In the classroom
February 27, 2021
You walk into the sixth grade classroom, refreshed after a recess break. But now the room feels different. Your classmates go silent as the dimly lit projector reveals the elusive “puberty video.”
As years passed and you grew older, the curriculum progressed along with you, transitioning from puberty being “just around the corner” to learning about “the birds and the bees.”
The ICCSD follows guidelines outlined in the Iowa Code to craft a health curriculum that includes sex education. As one of 30 states mandating a sex education course, Iowa requires schools to teach medically accurate and age-appropriate information.
Though Iowa Code allows for an abstinence-only or abstinence-stressed curriculum to be taught, the ICCSD employs a comprehensive program that covers multiple aspects of reproductive health, such as methods of contraception and consent.
Diane Schumacher, executive director of teaching and learning at ICCSD, says this is because the ICCSD follows the National Sexuality Education Standards, which recommend a comprehensive sex education program. According to the organization, teens who recieved a comprehensive sex education were 50% less likely to report a pregnancy than those who recieved abstinence-only education.
West currently offers three trimester-long health courses: Health 1, Current and Critical Health Issues, and Personal Wellness and Fitness, all of which meet the health graduation requirement. In these courses, students learn the skills necessary to make healthy and safe life choices.
Paras Bassuk ’21 took health his freshman year and believes he received a thorough education. He primarily associates his positive experience to his teacher inviting community members of various organizations like the United Action for Youth and the Rape Victims Advocacy Program to expand upon the curriculum.
“I think the class that I learned the most in my freshman year was health,” Bassuk said. “What [my teacher] did was source her curriculum from the community and make it relevant to Iowa City and relevant to the students in the classroom, and I think she really took initiative there.”
However, Bassuk worries a lack of standardization surrounding teaching methods and resources may lead to different learning outcomes among students.
“We can’t predict what a student is going to go through with their sex ed experience, and that means that we have a population, generation after generation, that is not receiving consistent information to allow them to operate as adults,” Bassuk said. “If [sex education is] not required or standardized, there’s potential for huge gaps in people’s knowledge.”
To combat this, in 2019, the ICCSD formally partnered with UAY and RVAP to provide five days of specialized lessons covering topics ranging from LGBTQ+ identities to consent and healthy relationships.
“Some of those topics can tend to be a little challenging for teachers to deliver, so we wanted to ensure that was a consistent experience for our kids across all schools,” Schumacher said. “That’s why we wanted to bring in some community experts.”
One such outside health educator is Stanzy Scheetz, who works for UAY. Before 2019, her organization would reach out to teachers who would individually decide whether they would allow health educators like Scheetz to serve as guest speakers. The teachers could also select which topics would be covered.
“The unfortunate thing is when the teachers are the gatekeepers, sometimes they’d be like, ‘Come talk about birth control and STIs and then not about LGBTQ+ [health],” Scheetz said.
Jade Spicher ’23 took the course in 2020 and didn’t feel adequately represented in the curriculum as a bisexual individual. She recalls the heteronormative nature of the course leaving her with a lack of knowledge about topics that affected her community.
“When I asked my teacher a question, they told me to Google it because they had no idea … It made me feel a little upset because you feel like you can go to the teacher for almost anything, and they’re just like this person of great knowledge, and they can give you any answer,” Spicher said. “But when they told me to Google it … I just felt like they were telling me off.”
Spicher hopes that in the future, the curriculum will cover the LGBTQ+ community more in-depth.
“When it’s not in the curriculum, I feel like it’s going back to the olden days. It’s almost like it’s trying to push us back in the closet … We need to learn about these things and other people do too,” Spicher said. “If I have to learn about straight people and their health things … why can’t straight people learn about how gay people do it?”
Similarly, Emily Moore ‘21, who took health class her freshman year, was disappointed by the course’s limited conversation regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. As a result, she had to educate herself on the topic independently, with a primary resource she used being COLORS club. As West High’s gender and sexuality alliance club, COLORS helps inform members about various sexual health issues often neglected in standard health curriculums.
“Going to COLORS helped me a lot … I feel like it would maybe be helpful to also learn things in health class because it’s a wider audience, so if people don’t have the time to go to COLORS or are embarrassed for any reason, then they could get the information they needed just by being in class,” Moore said.
Paul Rundquist, who currently teaches health at West, believes teachers should provide as much guidance as possible to students, whether that be directing them to a credible source on the internet or incorporating their questions into the curriculum. He hopes students feel comfortable approaching him for questions instead of having to turn to the internet independently.
“It’s important for me to try and help that student find as much information as they can about that particular topic and assist them,” Rundquist said. “That’s my job as a teacher, and as teachers we don’t always have the right answer, but I feel it’s our job to help our students find those answers.”
Charisa Wotherspoon is a health educator for RVAP. During her lessons, she sheds light on communities that have historically been underrepresented, such as those who identify as asexual.
“I think it’s important that we do not erase those identities,” Wotherspoon said. “I try to remember to be like ‘you know what? Not everyone is going to have sexual relationships.’”
Wotherspoon also teaches the topic of consent and healthy relationships in an effort to promote safety and decrease instances of intimate partner violence. She feels this information is imperative regardless of whether students are in romantic relationships or not.
“The reality is consent is a phenomenon that we all practice every day in all sorts of contexts our whole lives,” Wotherspoon said. “[It] needs to be understood.”
With the newly instituted UAY and RVAP partnership and curriculum updates, the district continues to work to address these issues and provide a more comprehensive health education.
“We’ve been doing some work with our non-binary students and talking about sexual orientation, but this is probably the first time that we are making that more formalized and ensuring that all kids have access to that information,” Schumacher said. “Now we know that we need to provide that information to everyone.”