Many effective sex education programs have been developed for middle school students but insufficient progress has been made in disseminating these curricula. A systematic process is not in place for packaging intervention resources, getting buy-in from school administrators, training school staff to implement interventions, and evaluating the impact of the curricula on students’ health.
In Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, statistics describing young people’s sexual health are of concern: by the 9th grade, 35% students have had sexual intercourse; teenage mothers accounted for 12% of all births in 2004, and of these mothers, most were Latina or African American girls; Chlamydia and gonorrhea cases are highest among girls15–19 years of age; and more than half of all new HIV infections occur in persons less than 25 years old. The county lacks effective curricula to help prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STI), and researchers are studying how to disseminate sex education to county schools.
Twenty two school districts comprising 187 schools, more than 3,000 education professionals, and about 178,000 students are involved in the study. Recruitment for the study starts with superintendents, who invite individual schools, and then teachers to participate. Parents and school staff meet with researchers to determine the best mix of curriculum components for specific schools. Researchers are working with advisory groups to develop program products such as a Web site, promotional videos, and training programs for parents and teachers. Center staff is developing surveys to describe the key actors in adopting a curriculum. The researchers are also refining measures of organizational and individual factors that contribute to implementation and maintenance. A second set of middle schools is receiving a brochure about the effective sex education curricula.
Students’ current sexual behavior is collected by using the Youth Risk Behavior Survey at the beginning of the project, and changes are measured in a follow-up survey. Ongoing evaluation will compare the two groups of middle schools to identify which sex education curricula are adopted from the offered array of effective programs. Researchers will also evaluate the financial cost-benefit of offering sex education, measured by dissemination costs and lifetime costs of teen pregnancy, HIV infection, and STI.