Social Living Requirement/ Sex Education at BHS

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Nov 1999

I am glad Virginia brought up the point of science education in the middle schools. My two kids are now in high school but during their years at Willard, it was a running joke in the family that Science class equals Sex Ed. They might not know what the Periodic Table is, but heck! they sure know their STDs. I am all for sex education - I think it's important and necessary. But it needs to be delivered in the context of a bona fide science curriculum. Sex ed is so heavily emphasized in middle school that its position relative to other scientific topics give one the impression that it is the single most important aspect of all the natural and physical sciences ever known to personhood throughout the history of time. And I understand they will be taking it again at BHS - Social Living. How can we encourage Berkeley schools to take science education seriously? What do we need to do?

Having heard several parents complain about the emphasis on sexually transmitted diseases/social living in 8th grade science classes, I thought I would add my two cents' worth:

According to the 1997 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted by the Center for Disease Control, 24.2% of 9th graders nationwide report having had sex within the last 90 days and 12.1% of 9th graders report having more than 4 lifetime sexual partners. Only 58.8% of these 9th graders report using a condom at last intercourse. As a nurse practitioner in a teen clinic in southern Alameda County, I can tell you that there is nothing more disheartening than telling a 14-year-old she has chlamydia, only to have her stare blankly at me and ask what chlamydia is (I say she, because young men rarely come in to be screened for STDs).

So when my 9th grade daughter took science at Willard last year with its heavy emphasis on STDs and other social living issues, I was thrilled. But I don't think there has to be a dichotomy between social living and science. My daughter learned about reproductive anatomy on about the level of detail I studied in my nurse practitioner Master's program. She learned about concepts of microbiology and epidemiology which I didn't study until I got to college. Perhaps she had an exceptional teacher, but I think there is enough room in the social living curriculum to include some rigorous science.

Yes, the issue is the middle schools. If they taught sex and drugs for one week, or one month, that would be plenty. Then they could actually introduce the kids to astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, etc during the rest of the year.

PLEASE! No more requirements at BHS! We already have too many requirements. And I am worried that the change in classed required for college admission will lead to more requirements. Let the kids and parents decide what to take. Everyone will be happier. In fact, reduce the number of requirements. Maybe kids who hate school could graduate in three years instead of dropping out.

As a parent of kids aged 22, 20, 16, 13 and 10 who have attended a variety of private and Berkeley public schools (and I attended Oxford, King and BHS myself), I've given this question some thought.

I think kids need to receive sex education by 6th grade at the latest. Once you are in middle school, sex education is no longer merely an academic subject. If you haven't been already, you are now the recipient of advances, invitations, taunts, gestures and so forth all of a sexual nature. Not every 6th grader understands what all this means. Understanding is necessary in order to have a chance of responding appropriately. By 6th grade kids need to understand (or at least be introduced to) the concepts of puberty, hormonal changes and sexual desire; pregnancy and birth control; cultural/religious/legal controversies around abortion; the right to say No to whomever and for as long as they choose; the right to legal and counseling support and adult protection if they're being sexually harassed or abused; a definition of abuse that means something to young teens (they often don't see what an adult or teen "friend" wants them to do as being abuse, even if it makes them feel bad, and what if it doesn't?--all issues to discuss openly in middle school); a list of adults whom they can approach if they are being harassed or abused, and encouragement to tell many of those adults if the first ones don't do anything about the situation; and, because many young teens are sexually active, ongoing discussion throughout middle school on STDs, pregnancy prevention, domestic violence and what to do about it.

Some of this we all teach at home according to our own values. Some of it none of us can teach at home because it needs to specifically address the culture and behavior at a particular school, and we parents aren't there enough to "get it". I think the middle schools have to address the aspect of sex education which opens discussions with kids on how to deal with the overt sexual behavior particular to their school. For the benefit of kids whose parents don't feel comfortable teaching sex ed at home, I wish everything on my list above would be taught in 6th grade, with some forum for ongoing discussion throughout 7th and 8th grade.

For anyone concerned about the "lack" of sex education in Berkeley middle schools, I'd say: "Just wait." The 8th grade Social Living course at King (and, I presume, the other middle schools) includes a detailed treatment of topics including human reproduction, sex education, sexuality, homophobia and sexually transmitted diseases. I'm sure one of the 8th grade science teachers who handle the course would be happy to fill you in on the details. Timothy

I agree completely with the 7th grader who wrote about sex education needing to be introduced in 5th grade. I'm 24, so it wasn't THAT long ago that I was in school myself, and I remember being introduced to sex education at Marin School in Albany in 5th grade. They didn't go "in depth" but did give basic information about kids' changing bodies and what we could all be expecting to happen in the next few years. I have a 2 year old now, so I still have a while before I'll have to deal with him and this issue, but I do have a 17-year-old sister-in-law who was an early bloomer. She has grown up in Oakland and received sex ed in either 5th or 6th grade (both were still elementary school). When I met her (at age 11) she had already had her period for a year (I had only had mine for 3 years) and she had been wearing a bra since 4th grade (and had started at a B cup). I can't imagine what she must have gone through developing so early, but she has told me that it was very uncomfortable going through sex education when she was the only one in the class who already had gone through a lot of the changes.

What's my point? I think the average age for a girl to get her period is around 12. If we don't get even just the basics of sex education out to these kids, they may not be prepared to understand what is going on with them. Sex education must continue to be taught to kids BEFORE they go through these changes!

I agree with the writers who think a sex education course should be taught in fifth grade (as I was at Emerson School in 1961). That, combined with the course taught at the middle school level, is sufficient--the class taught at King is very thorough and well-taught. I think the high school course is basically a repetition of information the children already know, and it is kind of a joke to them.

I would like to see that course replaced with a semester on handling personal finances. When these kids get out of school and begin to live on their own, they will need to know how to handle a credit card and a checking account, what kinds of insurance they need, how and when to invest for retirement, how to rent a house, how to buy a car, how to borrow money and when not to. This is basic stuff that everyone needs to know in order to survive. I t is actually more relevant to kids on the verge of independence than sex ed, and no one seems to teach this kind of information. Why is this?

I agree with Louise on sex education: after a year of it in 5th grade and another year at Willard, sex education again at BHS is more a target for jokes than a way to get them some useful info. I really like Louise's idea of instead teaching personal finance for the "Social Living" requirement and would like to also suggest a quick week or 2 of "Survival Cooking" and maybe "Survival Housekeeping". I know we should all be teaching these things at home (that goes for finance and sex too) but in just a couple of years our children will be expected to feed, clothe, and house themselves, and I am not so sure they have the basic skills.

I would like to second the opinion that students should be taught in a structured way about handling personal finances. I think the topic should be introduced in Jr. High, and then really hammered home sometime during Jr. or Sr. year in high school. One cannot count on parents doing the job.

For example, how many students graduating from high school recognize the value of buying a home? How many know how to finance a home, and what the tax benefits are? My parents were always renters, and I was 32 years old and training to become a real estate agent before I found out why it's a good idea to aim toward home ownership!

There should be a course, "Life 101", to teach these essentials.

As both a parent of a BHS freshman and a Maternal/Child Nurse with over 30 years experience, including 20 years of teaching, I have fairly strong opinions on the subject.

First, I agree that sex education needs to be introduced early - with those parents who do not agree given the option of waiver for their child(ren). Second, I expect that by the time students enter high school, they should have had a strong foundation in the 'basics' of sex education. Finally, I think the high school curriculum should have an advanced focus on the very critical areas of childbearing and childrearing. Very few students have the opportunity to learn about preparation for having and raising children and wind up with some very unrealistic expectations.

There are many areas that have been introduced since "sex education." One important example is breastfeeding. This may not seem like a major topic to discuss in high school. However, WHO and UNICEF joined together in 1989 in a worldwide Baby Friendly Initiative. This is the first initiative ever to address both developing and developed countries. The US, unfortunately, is way behind. The purpose of the initiative is to promote breastfeeding worldwide in order to reduce infant mortality and morbidity and it has done so. But we also know that in order to be successful, women need the support of partners, friends, families, and community. For that to happen, education needs to occur well in advance of pregnancy and there is no better place at this point to do so than at the high school level. A course in "family health" addressing (a) planning for pregnancy (b) raising a healthy child, (c) family communications, and (d) preventing family violence would seem to be most valuable for all of our students.