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Proposed changes to sex-ed materials generating little public feedback

By: Don Kirkland

June 28, 2008   

Catholic Charities would replace teachers as purveyors of course content  

How school districts develop sex-education curriculum that’s in balance with parents’ widely varying personal, religious and philosophical beliefs historically represents one of education’s biggest challenges.

In fact, it was the basis of a small hornet’s nest of controversy several years ago in the Kyrene district, where some middle-school parents vehemently opposed various elements of the program, namely the inclusion of certain anatomical terminology they considered inappropriate.

When the dust settled and a course of study was adopted, staff members agreed that, the next time the issue came up for discussion, they’d increase the number of people involved in the process and encourage more input than had been received during earlier rounds of study.

So, by the time the district started determining which books and audio-visual materials might be used to teach the approved course, the committee had grown to 35 staff and community members from the previous handful.

Although full consensus was not achieved, the committee’s report met with approval and, according to curriculum and assessment administrator Carrie Furedy, a public review of the recommended resources yielded positive results.

“A lot of people turned out to look at the materials,” said Furedy. “Overall, the response was positive, with people saying, ‘Well, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.’”

The teaching materials that subsequently appeared in classrooms during the 2006-07 school year were considered “quality and informational,” said Furedy, adding however that they were not necessarily the same resources that might be utilized in future years.

“We used a PowerPoint presentation with nice colors, but the information was presented in a straightforward, factual way, which is not always engaging for students,” Furedy said.

Now, with the Kyrene Governing Board scheduled to consider possible changes in how the classes will taught next year, the study committee has once again taken on a challenge.

“For the parents who have served on this committee, they have been pretty much living with me,” said Furedy, describing the stepped-up intensity to make an Aug. 22 deadline imposed by the governing board.

Meeting twice monthly for two to three hours each time, the group has reviewed existing videos and books, considering whether to keep the lessons intact or supplement them with district-developed activities and discussion, which Furedy says were lacking in the earlier materials.

Although the approaches under consideration are not designed to change the previously approved curriculum, they might modify the way in which the subject is taught, Furedy noted.

That, it turns out, could be a relief to district teachers.

“It’s really hard for teachers in our middle schools to teach (sex education),” said Furedy. “They don’t always feel they’re trained, especially in this.”

District administrators yielded to the teachers’ reservations, going so far as to replace the teachers’ own live commentary with a pre-recorded voice-over narrative.

With such issues in mind, coupled with what Furedy insists is the committee’s determination to come up with the best possible recommendation, the group decided to investigate several successful approaches, including one developed by Catholic Charities as part of its abstinence-information program and used in schools nationwide.

To see the program in action, Furedy and committee members spent a week at Gilbert Junior High School, an experience she called “a turning point” in their decision process.

“We went there because we wanted to make sure that the delivery (of the content) was not fear based, that there was no religious piece to this instruction,” she said, noting that being Catholic is not a prerequisite for selection as an instructor.

Its major concerns resolved, the committee decided to recommend utilizing the Catholic Charities  staff and teaching materials, woven into Kyrene’s existing curriculum.

The only step left was to make the proposed study materials available for public review and offer an opportunity for one last round of community input.

To the committee’s surprise, however, only a small amount of public feedback was received, and the review period was extended to 100 days from 60.

With the clock ticking toward the board’s August meeting, Furedy still is hoping for the community’s involvement.

“Our committee desperately wants to hear what the community has to say,” said Furedy. “This is not a rubber-stamp situation; we really want feedback.”

Although she defends the committee’s makeup as “very representative of the community, from extremely conservative to extremely liberal, and everywhere in-between,” she says the group knows “it isn’t perfect.”

While it has spent countless hours trying to develop materials that deserve broad public support, the committee knows it could have missed something in the process.

“If people feel this doesn’t fit with our community, we want them to let us know,” said Furedy. “We’re absolutely willing to consider change.”

What’s right for some parents may be wrong for others, she knows.

“My position might be different if you’re talking about reading,” Furedy says. “But you’re talking about teaching sex; every person has a different perspective of what’s right for them.

“Our challenge is to develop what is best for every single child.”

Whether or not parents agree with the committee’s recommended study materials, they still have options, Furedy notes, including the requirement that every child participating in sex-education programs must have a parental opt-in form on file.

The governing board will make its decision on the coming school year’s study materials at its meeting Tuesday, Aug. 26.

The public has until 5 p.m. Monday, Aug. 22, to review the materials and offer comments.

Even though the board’s vote should bring an end to the current evaluation process, the committee’s work won’t be done. Studies will get under way shortly on curriculum materials for fourth, fifth and seventh graders; content being used by sixth graders is considered adequate and is not currently due for review.

Proposed study materials are available for examination at Kyrene district offices, 8700 S. Kyrene Road, Tempe, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday until July 18 (closed July 14), and 8-4:30 July 21 through Aug. 22.


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