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Berkshire County School District Seeks to Strengthen Sex Ed Programs

City of Pittsfield

The Pittsfield Public School’s Curriculum Subcommittee has been meeting with district and community partners to address the city’s troubling teen pregnancy rate by expanding and strengthening programs both in and out of school.

According to the most complete data released by the state Department of Public Health, in 2009 the state teen birth rate was around 19 births per 1,000 young women aged 15 to 19. In Berkshire County, that rate was just over 27, with Pittsfield’s rate doubled at about 55. Revised data from 2010 does not include a county rate, but shows the state rate dropped to 17.1, and Pittsfield’s teen birth rate dropped to 34 – on par with the national average. The rate, however, is still double the statewide average, and Pittsfield is 11th highest in the state.

Ann Marie Carpenter is the unit leader of School Psychiatrists at Pittsfield Public Schools, and is serving as an advisor to the curriculum subcommittee. Carpenter said that currently, the school district provides two separate comprehensive sex education curriculums to students, one for eighth-graders, and the other for ninth-and tenth-graders.

"But over time what we have found is because of other competing demands, that not as many as our eighth grade students are receiving health class, and that there is where we have been delivering that," said Carpenter.

Carpenter said that the eighth-grade sex education program is in need of more financial support to help purchase workbooks and other materials to support the curriculum. In meetings with the subcommittee and other stakeholders, she’s advocated for expanding age-appropriate programs to other grades.

The Berkshire United Way is also involved in the discussions. President and CEO Kris Hazzard said the United Way can help the subcommittee by gathering information on evidence-tested sex ed curriculums.

Hazzard said the United Way is also providing funding to several community organizations throughout the county that work with teens, including the Railroad Street Youth Project in Great Barrington, the Gladys Allen Brigham Community Center in Pittsfield, and others, to train staff to introduce teen pregnancy awareness components into their programs.

"Part of their contract is go through this three-day training in September to become certified sex educators," said Hazzard.

Patricia Quinn, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, said that while the state has guidelines on health education that include comprehensive sex ed, it’s up to the districts to decide how to implement those programs. She said that her organization is advocating for a bill currently in legislative committee known as the Healthy Use Act.

"It's not a mandate that requires schools to do sex ed but it does say, if you're going to do it, it has to be this comprehensive approach," said Quinn.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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