As Teach For America corps members in Eastern North Carolina, Vichi and I learned first hand that students need more than just excellent academic preparation. As teachers, we were alarmed by the many misconceptions they had regarding sexual health, some of which are shown below. While all states teach some form of sex education to public school-children, the form and content of that instruction is subject to much debate. What's not debatable, however, is the effect sexual health can have on academic achievement. Leaders in public health and public education must work together to help eliminate disparities that arise from misinformation on sexual health and contribute to poor educational outcoms for students.
You can't get pregnant for the 6 months after you have a baby. No need to worry.
You can get pregnant by swallowing sperm.
I'm never getting in a hot tub again—if there are swimmers [sperm] still in there, they can get you pregnant!
Among our local graduating class is "Sara," a star female athlete who forfeited her chances of being recruited by a four-year institution to play college basketball when she got pregnant her junior year, and "Angela," a senior who graduated top of her class only to attend the same community college as the senior ranked last in her class. "Angela" needed to live at home for free childcare.
Overheard in the lunchroom:
"Naw, I [won’t] get [an] STD because I'm on the pill."
Overheard in the hallway:
Girlfriend: "Do you think you could have one of them?"
Boyfriend: "Please, if I had one of [those] diseases, I would know. I’d feel it down there. You feel me?"
Sexual health affects the academic achievement of students, thereby affecting high school graduation rates and rates for college matriculation and graduation. Students who get pregnant are at higher risk for dropping out of high school and not attending college. Currently, there is a disparity in teen pregnancy rates between high-income and low-income counties in North Carolina, with rates for rural Bertie, Northampton, and Vance counties at approximately 3, 4, and 5 times the rate of Orange County (Chapel Hill). There is also a racial disparity in teen pregnancy rates across the state, with African-American and Hispanic teenagers more than twice as likely to become pregnant compared to their white peers. Disparities are apparent at the national level as well, with African-American and Hispanic youth accounting for 57% of US teen births in 2011.
Overheard after school:
"Baby, you know that if we do it in the shower we don’t need to use a condom."
Despite the fact that comprehensive sexual health education is mandated across North Carolina by the Healthy Youth Act of 2009, many low-resourced districts provide abstinence-only sex education or no sex education at all if trained health educators are unavailable. These districts fail to teach students the health knowledge and skills required by state standards.
Overheard on the bus:
"I don’t need to use condoms when I’m on my period because I can’t get pregnant then."
Overheard in the gym:
"HIV ain’t no big thing because we got a cure for that."
As alumni in this greater movement for educational equity, we are motivated by the inequality in sex education to take action. We are tired of having students’ academic futures stalled or demolished by teen pregnancy, especially since it is preventable. We’re working to solve this problem.
We’re creating an online program called MyHealthEd, which will deliver high quality sexual health education to schools where it currently does not exist. This individualized online health curriculum will increase students’sexual health knowledge and skills, tracking knowledge and behaviors along the way. Our primary goal is that fewer students will get pregnant or contract STDs while in high school so that sexual health will no longer be a barrier to attaining an excellent education.
Overheard in homeroom:
"I don’t go to the bathroom in school because I don’t want to catch a STD."
Overheard in health class:
Male student to female student: "I’m not worried about HIV because I like girls."
We want students to lead healthier lives and therefore perform better academically. Through the development of MyHealthEd, we hope to keep student achievement on track.
Liz is entering the second year of her Masters in Public Health program at Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC Chapel Hill and hopes to leverage the intersection between education and public health to simultaneously address health disparities and educational inequities in low-resourced communities. Vichi is currenting serving as a corps member advisor at the Delta Institute and is interested in using technology, especially the Internet, to broaden access to education in developing regions in her future endeavors. Visit MyHealthEd to find out how you can help transform the health, education, and lives of our students. Please send all feedback, questions, or concerns to Liz and Vichi at firstname.lastname@example.org.