Reforming Health Education Through Community

[Originally posted on the Feast on Good Blog]

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Typical health class models are changing and growing through community input. Cities across the country are promoting social and community reform through health classes that go beyond the basics and help students make informed decisions about their lifestyles.

At first, local governments tried to address the need for health education. Every state in the United States has a different way of handling or recommending health education programs in public schools. Some states, like California, have specific guidelines for the topics that must be covered and when they are to be taught in schools, for example, HIV/AIDS prevention instructions between 7-12th grade and parenting education in 7th or 8th grade. Others are much less strict about the material and expected outcomes.

State funded health education programs are also facing major budget cuts. For some, health education in school is the first time they learn about nutrition, mental health, and negotiating healthy relationships with future partners.

Today, locally communities are building curricula to meet the needs of their students and provide up to date information about medical services. There are a number of great organizations like Yale’s Community Health Educators or the Peer Health Exchange that try to create safer spaces for young adults to discuss and learn about health issues like nutrition, STIs, and mental health. These programs target teens and young adults to give them tools to make informed decisions about their health.

Some communities have begun to answer the need for health education by pooling their own resources and building health curricula. Community Health Educators (CHE) was started 1999 when a teacher from Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven and a group of Yale students developed a comprehensive health curriculum for high school students. Today, CHE is a group of 150 volunteers, teaching health education courses in 24 middle schools and high schools in New Haven. The program regularly reevaluates its materials to make sure that they are relevant, up to date and ready for their audience. Teachers from the host schools are involved in the material evaluations and reform, to make sure it fits the audience.

CHE strives to give students tools to make their own choices about their health and relationships. Michael Solotke, a former Coordinator for the program, says that the curriculum “is designed to empower students with skills and knowledge to help them make healthy decisions throughout their lives.”

The presentation of the material may be just as important as the material itself. “We really value being able to teach on a peer-to-peer level,” says Katherine Rich, one of this year’s coordinators for Community Health Educators. Rich believes the peer relationships between educators and students helps open up conversations around challenging topics like sexual and mental health.

The Peer Health Exchange (PHE) grew out of the original CHE to address gaps in health education on a national level. Colleges in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and many other cities across the United States partner with PHE to provide similar comprehensive health education in schools that are also under resourced. PHE reports that 92% of their high school students said that they will use information from the program to inform their health decisions and another 68% said they had already used information from the program to make a decision regarding their health in the last six months.

The Peer Health Exchange is also growing quickly with the support of local communities: 97% of the principals in the schools that offer PHE programs said that they would recommend this program to other schools. New York City is one of the largest markets for the program. While Barnard College, New York University and Hunter College, among others, have already partnered with the program to send volunteers, PHE and CHE could always use more help.

Both programs rely heavily on volunteers who enjoy teaching and talking to students about health. Their biggest challenges lie in building relevant material that their students can relate to and finding the right educators to engage with these student groups. Interested in doing more? Check out what your local school district offers in terms of health education options and see how they are trying to grow this year!

By Diana Enriquez

Diana studies informal economies, social enterprises, and economic systems at Locus Analytics. She spends a lot of time exploring new neighborhoods, especially in Latin America.

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Tea, Tequila, and informal economy enthusiast.

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