northeast Washington, you’ll find an antidote to the spread of HIV and AIDS, along with ways to reduce teen pregnancy, curb substance abuse and quell violence. While students at the public charter elementary are learning basic skills, they are also being inoculated with heavy doses of self-respect, integrity, discipline, responsibility and teamwork.

That’s where you’ll find the cure.

This holistic approach to education is known as the Carrera Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program, which was developed in 1984 by Michael Carrera of the New York-based Children’s Aid Society. Clearly, there is more to it than the name implies, and it might well be the gold standard for sex education in public schools.

About 73 fifth-graders — students ages 10 to 12 — are enrolled in the Carrera program at the academy. They attend school from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. five days a week and attend on Saturday twice each month.

They study art and music, and learn how to open a savings account, budget money and draw up business plans. They are mentored and tutored and receive lessons in sports they can enjoy for a lifetime, such as golf, swimming and squash. They also receive medical care, including visits to dentists, mental health professionals and even dermatologists when needed.

And they take courses in family life and sexual education. The courses are age-appropriate and involve parents who also take classes on how to talk to their children about sensitive issues.

It’s a far cry from the traditional approach: the old health class with a gym teacher’s lecture on safe sex or abstinence.

“We teach the importance of having choices and caring about outcomes,” said Errick L. Greene, who heads the academy and, with help from the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp., began using the Carrera model this year. Located in one of the District’s tougher neighborhoods, the school draws from households where futures can appear bleak and role models on the streets leave much to be desired.

“We address risky behaviors by helping students understand who they are and what they can be,” Greene said. “We see our kids as being ‘at promise,’ not ‘at-risk.’ ”

The Arts and TechnologyAcademy is the only school in the District to have such a comprehensive approach to sex education. Even as the city struggles with one of the nation’s highest rates of AIDS infection — a near-epidemic among African American women and children — the response of D.C. public schools has been sluggish at best.

In a report card on HIV and AIDS prevention to be released today, the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice gives District schools a D for doing too little. “In the midst of this crisis, students should be getting information in school that will help prevent infection for the rest of their lives,” the report says.

The Carrera program is “not just about stopping kids from going out having sex,” Greene said. “It’s about helping them establish a vision of themselves and seeing themselves in the future. We want them to place a high value on their bodies, on the beauty of their minds, and learn what it takes to protect both.”

Some have criticized the program as too expensive — about $8,000 a child per year; most of the program is financed by private contributions. But isn’t this the kind of public school education that every student ought to be receiving? Compared with the cost of AIDS and teen pregnancy alone, it may well be the bargain of a lifetime.

The results for the program in other cities have been impressive. According to the Children’s Aid Society, teen pregnancy is down by 50 percent; high school graduation rates are up. Of the 5,000 teenagers enrolled in the program through 2003, none reported testing positive for HIV.

One of the program’s offerings is called the Power Group, a cross between a personal empowerment seminar and a vocabulary class.

“Can anyone tell me what ‘cooperation’ means?” Leslie Carper, a mental health specialist who runs the Power Group at the academy, asked her class recently. A student named Monique threw up a hand.

“It means we’re all in this together,” she said.

You won’t find a better answer anywhere.

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Children's Aid Society