Proper sex education for students can lead to a higher graduation rate, or at least that’s what Bibb County school district leaders are hoping.
Beginning next fall, the district will turn to the Family Life and Sexual Health curriculum, or FLASH, as a broader effort to address issues such as teen pregnancy that can affect attendance and eventually graduation rate.
“I’m hoping that students will have the facts that will enable them to make better decisions,” said Jamie Cassady, the district’s assistant superintendent for student affairs.
In the past, Cassady said that sex education was up to each individual health teacher. In many cases, that meant a brief lesson that focused mainly on abstinence.
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A shallow focus on sex ed may have been reflected in the 2016 Student Health Survey, in which just 57.7 percent of Bibb County students said they had been taught about AIDS or HIV infection in the last year at school, compared with 69.3 percent of students statewide.
That was the only sex-related question in the statewide, 121-question survey that encompassed other health topics such as drug and alcohol use, peer pressure, mental health and suicide.
Bibb County’s sometimes single-minded approach will be gone as teachers across the district are trained with the FLASH curriculum during this school year for a launch during the 2017-18 school year.
“It still talks about abstinence. That’s still what we want to stress,” Cassady said. “But it also talks about birth control, STDs, pregnancy, that kind of stuff as well.”
45.2 Bibb County’s teen pregnancy rate per 1,000 girls
30.3 State teen pregnancy rate
26.5 National teen pregnancy rate
That breadth of information is key to countywide efforts to curb teen pregnancy and STD rates, said Nancy White, administrator of the Macon-Bibb County Health Department. While she noted that abstinence is the only surefire birth control method, research suggests that anywhere between 42 and 49 percent of teens are sexually active.
As a result, those teens need to be made aware of their options, and FLASH does that, she said.
“It’s very important. Knowledge is power,” White said. “They need to have the big picture.”
The health department tries to play a role in providing that knowledge and the resources for students to keep themselves healthy. Through a confidential teen health center, which has a separate entrance, waiting area and hallway to make students feel comfortable, young men and women can get condoms, birth control pills and even “low maintenance birth control methods” free of charge.
Those lower maintenance options, which include intrauterine devices and other implants, have a higher success rate and can prevent pregnancy for three to 10 years, White said.
“They tend to use pills and condoms, which have a high failure rate in adolescents,” she said.
According to health department data, Bibb County has a teen pregnancy rate of 45.2 per 1,000 girls, as compared with a state average of 30.3 and a national rate of 26.5. White said that can contribute to a “generational poverty” trend, as 80 percent of teen mothers end up on welfare and just 1.3 percent of them have a college degree by the time they turn 30.
“You can see the ripple effect from there,” she said.
A slightly different effect is the focus of the Bibb County school district’s renewed sex education efforts.
Cassady said that as the district tries to bring the graduation rate up to 90 percent in the next few years — it already rose from 51.3 percent in 2011 to 71.2 in 2015 — officials have studied why students are missing school.
He said young mothers and young fathers alike have been known to miss class to help care for children, which gets them behind in the classroom and can prevent them from graduating with their peers.
“We’re just trying to attack some root causes to hopefully get some more kids in-seat time.”
The goal is to get more students walking across the stage with diplomas from the Bibb County school system.
“And hopefully more students going to college or ready for a career,” Cassady said.