The YEAH! Network uses research, advocacy, and community education and collaboration to influence policy and practice in adolescent sexual health. By articulating a common agenda among diverse local, state, and national stakeholders, we are working to create an informed, empowered, and engaged response to teen pregnancy and sexual health disparities in Hampden County.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Advocacy Alert: Holyoke Teens Gain Access to Sex Education!

On the same day the Republican Newspaper published an article about the rising teen birth rates in Holyoke, the school committee voted 7-3 in support of a comprehensive sex education curriculum in the Holyoke Public Schools. The Curriculum Subcommittee intensely debated the topic for over one hour before voting unanimously to approve the recommended science based comprehensive sex education curriculums (Quidate and FLASH). These curriculums were selected through a grant received last year from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Immediately following this vote, the full school committee convened. There was a speak out prior to the vote for the public to voice their opinions regarding implementation of the curriculum. One school committee member noted that there was an unprecedented number of the public attending the meeting, something that has not been seen before at any school committee meeting. 

The YEAH Network would like to thank all community members and leaders who have supported the advocacy efforts - including collecting over 400 letters of support - that has led to this unprecedented vote for comprehensive sex education in Holyoke Public Schools. This was truly a community effort that has involved community based organizations, policy makers, health professionals, the public health leaders, education advocates and most importantly parents and teens who believe youth should have the education they need to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. 

Although this has been a vital first step in the battle to reduce adverse reproductive health outcomes of youth, the YEAH Network will continue to work on behalf of teens in Holyoke to ensure responsible implementation of the curriculum and to include an evaluation component to this new policy. Following the vote on the curriculums, the school committee voted to hold a forum before the end of this school year to explain the new curriculums to parents. While the forum has not yet been scheduled, this will be another time that we will ask for your support . It will be vital for those who believe in the importance of comprehensive sex education in the schools to come, speak out and help shape how implementation of the curriculum will occur. We will be sure to be in touch regarding that event. 

Thank you again for all that you do! 

2008 Massachusetts Birth Data: YEAH! Network Response

The Massachusetts 2008 Birth Data, released last week, highlighted the continued disparity in the teen birth rates in many western Massachusetts communities. The information in the report underscores the continued need for comprehensive and sustained efforts to improve reproductive health outcomes for youth. The YEAH! (Youth Empowerment Adolescent Health) Network, a community coalition in Hampden County, uses advocacy, research, and community education to influence policy and practice in adolescent sexual health. Our response to the 2008 teen birth data will be ongoing: we view this year’s annual report from the Department of Public Health as an opportunity to go beneath the surface of the numbers and to explore several of the unanswered questions raised by the data.

The rates of both Springfield and Holyoke remain in stark contrast to the Massachusetts teen birth rate of 20.1 per 1,000. In 2008, for the fourth year in a row, Holyoke experienced the highest teen birth rate in the state: 115.3 births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 19. This represents a 21% increase from the city’s 2007 rate of 95.4 per 1,000. The YEAH! Network is developing research questions that will link these statistics to information about poverty and other demographic information, which will inform ongoing policy reform and other community intervention strategies.  While we are encouraged by the 27% drop in Springfield’s teen birth rate for 2008 (61.4 per 1,000, compared with 84.3 in 2007), it is preemptive to suggest that this change can be attributed solely to existing programs in the city. The city of Springfield is in the early stages of making positive changes to address the teen birth rate disparity in the city: a city-wide task force addressing adolescent sexual health has been looking closely at these issues for a little over one year. In August 2009, the Springfield school committee approved a comprehensive sex education curriculum that began implementation this past winter. While these encouraging steps should certainly be applauded, there is still substantial work to do.

The Department of Public Health’s report is useful for providing a snapshot of where we have been, but it is not the whole picture. The take-away message is this: We are on the right track, and it is vital that we do not become complacent at this crucial tipping point. In Springfield, the school-based policies have only been implemented a few months ago. In Holyoke, the task forces are still forming. A coordinated and continuous effort, with full community participation, is the only way to achieve the conditions that foster adolescent sexual health: access to information and education; access to reproductive health services; and access to opportunity for the future. The YEAH! Network research team is excited to investigate the intersecting dynamics behind the data in the birth report, and to work with community-based organizations, local governments and schools, and community residents to create an informed, empowered, and engaged response to this health disparity.