Local schools are usually important partners in abstinence education programs. Schools provide unparalleled access to youth as a captive audience. Other than through the media, there is really no other way to reach so many youth on a regular basis. Furthermore, although the media can reach extraordinary numbers of youth, they do not have the targeted focus on youth development that many educators feel is critical to decisions regarding sexual attitudes and behaviors. However, establishing partnerships with schools is sometimes difficult.
Based on observations and reported experiences of the programs visited during site selection and more in-depth examination of the 11 sites that are the focus of the evaluation effort, it appears that schools generally become partners in abstinence education funding through one of four models of organizational structure. Three involve cooperation between the grantee (the local agency that received Section 510 funding from the state) and others (Figure 1):
Figure 1: Models of Organization Among Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs
- The one-to-one program model refers to an organizational structure in which a community-based agency is awarded a grant to provide abstinence education to youth in a school-based setting, and establishes a partnership with the local schools or school district. The Powhatan County Health Department in Powhatan, Virginia, for example, is providing an abstinence education curriculum to students in the county’s middle and high schools. Program staff, hired by the health department, have a cooperative agreement with the school district to teach these classes.
- The wheel program model depicts an organizational structure in which the Section 510 grant recipient spearheads an abstinence education initiative in several different settings, often drawing on other community resources such as schools, local businesses, health care providers, or other social service organizations to assist with newly developed efforts. The Fort Bend Abstinence Leadership and Resources for Teens initiative in Fort Bend, Texas, as well as the McLennan County Collaborative Abstinence Project in McLennan County, Texas, have spearheaded numerous and diverse abstinence initiatives in their communities. In both cases, these new initiatives include involvement of the medical community and development of a local information and resource center. The Youth Abstinence Education Program of the Tooele, Utah, County Health Department has launched school, extracurricular, parent, and community awareness activities and programs. Examples are a “self-esteem day” for fifth through eighth graders, games and door prizes at program-sponsored or supported parties and dances, parent-teen conferences, and abstinence messages contained in discount coupons for local stores.
- The coalition program model is an organizational structure in which multiple participating organizations contribute staff to a newly formed entity and jointly oversee program initiatives and the Section 510 funding. For example, coalition members in the AEI Coalition of Equipping Youth program in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, include a county school district, a corps of high school students who present skits in other schools, a volunteer organization operated by physicians’ spouses, a group that focuses on substance abuse, and a program staffed by parenting teens. Funding is coordinated through the coalition, and monthly meetings of coalition members provide an opportunity for members to coordinate and build on one another’s efforts.
The fourth model, though not used by any of the programs selected for the evaluation, is a single-agency model. For example, a school that receives funds to redesign its own sex education curriculum may operate independently rather than in a cooperative relationship with any other organization.
Regardless of the organizational structure, creating and sustaining partnerships between abstinence education programs and local schools often requires enormous persistence and resources. All the programs in the evaluation have established such partnerships, but with varying degrees of challenge and success. Some programs have been welcomed and given extensive support. Some have had to pursue partnership agreements on numerous fronts over long periods of time, conducting community discussions, seminars with parents, and repeated conversations with principals, district superintendents, and local school boards. Still others have received little ongoing support or have been denied access and forced to seek partnerships in other districts or with other organizations.
Where districts and schools are reluctant to support abstinence education programs, it is often because of conflicts over the sex education curriculum. In an effort to appear even-handed, the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, school district excluded from its classrooms both the abstinence educators and educators from Planned Parenthood. Still, the AEI Coalition of Equipping Youth program steadily expanded its access to county schools as the positive reputation of its school-based program in one school district spread. The public schools in Waco, Texas, rejected the abstinence education funds. As a result, the McLennan County Abstinence Education Project focuses its school-based services in surrounding school districts and works with faith-based and other community service organizations to reach high-risk youth in the city. And in South Carolina, the Heritage Keepers program was rejected in some communities that did not want abstinence education as the sex education curriculum in their schools.
Lack of support from school staff is often a factor jeopardizing a school-based abstinence education program. Based on the reported experiences of leaders of the 11 programs in the evaluation, as well as a number of other abstinence education programs visited during site selection, skepticism can emanate from the principal or from classroom teachers. Even when principals invite a program into a school, unless they work to underscore its merit, classroom teachers may withhold support. Teachers’ resistance to a program’s mission or unwillingness to coordinate with program staff, as many sites have reported, can undermine the effectiveness of program operations.
Waning support can result from the emergence of new priorities. For example, in Powhatan, Virginia, an increase in school violence usurped much of the principal’s time and resources, so that the abstinence program received less attention. The current national emphasis on school accountability for student achievement is increasing the priority given to “core” rather than “non-core” courses, and abstinence education programs often struggle in this environment.
Lack of support from a principal also can emerge as a result of staff turnover. As in several schools participating in the evaluation, the principal who invited the program into the school leaves, and the new principal’s agenda and priorities do not include strong support for the abstinence education program or the organization that runs it. The Teens in Control program in Mississippi, for example, worked very hard for an entire year to gain the full cooperation and welcome from two of the three districts in which it planned to operate. In one of these districts, a state takeover resulted in a new principal being hired to “turn the school around.” As a result, the new principal had extremely limited opportunity or incentive to give any priority to the abstinence program.
Lack of dedicated space for the abstinence program can be a symptom of weak school support. Unless an abstinence program is replacing an existing school offering, space availability is often an issue. Several of the programs involved in the evaluation face space constraints and often get shuffled around. This instability in physical location can further undermine support for the program, even among program participants. Uncertainty regarding program location and the inability to establish a secure “home” (either to leave materials/resources or to create a physical identity for the program) can create frustration and ultimately jeopardize the interest and commitment of students and teachers.
Programs can strengthen their partnerships with schools through visibility. They can do this by making sure that the principal and the teachers understand the program’s mission and curriculum, and that they are regularly informed on issues related to the program and its participants. For programs with time and flexibility, providing a direct link to the needs of classroom teachers — such as through the provision of time for homework or tutoring assistance, as is done in the FUPTP program in Milwaukee — can help integrate the program into the school’s existing agenda. Finally, most schools will welcome programs that achieve visibility through popularity with participants and parents; those that make a real investment in youth will be rewarded. An example is the success of the grassroots efforts of parents from the Iowa College Community School District in convincing the school board to adopt the abstinence education program offered through the AEI Coalition of Equipping Youth.
Among the partners of programs participating in the evaluation, some principals and schools have been deeply committed to the abstinence education initiative. In such cases, positive, mutually beneficial relationships for all — the school, the program, the participants, and the parents — have generally emerged.