For those of us who remember that painfully awkward first middle school health class when the teacher nervously intoned about using deodorant, the stages of menses and avoiding social diseases, it’s nearly impossible to imagine how different that class is today with topics such as date rape, eating disorders, AIDS and the television celebrity of teen pregnancy. It’s a challenge for secondary school health teachers but one the Mt. Lebanon School District takes very seriously.
At its core, the program teaches active lifestyles, healthy food choices and positive decision-making through collaboration and honest, frank communication with down-to-earth instructors.
“In alignment with state and national standards, our elementary and secondary health and physical education programs provide students with the knowledge and skills that will enable them to achieve and maintain a physically active and healthful life,” says Ronald Davis, assistant superintendent of secondary education. “Our health curriculum, delivered by professional, excellent teachers, promotes positive decision-making. For example, our nutrition unit provides students with relevant, practical information about living a healthy lifestyle that includes nutrition and exercise. Promoting balance in a lifestyle is one of the themes that is developed and is one that students have commented favorably in their end-of-course feedback.”
Jefferson Middle School teacher Laura Latus and high school teacher Jan Billotte have taught health and phys ed for decades and have seen health curriculum morph from simple reading assignments to today’s interactive classes filled with role play and discussions. However, that curriculum is fragmented, skipping years here and there, with units building on each other as students mature.
ELEMENTARY STUDENTS have health class once a week starting in fourth grade, learning about things such as hygiene, non-communicable diseases and refusal skills, for example walking away from drugs and alcohol. Nutrition is taught separately by family consumer science teacher Chrissa Sullivan, a licensed nutritionist. In fifth grade, students are separated into genders to have specific conversations about puberty and menstruation. They also learn about alcohol, tobacco and drugs, as well as such communicable diseases as HIV/AIDS and chicken pox.
In MIDDLE SCHOOL, they take up health again every day for nine weeks in sixth and eighth grade (it was taken out of seventh grade to make room for tech ed). Parents receive letters before each unit, so they will know what their children are learning and may choose to echo at home (and to prepare for those questions and clarifications that invariably come when you’re trapped in the car on the way to orchestra or basketball practice). Parents can choose to pull their child from classes with subject matter they do not approve of.
In sixth grade, topics include non-communicable diseases, nutrition, tobacco, drugs and alcohol but also inhalants and marijuana. Sixth graders finally ease into growth and development once the class is more comfortable with each other, including the “Wonder of Wonders” program, which explains reproductive health.
In eighth grade, students learn about mental and emotional health, sexually transmitted infections and more esoteric topics like unhealthy relationships. These units include guest speakers, who might discuss personal experiences with teen pregnancy or emphysema from smoking. The biggest unit is called “Project Alert,” which helps kids learn how to say “No” but also teaches them about the sorts of things they’ll be asked to say “Yes” to by peers, such as next generation drugs like bath salts, MDMA (Ecstasy) and “wet marijuana,” which is pot dipped in PCP.
The teachers say their most important job is to create a safe and comfortable environment. Often, a sense of humor helps. “We’re talking about bodily functions,” Latus says. Giggles are inevitable.
Peer pressure is a big topic, and a generous part of the curriculum is teaching students to make proper decisions. “We really hit hard on refusal skills,” Latus says.
Eighth graders also learn about dangerous or highly addictive drugs like LSD, cocaine and heroin.
In HIGH SCHOOL, only upperclassmen take health. “We really want the students to be mature,” Billotte says. “The students need to be able to take a look at their values and opinions and discuss them openly.”
High school students take health every day for one semester. Classes focus on holistic health, nutrition, weight management including exercise, emotional health, human sexuality and drugs. The teachers want students to have all the information to make proper decisions but that doesn’t mean it always works.
They discuss birth control including condoms, injections, pills, contraceptive foam, Norplant and contraceptive sponges. A role-playing game with a set of dice helps the students realize that unprotected sex comes down to a game of odds with disease and unintended pregnancy that is far less glamorous than they see on MTV’s “Teen Mom.”
While problem prevention is the goal, sometimes the class is about helping students know where to get help after they’ve made mistakes. “They’re going to make the decisions they’re going to make,” Billotte says. “(But), if they make a wrong decision, I want to teach them, this is where you go.” Recommended resources include parents, the school counselor, the school nurse or appropriate outside agencies such as Outreach Teen & Family Services, Planned Parenthood, Pregnancy Resource Center of the South Hills, Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force, the county health department or rehab facilities.
Once the teachers earn the trust of students, they may learn of sensitive, confidential information. A student could have an eating disorder or have self-destructive thoughts. Teachers will first refer students to their own parents, but if it’s obvious the student is not sharing that information, Billotte might speak with the guidance counselor, principal or school nurse, who in turn, contacts the parents. “If I feel you’re going to hurt yourself or others, I do have to report that,” Billotte says. “They have the best knowledge as to how to address matters that are physically and emotionally harmful to the individual.”
Yet, with all the sex, drugs and rock-n-roll students are exposed to, one of the biggest health threats to Mt. Lebanon students remains stress. “I wish I could spend more time in that unit,” Billotte says, noting there is no shortage of questions from students on it. In class, she tries to help the students identify what’s causing their stress so they can eliminate some worries. She often advocates include eliminating something that contributes to stress—dropping out of a club, for instance—or suggests that students “Park It,” meaning don’t think about it right now. “The bottom line is for students to recognize that they have control to do something about reducing the physical, mental and emotional effects of distress.”
Davis says the district’s plan for teaching health will continue to evolve. First, it must adhere to state and federal standards on teaching everything from HIV/AIDS, disease prevention, drug abuse, dating violence and nutrition, although those requirements allow districts plenty of latitude about how to teach the subjects. Also,teachers survey students to get feedback in the course and make adjustments. this helps ensure the curriculum remains current—and who can even guess what issues next year’s kids will be dealing with.
“That’s the one thing with health teachers,” Billotte says. “We always have to stay on top of news.”