The Palo Alto school board will discuss Tuesday night a new sex education curriculum that has drawn both intense opposition and strong support in the community.
A group of parents have protested the new curriculum, taught by Redwood City nonprofit Health Connected, primarily for being inappropriate content for seventh graders. They have also criticized the district's process for selecting the program as hasty and unrepresentative of parents, and have called for a more thorough vetting process akin to the one required for adoption of a full curriculum such as mathematics.
The school district added the seventh-grade Health Connected curriculum after a state law was updated with more comprehensive requirements around sex education for public schools and took effect last January. The California Healthy Youth Act requires districts to educate students about sexual health and HIV prevention at least once in middle school and once in high school. Previously, districts were only mandated to provide HIV-prevention education in middle and high school, though middle school science teachers in Palo Alto Unified gave said they have long taught their own sexual-health curriculum.
Other parents have turned out to school board meetings in recent months to voice their support for what they argue is much-needed and age-appropriate education about safe sex, gender identity, consent and other topics.
Staff is not recommending that the district replace Health Connected, but rather to ensure greater communication and transparency around the curriculum. The district should develop "specific, detailed, informational" presentations on Health Connected for parents and teachers, provide parents with full access to the curriculum materials before they are taught to students and make "clear" opt-out information available in multiple languages to parents, according to a staff report written by Superintendent Max McGee. The district is also adding information about the California Healthy Youth Act to its website.
The district has said staff considered Health Connected, taught over the course of 10 hours to seventh-graders, as a supplementary rather than primary curriculum that would not require a full adoption process.
An American Civil Liberties Union of California memo on the California Healthy Youth Act notes that parents must be notified of any planned sexual health instruction, provided the opportunity to review the materials and given the option to opt their child out of the instruction.
"Parents do not have the right," however, "to dictate what curriculum is used for sexual health education or what information is provided to students in public schools. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has ruled that parents do not have any constitutional right 'to prevent a public school from providing its students with whatever information it wishes to provide, sexual or otherwise, when and as the school determines that it is appropriate to do so,'" the ACLU memo reads.
Staff are also recommending that teachers be trained in Health Connected materials, with the goal that they eventually become the primary educators delivering the curriculum. Currently, trained sexual health educators employed by the nonprofit teach the curriculum, with students' regular teachers present in the classroom.
Palo Alto and Gunn high schools have been using Health Connected lessons in their Living Skills classes since 2006. This year, the district also asked the nonprofit to teach its "Puberty Talk" lesson to Palo Alto Unified fifth-graders "to provide greater continuity and alignment with the middle school curricula," McGee wrote in his report.
In response to community concerns about Health Connected, several staff members — the district nurse, student services coordinator and some elementary teachers on special assignment — sought guidance in a meeting with the Santa Clara County Office of Education last month.
"One takeaway from the meeting was that other school districts are experiencing similar trends in community response to the new legislation, including concerns based on misinformation and inaccuracies," McGee wrote. (Parents in Cupertino have also protested the curriculum.)
This spring, Palo Alto Unified surveyed parents, teachers and students on Health Connected; the results "will be used to determine next steps or revisions to the planned implementation," the staff report reads.
If the majority of the board supports adopting Health Connected under the process outlined in board policy on selection and evaluation of instructional materials, staff is "ready and willing to do so," McGee wrote, noting that "given the time required for a full curriculum adoption it is not likely a new program could be put in place for 2017-18."
"It is important to note that PAUSD is statutorily required to provide comprehensive sexual health instruction," he wrote.
In other business Tuesday, the board is set to vote on its 2017-18 budget and a proposed balancing plan, discuss the high schools' annual Single Plan for Student Achievement reports and discuss plans for a major renovation of Addison Elementary School, among other items. The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. View the agenda here.