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Passing marks for Central Okanagan school sex education program

Delivery of program endorsed by students, staff and parents

Okanagan Public Schools has received an overwhelmingly positive endorsement from parents, staff and students on the delivery of its sexual education program.

School district staff completed a Level 1 review of the program, seeking widespread input from all stakeholders, starting in October 2022 through February 2023.

The results were presented to the education and student services committee last Wednesday (April 19), led by assistant superintendent Alan Lalonde, who was joined by district principal, learning support services Sherri Roche and sexual health education teachers Leanne Woodrow, Jenny Rabinovitch and Nicole Weremy.

The program is geared for Grade 4 to 10 students, but Lalonde said feedback from students indicated support for seeing sex education-related issues continue to be addressed at the Grade 11 level.

The Sexual Health Education Program (SHEP), formerly known as the Family Life Program, was re-instated in September 2005 with two full-time (FTE) teachers delivering program lessons to Grade 4-10 students each school year.

Due to the need for increased instructional time and enrolment growth, the number of teachers was increased from two to three FTE by 2017. This also allowed for the addition of Grade 11 lessons.

Since then, there has been no increase in teaching resources, resulting in a progressive reduction in the number of lessons taught – Grades 6 and 7 students have had reductions in SHEP lessons while Grade 11 lessons had been eliminated.

The Central Okanagan is unique among many school districts for placing certified sexual education teachers for SHEP instruction, under a curriculum mandated by the Ministry of Education and Childcare, whereas some other districts assign the role to teachers on staff.

“We want the classroom teachers to be present because they have a stronger relationship and knowledge of their students and can tell quickly if a student is having problems with what is being taught, but the teachers leading the class are certified and trained to instruct this program,” Lalonde said.

Feedback sought from student/parent surveys and follow-up focus groups all related strong support for how the program was delivered in Central Okanagan schools.

Among Grade 10 students, for example, a large majority of students indicated that participating in SHEP had given them a better understanding of safer sex practices including getting tested, barrier use and birth control.

Some 87 per cent of students said they would seek consent before and during sexual activity and a large majority had a better understanding of situations where there is no consent.

As for parents surveyed, parents of Grade 4-8 students felt their child’s knowledge about body changes during puberty increased, while parents of Grade 9 and 10 students felt their child’s knowledge about consent, qualities of healthy relationships and sexually transmitted infections increased.

Committee chair trustee Amy Geistlinger expressed some surprise there were fewer than 10 people in attendance to deal with what can be a divisive and intensive issue but acknowledged emotions tend to run higher when talking about course content than the actual delivery of the program.

“I had cautioned people who contacted me that the focus of this is on the structure and delivery of the program and not the content, which is mandated to us by the (Ministry of Education and Childcare),” Geistlinger said.

Several of those in attendance did offer remarks to the committee, touching on the difficulty some students have with the course content, greater involvement of parents and ability for students to opt out of the classroom program instruction for a home instruction alternative overseen by parents.

Trustees along with representatives from the Central Okanagan Teachers Association and Central Okanagan Parent Advisory Council expressed gratitude and support for how SHEP is delivered and the value it provides to both students and parents.

“I want to thank all the people who work on the delivery of this program in a safe and respectful way,” Fraser said.

“It is a challenging topic but in my 12 years as a trustee all I have heard is how well received it has been from students and parents, which is reaffirmed by the survey results as part of this review.”

“What I would say is we want even more of your time,” added Nicola Baker, vice president of COPAC, to the SHEP teachers.

Lalonde forwarded several recommendations from the review, led by the addition of another full-time program teacher to support the implementation of sexual health lessons at the early primary level, expand lessons taught to Grade 4-10 students and include lessons for Grade 11 and 12 students.

Kevin Kaardal, school district superintendent/CEO, confirmed the 2023-24 budget has provision to meet that added program staff request.

Other SHEP review recommendations include:

• continue to improve the communication link between administrators, teachers and parents regarding the scheduling and implementation of the program

• expand instruction on consent and reporting sexual assaults

• in collaboration with the International Education Program, translate SHEP resources into multiple languages

The committee passed a recommendation to the board of education to adopt the review findings.

READ MORE: What is the SOGI 123 resource in British Columbia schools?

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