Austin ISD has a new sex ed curriculum. Educators hope it will reduce stigma and shame.
When Stephanie Hebert was going to middle and high school in the late 1980s and early 1990s, she said sex education was virtually nonexistent.
“We may have gotten some conversations in the gym locker room about periods, I guess, but I feel like that even happened in high school, which is too late,” she said.
Now, as a health education curriculum specialist in the Austin Independent School District, Hebert is helping to ensure students have age-appropriate human sexuality and responsibility lessons from kindergarten through high school. She is the lead author of 65 new lessons the district rolled out in November and December.
The Austin ISD school board approved the new lessons in June 2022, several years after district staff began working on updating them.
Hebert said while the new curriculum does have similar information to previous ones, it is a lot more comprehensive and reflective of the district's values. It was also updated to comply with new health education standards the Texas State Board of Education approved in 2020.
Now, for example, the state requires a lot more information on online safety to be included.
"It increased the amount of conversations around things like sex trafficking, online predators and safety around that type thing," she said.
The new lessons, depending on the grade level, also contain more information on child abuse prevention, family violence and dating violence.
Hebert said another change the district decided on was to use gender-inclusive language, because sex education has historically centered cisgender students, which can alienate transgender or nonbinary students. Certain concepts, like puberty and reproduction, are also introduced in earlier grades.
Hebert said the district is one of the only she knows of in the U.S. that tailors lessons to different grades.
“Having grade-specific curriculum is definitely different than what most of the curricula are available out there,” she said.
Another significant change this school year is that students cannot participate in sex ed courses unless their parent or guardian opts them in, because of a new law the Texas Legislature passed in 2021.
For some Austin ISD students, this could also be the first time they are taking sex ed courses. AISD did not offer the human sexuality and responsibility curriculum to any grades in Spring 2020 because the district was still figuring out remote learning during the pandemic. Plans to roll out the K-8 lessons were also put on hold in 2021 because the curriculum needed to be updated to comply with state standards. High school students, though, did take classes last year because the content was aligned to existing standards.
All of the lessons are available for free online.
What students are learning
Most grade levels start out by talking about the body, including learning the appropriate anatomical terms for body parts.
“When we introduce body parts to elementary school students, we are going to talk about the vulva, the penis,” Hebert said. “For the most part, those are kind of the two reproductive pieces for the early elementary.”
Naming body parts is one of the main topics taught in kindergarten through second grade. Another is learning about safety, having the right to decide whether another person touches them and the difference between being comfortable and uncomfortable.
“We can’t talk about ‘if you feel uncomfortable with something, go tell a trusted adult,’ if we don’t really talk about what it means to feel uncomfortable,” Hebert said.
Students learn, for example, that if they're uncomfortable they may feel scared, yucky or sick to their stomachs.
Hebert said the concept of reproduction is also introduced to first and second graders, but the focus is on biology.
"It doesn’t get into relationships, it doesn’t get into how that’s done," she said. "It’s just kind of, 'Here’s what grows a baby.'"
Puberty is the main focus of the lessons for students in third through fifth grades. Hebert said the goal is to introduce students to the changes their bodies are going to go through right before it starts happening. Fifth graders also begin to learn about relationships for the first time.
“Our curriculum does that by way of talking about crushes because that’s really common on elementary school campuses to have crushes,” she said. “And how you respond to that and how you interact with friends or classmates who might be expressing their idea around crushes.”
The curriculum for students in middle school, like that for elementary school, emphasizes safety especially while online. It also addresses, among other things, dating and abuse.
“It’s also where we start to introduce the concepts of methods of birth control and [sexually transmitted infections] and STI prevention and ideas around that,” she said.
While sex ed lessons in kindergarten through eighth grade are taught in science class, high school students take them in health classes.
Hebert said the topics build on what students learn in middle school, such as online safety, relationships and reproductive anatomy. She added high schoolers also learn how to access information online as well as community resources.
"Stuff that's a little bit more higher level thinking even though the topics are very similar," she said.
Making a more inclusive curriculum
The Austin ISD human sexuality curriculum complies with state standards, but because it was developed in-house, it is also reflective of the district’s values. One of those values, according to Hebert, is inclusion.
“Our district is definitely very much supportive of all of our students that are in our schools and our families that are in our communities, and that means we need to have language that’s inclusive to all of our families,” she said.
For example, when students learn about the vulva, they don’t learn about it as the female vulva.
“We say that usually this is a woman that has a vulva but not always because we’re really trying to be mindful of the fact that most of our campuses probably have transgender or nonbinary identified students," she said.
Switching to more inclusive language was a welcome change for Addison, a junior at LASA High School, who identifies as nonbinary.
“As a LGBTQIA+ student, I was really appreciative of the inclusive language,” they said.
Addison is the only student representative on AISD’s School Health Advisory Council, which reviewed and provided feedback on the sex ed lessons.
“The new curriculum is designed with education and safety in mind and still focusing on abstinence as the preferred method,” they said. “But it still provides students to have the information in order to make the best decisions for relationships and keeping themselves safe.”
Another change Addison was happy to see is that students are no longer divided by gender for the lessons. Instead, they all learn together. Addison remembers what it was like when classes were split up while they were in fourth and fifth grade.
“It was really awkward especially once we got into middle school where they just did it with everyone, and it was such a weird transition because we’d been so used to doing it isolated that we didn’t really know much about the other gender,” they said.
Addison testified before the Austin ISD school board back in 2019 when trustees were first considering changes to the sex ed curriculum. More than 100 people signed up to speak. While many speakers expressed support for gender-inclusive language, others decried it as confusing, unscientific and ideological.
Hebert said she does get questions about the curriculum’s gender inclusive language.
“That language shift was enough to throw people off a little bit. We’re not introducing gender identity in any way of saying, ‘You can choose your gender,’” she said. “We’re just saying these are the body parts … and not associating it with a gender explicitly.”
Parental approval required
While there was fervent opposition back in 2019, Hebert said that has pretty much died down. She thinks a lot of that has to do with a state law the Texas Legislature passed in 2021 that requires parents and guardians to opt kids into sex ed. Those who do not opt in will get an alternative lesson.
“I do think that’s made people more comfortable," she said. "It’s also made teachers more comfortable. They know that they aren’t going to get a lot of parents who are upset about it because they’re the ones opting them into this content.”
Laura Cummins is an Austin ISD parent who opted her 6-year-old daughter into the lessons. The pediatric nurse practitioner said she and her husband reviewed the kindergarten lessons and were completely comfortable with the content. In fact, she was more surprised she needed to opt in.
“It was all very basic information that we try to teach at home as well,” she said.
Cummins and her family use anatomically correct names for body parts in their household. It not only normalizes the terms, but empowers her children to understand and talk about their bodies, she said.
“It’s not just that I want my kids to know about their sexual body parts but their whole body and how their whole body works,” she said.
Cummins also said because parents are constantly teaching their kids, it can be helpful to have another adult impart lessons. That was her experience growing up.
“Some of my greatest lessons were from my gymnastics coach, or from the neighbor down the street, where I really took them [and] really kind of internalized them,” she said.
Addison, like Cummins, agrees it’s helpful to get this information from adults besides parents.
“It kind of helped me find a trusted adult at the school, which … I feel is really important for anyone at any school regardless of age,” they said.
Cummins said it is hard for her to imagine other parents she knows deciding against opting their kids into lessons.
“Some people don’t think kids are old enough to learn it,” she said. “And to that I will say they’re already learning it whether they are figuring things out themselves or they are asking friends or they are listening to their friends.”
Hebert is concerned that the opt-in requirement will be a barrier for some students who might have otherwise taken the classes but their parents missed communications from AISD.
“We’re worried about those students who just don’t return a letter and miss out on the information,” she said.
Austin ISD does not yet know how many families ultimately opted into the sex ed curriculum. Hebert said that data will be ready sometime in January.
For the students who did end up taking the lessons, she hopes there are some key takeaways.
“I want them to not feel stigma about their bodies, about their relationships, about who they are,” she said. “I want young people to feel less self-conscious than society tells them to feel.”
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