Every week, hundreds of Penn students file into dusty classrooms in West Philadelphia’s middle and high schools where they tutor students in math, English and science. It’s hard work, no doubt, but it’s worthwhile: Based on state assessments, less than 40 percent of students in the School District of Philadelphia can do basic algebra.
If students are floundering in math, though, it’s only one way that Philadelphia schools are failing their students. With the numbers of teen pregnancies and STDs through the roof among Philly teenagers, there’s something else students aren’t learning: sex.
One in three Philadelphia teenagers will get a sexually transmitted disease before they’re 20. This earns Philly one of the highest rates of STDs in the country, with the prevalence of gonorrhea and chlamydia three times higher here than the national average. And the teen pregnancy numbers aren’t any better: There are more than 3,500 babies born to teenagers in Philadelphia each year, which is not altogether surprising, given that 40 percent of high schoolers did not use a condom during their last sexual intercourse, according to the 2011 Philadelphia Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
Basically, we’re dealing with a huge population of sexually active but uninformed teenagers. Part of that comes from Pennsylvania’s meager statewide requirements for sex education (schools need only teach students about HIV/AIDS) and the fact that teachers seldom get specific sex education training, making the quality of sex education — if students even get any — poor.
The other part has to do with priorities: With so many students below proficiency in reading and mathematics, schools are more motivated to teach their students about isosceles triangles than, say, the function of fallopian tubes. But if Philly schools are crammed to finish statewide curricula before they teach about safe sex, it shows.
A few years ago, a middle school language arts teacher in Philadelphia was quoted in Philadelphia Magazine for recounting “a teen couple [who] reported that their method of contraception was to have intercourse standing up.”
The missing ingredient here is information. When students know how to practice safer sex, they usually do. That, at least, is the philosophy behind Take Control Philly, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health project that promotes information about contraception, testing and sexual health for Philadelphians between 11 and 19.
But there are other ways to take control of educating teens about sex. One solution, in fact, can include Penn: creating a peer-to-peer education program.
Already, countless Penn students are involved in tutoring programs throughout the city’s middle and high schools. Building on our preexisting relationships, Penn students could create a program that focuses on teaching real-world topics about sex, health and relationships. A program like this already exists at Brown University, called the Sexual Health Advocacy Through Peer Education program, which places Brown students into classrooms at a nearby high school to lead sex education workshops.
“I think talking to college students makes it way easier [for the students] to ask tough questions,” says Marlees West , a Brown junior who works with the program.
In other words, the peer-to-peer model fosters a type of trust that’s hard to find in a traditional sex education classroom: It’s obviously less awkward to talk about symptoms of genital warts or how to resist sexual pressure with a peer than it is with a biology teacher.
A program like this could also ensure more accurate information, since participating Penn students could be required to fulfill a set of training requirements or complete a class like "Human Sexuality and Health" before teaching. Notably, educators in Pennsylvania are not given any training before teaching sex ed.
To be sure, it would take some serious thinking to get a program like this off the ground, but avoiding the issue is no longer acceptable. With Philadelphia’s schools crunched by their tight budgets, many co-curricular subjects are being squeezed out to focus on raising test scores. But improving students’ math proficiency is meaningless if those students are forced to drop out of school because of unintended pregnancies.
We’re already committed to helping Philadelphia’s students understand algebra and English — why not help them understand sex, too?
Arielle Pardes is a College senior from San Diego. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her @pardesoteric. “The Screwtinizer” appears every other Friday.