Science, math, social studies and … sex?

Portland schools may soon have classroom teachers present the Family Living and Human Sexuality curriculum to fourth- and fifth-graders, ending a four-decade policy of having specially trained health professionals teach the sensitive topic to the district’s younger pupils.

While some people are expected to oppose the change, David Galin, the district’s chief academic officer, said having classroom teachers handle the program throughout the academic year – as opposed to health professionals who teach each class for a week or two – will benefit children more.

“The amount of minutes we currently devote to this is significantly less than what a current program should have,” Galin said. “Providing an approved, identified curriculum over time is an effective learning model as opposed to a one-time limited intervention.”

The school board, which gave the proposal a routine first reading last week, will discuss the program in more detail during a workshop scheduled for 8 p.m. today in Room 250 of Casco Bay High School.

The new program and curriculum will be called Family Living and Sexual Health, or FLASH. It will be integrated into the district’s overall health and physical education curriculum over the next two years, unlike the Family Living and Human Sexuality curriculum, which currently exists as an isolated program for grades 4 and 5.

The classroom teachers will receive training from the Family Planning Association of Maine, Galin said, which will prepare them for teaching FLASH’s sensitive subjects.

The school system also has school nurses, guidance counselors and social workers – who are trained in related fields – to help support teachers when necessary, he said.

Opponents of the change include Margaret Hoyt, a health professional who has taught Family Living and Human Sexuality for 23 years. She said switching responsibilities to classroom teachers could have dangerous consequences.

Students likely won’t be as forthcoming with their teachers about sensitive topics like puberty or sexual abuse, which could leave them less informed and more vulnerable, she said.

Hoyt said students often ask sensitive yet important questions, or share sexual abuse stories that they won’t discuss with their teachers.

“I just don’t think anyone has considered the children’s perspective,” she said. “They are much less likely to share sensitive secrets with someone who they have to interface with every day.”

Jill Tabbutt-Henry, a parent of two Portland students and a member of the district’s Family Living/Sexual Education advisory board, shares Hoyt’s concerns.

Tabbutt-Henry, who could have a say in the change if the advisory panel is asked for a recommendation, has been a reproductive health educator for 20 years, including four years in Augusta schools. The proposal, she said, puts everyone involved in a difficult position.

“It’s a topic that makes parents nervous and makes a lot of kids nervous,” Tabbutt-Henry said. “It makes teachers nervous. It makes everyone nervous. And it’s always been so wonderful to have specially trained, full-time staff to deal with these issues.

“This is your teacher you see all year. You know they’re going to be there next week; you know they’re going to be there tomorrow. If you ask them a personal question, you will have to deal with the repercussions of that the rest of the year. It could permanently disrupt that relationship and comfort level.”

Dan Chuhta, the district’s coordinator of science, technology, engineering and math, helped select the new program. The switch is happening, he said, because the district decided last year to go to an evidence-based program, meaning research has shown that the proposed approach has been effective elsewhere. There is no evidence documenting the effectiveness of the current Family Living and Human Sexuality program, which began in the late 1960s, he said.

The school board plans to vote on the new curriculum June 21, but even if approved, the full changes won’t take effect until the 2012-2013 school year.

Hoyt will spend the 2011-2012 school year helping with the transition. She’ll continue to teach while the classroom teachers watch, participate and get comfortable with the material.

The district will save money by implementing FLASH because it is cutting two staff positions. In addition, the Family Planning Association doesn’t charge for the training it provides.

But Tabbutt-Henry said the new program may suffer inconsistencies because some teachers will commit themselves to doing family living and sex education well, while others may be uncomfortable and struggle to teach such sensitive topics.

Hoyt also said the new curriculum she’s seen doesn’t include any mention of sexual abuse.

“That has got to be part and parcel of any effective curriculum,” she said. “I don’t want them dropping or diluting sensitive material just so previously untrained people can take it on. That would be a disservice to the children.”

Tabbutt-Henry said the current program has been “very successful” and “well-received,” and pointed to Portland’s low teen birth rate as evidence of its success.

Portland’s teen birth rate is about 2.5 times lower than the U.S. average, according to Maine’s Center for Disease Control.

Hoyt said she’s spoken with about half of the fourth- and fifth-grade teachers in the district, many of whom have expressed reticence about the new program.

Kathleen Casasa, president of the Portland Education Association teachers’ union, didn’t return a phone message seeking comment.


Staff Writer Jason Singer can be contacted at 791-6437 or at: [email protected]