Amid activists’ doubt, city aims to implement public school health curriculum

State officials this week trumpeted a new program that could lay the groundwork for developing a health curriculum in New Haven public schools, but city officials and activists said they doubt the guidelines will be implemented without a state mandate.

At the Comprehensive Sexual Education Conference, held Tuesday and Wednesday in Westbrook, Conn., the State Departments of Education and Public Health unveiled a 196-page “Guidelines for a Coordinated Approach to School Health.” But in response to the first large-scale presentation of the plan since it was drafted in July, most city education professionals and health advocates in attendance said the plan is functional in theory, but not in practice.

The result of the first-ever collaboration between the two departments, the plan introduces eight policy recommendations, ranging from required certification of health teachers to district-wide evaluations for school health curricula,

New Haven currently has no requirements for health education in its public schools. Teachers seeking to compensate for this curricular hole ask members of city-wide health-advocacy groups and the Yale undergraduate organization Community Health Educators to attend classes to teach subjects like sexual education and healthy eating habits, health educators said.

Few parents and family members know of the lack of health instruction, which can make the push for its inclusion more difficult, Director of the New Haven Health Project Matthew Wilcox said.

Public schools nationwide must adhere to the No Child Left Behind Act, which prioritizes mathematics and English-language skills over areas like health studies. Locally, the Connecticut Mastery Test, expanded by NCLB, may lead teachers to devote longer hours to those two subjects, sometimes at the expense of health education, New Haven Director of Environmental Health Paul Kowalski said.

Although Kowalski said he thinks NCLB’s standards will interfere with the state’s plan, he said he hopes New Haven’s numerous health resources will help make the curriculum possible.

Planned Parenthood is lobbying the state government to give financial incentives to schools that choose to follow the plan’s guidelines for installing a health curriculum, Erin Livensparger, health education and staff trainer for New Haven Planned Parenthood, said.

Carlos Ceballos, coordinator of New Haven’s school-based health clinics, said efforts to implement the guidelines are still in their infancy. He said both Director of Curriculum and Instruction Charles Warner and Superintendent Reginald Mayo have met about the guidelines but have not announced any formal plans to implement them.

Community Health Educator Emily Hoffman ’10 said the plan seemed more like a “symbolic gesture” than a serious commitment to health education, since it is merely a suggestion and is unlikely to be enacted.

“The effectiveness of a suggestion, when schools have so little budget and so little time that they can barely do what they’re mandated to do, much less, what’s suggested of them — it’s not ultimately that effective,” she said.

The conference aimed to encourage communication between leaders from local education organizations and members of health advocacy groups, Livensparger said.

Two eight-hour sessions at the conference featured presentations on health-education programs that the state government has started over the last four years, which sprang from the Connecticut Coordinated School Health Partnership’s launch in 2003. Since then, the state Department of Education has developed at least four plans for creating school health curricula, culminating in the debut of the comprehensive school health plan in July.

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