As urban school districts grapple with massive budget deficit, some programs that aren't strict academics go up on the chopping block. A program in the Syracuse City School District, that teaches everything from sex education to stranger danger, is slated to be cut.
What is it like to teach fifth graders about puberty?
Catherine Kline is an Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Education Program (ADA-PEP) teacher in the Syracuse City School District. The puberty lessons she teaches are her favorite.
"They really want to know. They're sitting at the edge of their seats usually. They are so curious about their bodies and for the most part they take it seriously. There is some giggling but they really want to know about themselves, and they really want to know what's coming in their lives," Kline said.
The lessons are among instruction for fourth through sixth graders on a variety of topics including personal safety, substance abuse prevention, HIV, AIDS and puberty.
The school district is proposing that the program be eliminated as officials grapple with a massive budget deficit. ADA-PEP is sponsored by the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, but the total cost of the program is not covered. Syracuse receives some compensation from the state to pay teachers but the district has to cover the difference.
Superintendent Sharon Contreras says the district just can't afford it.
"The programs costs approximately $450,000. We only receive $103,000 in grant funds. So it's no longer fiscally feasible for us to maintain the program," Contreras said.
Some of the curriculum, like the HIV/AIDS portion, is required by the state. Other topics are part of the district's curriculum. It needs to be taught and that responsibility will fall into the hands of the physical education and health teachers.
"Many of our PE teachers are dual certified in health and they can deliver the same curriculum," Contreras said.
June Egan, who has been teaching the ADA-PEP curriculum for 22 years, disagrees. She says that the ADA-PEP curriculum provides consistency. The same teacher provides lessons to the same students over three years. She said the repetition helps.
"We build up rapport with the students. Sometimes it takes three or four years for it to sink in and for them to overcome their fears if they've been threatened," Egan said.
Egan says her lessons have changed the lives of some kids.
"I've had cases where the child then felt empowered to go home and tell what was going on. Then parents were able to access McMahon Ryan Child Advocacy Center and local places to get the help the child needed," Egan said.
McMahon Ryan Executive Director Julie Cecile is an ADA-PEP booster. Her organization deals with childhood victims of abuse and neglect. She says these aren't topics most people want to talk about.
"A lot of these kids don't necessarily get these conversations at home," Cecile said.
Janet Fenner, and ADA-PEP teacher for 30 years, says this kind of curriculum is more important now than ever.
"...Because of what our kids are exposed to through the media; what they're seeing on TV, DVDs; what they might be exposed to in some homes and neighborhoods on a daily basis; what incorrect information they're getting from other people," Fenner said.
Fenner says what kids learn in the ADA-PEP program may be different from traditional academics but she says the lessons are just as important.
"What we're teaching them is something that they can use and the skills that they are learning to use to take care of themselves not only in fifth and sixth grade, but for the rest of their life," Fenner said.