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Teaching Kids Whole-Life Skills

Resource type: News

Washington Post |

At the Arts and Technology Academy in Northeast, sex education is taking a distinctly different tack. Moving far beyond anatomy, educators at the charter school are using what they call an “above the waist” approach to help prevent teen pregnancy. Teacher Willa Reinhard walks around the circle of students assembled for Power Group, a weekly mental health support session. “What are you thankful for?” she asks on this Monday afternoon. “What would you like to change?” The fifth-graders, dressed in maroon polos and khaki pants, dutifully draw the answers in their journals. Tae John Diggs, 10, is thankful for his family and friends, the school and its staff. He would like to change his behavior. “I’d want a powerful attitude, not a violent one,” he says. “I’d want to pay more attention.” Down the hall, La Tasha Vanzie’s class is getting a crash course in free enterprise. “What does CEO stand for?” a student asks. Anfeni Carroll knows because she’s interviewing for the position in tomorrow’s class. With a shy smile, the 10-year-old pulls out her resume to show she’s prepared. Next door, Neal Blangiardo starts Family Life class with an art activity: Draw what a “real man” and “real woman” look like. And no, he adds, he doesn’t mean the private parts. A fit of giggles erupts. The students pick up their pencils as Blangiardo launches into a discussion about gender roles. How do CEOs, gender roles and Power Group have a hand in preventing pregnancy? They’re part of the Children’s Aid Society Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program, a nationally recognized teen model that is being implemented for the first time in the District. Using a holistic approach to sex education, the program, known as the Carrera model, has been shown to cut in half the rate of teen pregnancy among participants. Young people in the program have increased their use of contraceptives and delayed the start of sexual contact by an average of 18 months. The successes extend to the classroom: Students involved get higher grades and raise their SAT scores. More go on to college. The Carrera program was established at the academy through a partnership with the Children’s Aid Society and the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust, an organization that creates after-school programming. Since August, the school has incorporated three weekly classes into the school day, as well as a voluntary half-day Saturday session. A few new staff members have joined the faculty to administer the program to the 70 fifth-graders. And to ensure that it’s no mere blip on the adolescent radar screen (which is often better attuned to pick up signals from friends, movies and other cultural influences), the program will continue to work with the students until they graduate from high school, meaning a eight-year commitment. “We stay in their lives and will grow with them as they grow,” said Aarti Shastry, program coordinator at the academy. “It’s about developing a sexual literacy that keeps them informed and educated. [In the program] you’re slowly gaining control of your choices and your life.” The D.C. Trust, Children’s Aid Society and D.C. Department of Health, along with a variety of foundations and individual donors, provide for the program’s expenses. These funds support uninsured medical and dental care for the participants as well as needed specialty care not covered by insurance. The program’s organizers say the timing couldn’t be better. While teen pregnancy rates in the District and across the nation are decreasing, so is the age of the first sexual encounter. In the past 10 years, the number of adolescents who report having their first sexual experience before age 13 has risen by 15 percent. The Carrera program was created in 1984 by Michael A. Carrera, a New York City physician who has run pregnancy prevention programs at the Children’s Aid Society since the 1970s. He and colleagues developed sexual health workshops for children in central Harlem but found the messages often dissipated when the students left the center. To combat the cultural and community-driven influences that could lead to pregnancies, they created a more comprehensive model. Sex education alone was not enough. “I expected that just talking with them about sexuality was going to be enough of a deterrent for them to avoid risky behavior,” Carrera, 69, recalls. “It wasn’t durable enough. It needed to be linked to all the other things that made a kid whole.” The resulting program works to empower students to make choices that look toward the future. It incorporates varied components to encourage responsible habits and provides a corresponding curriculum for parents to ensure that the same lessons are taught at home. During the weekend sessions, students get educational support through tutoring and test prep courses. They stage plays, create art and practice “lifetime sports” such as golf, tennis and tae kwon do — activities that help develop self-control and promote individual effort. Participants also will begin to receive comprehensive medical and dental care. Throughout the week, the Carrera classes are incorporated into the overall curriculum. “We were not going to take a Christmas tree ornament kind of approach,” tacking it onto what was already being taught, said Errick Greene, the head of school. Math class is coupled with Job Club, an introduction to the world of work. Students learn financial literacy alongside life lessons such as giving a handshake. They run for mayor, apply for chief executive positions and learn to write checks. Each student earns a $3 hourly stipend for participating in Job Club, and this month they’ll open bank accounts to begin saving their earnings. “We want them to see money as a vehicle that gives you choices,” Shastry said. “All that money in that account will continue to grow until they graduate high school.” Each savings account is funded by philanthropist Christopher J. Carrera, a son of Michael Carrera. He provides $25 per youth. The students have just received the seed money to open their accounts. Power Group sessions offer a mental health component, through which students can talk and learn conflict resolution. Coed Family Life classes help them understand their changing bodies and become comfortable with speaking openly about sexuality. The Carrera program has been replicated in seven states. But the academy is one of the first schools to integrate coursework into the school day. Carrera organizers say the in-school model, which was first tried in Baltimore last year, is the future for the program. “In all the years we’ve been doing it, it’s never been as seamless as it’s been” at the District school, Carrera said. “Having the Carrera Trust is helping me to really challenge what experiences I want for all my students,” Greene said. He’s already seeing that with Carrera, his students “have a real knowledge and understanding of who they are.” Prospective CEO Anfeni seems to have a good idea of whom she’s going to become. “It teaches me how to be an adult,” she said.

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Children's Aid Society