Submission by Meena Natarajan

Meena poses in front of a presentation for Peer Health Exchange.

“There’s two holes down there?”

This type of question is not uncommon during a Peer Health Exchange workshop on sexual health at A.P. Randolph High School. Every Friday, City College’s chapter, known to highlight the diversity of an organization known for bridging the gap in health inequity in underserved areas around the country, teaches high school workshops on substance use, sexual health, mental health, and skills including accessing resources, decision making, communication, and advocacy.

Nationally, health education is mostly outdated, culturally inaccessible, or irrelevant to students. Health education that singularly promotes abstinence and restraint from substances, without education on how to make healthy and informed decisions regarding the two topics, leads to higher rates of teen pregnancies, STI contraction, and substance abuse in high schoolers.

Further, health education in the U.S. often does not account for the experience of low-income students, students of color, and queer students, who may experience unique barriers to accessing healthcare. New York City especially is facing a crisis when it comes to providing adequate health education to its public school students.

In New York City, many students from low-income schools do not receive any form of health education at all. According to the “Healthy Relationships: A Plan for Improving Health and Sexual Education in New York City Schools” report from the Office of the New York City Comptroller, “Only 57 percent of eighth grade students completed the New York State-mandated middle school health requirement of one semester of health taught during the middle school years.”

Of the schools that do provide health education, “97 percent of educators who teach health in middle and high school are not licensed to teach health; only 144 of the 4,560 teachers in schools that teach middle and high school students and were assigned to teach health are licensed to do so,” the report found.

According to the NYC Department of Education, 20,000 high school students drop out before 12th grade, most often due to teen pregnancy. Therefore, lack of health education can lead to a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty that involves teens dropping out and experiencing increased financial burdens. Comprehensive health education can be an antidote to the cycle.

Peer Health Exchange was founded in 2003 as a supplementary means of providing health education to Title I students across the country–taught by college students (like us at CCNY!) in a near-peer model. Title I schools are those where over 75% of students receive free or reduced lunch. The workshops are taught by college students and cover a wide range of topics, from decision making regarding drugs and alcohol, to how to communicate with your partner in a healthy sexual relationship.

PHE strives to be inclusive to all groups and demographics through easily understandable and informative workshops. Its mission is to address the effects of power and privilege in its work and strive to be anti-racist, anti-nationalist, anti-queerphobic, anti-transphobic, anti-sexist, anti-classist, and anti-ableist.

Since its conception, PHE has provided 17,000 students from 150 public schools in five cities with quality health education. In New York, 80% of the students served qualify as low-income, and 87% of the students are of color.

The City College Peer Health Exchange Chapter is currently partnered with A.P. Randolph High School and the Urban Assembly High School for the Performing Arts and has experienced tremendous growth in the past semester in regards to recruiting a diverse group of educators. Being able to teach has positively impacted educators as well as students.

Luisa Anaya, a sophomore at CCNY, spoke of her experience working with PHE: “I’ve been doing PHE for the past two years, and every single time I’ve walked out of a class I’ve felt a sense of accomplishment. There’s nothing better than being in the classroom and knowing that what you’re doing is important and making a difference, which we get to do every Friday for PHE. And I love my kids– they’re so fun, it makes our work worth it.”

The students we teach have also felt PHE gave them a space and the agency to voice their experiences and take charge of their health education. When asked what PHE meant to him, a 9th grade student at A.P. Randolph High School said:

“In PHE we talk about sex, mental health- topics that have a negative stigma around them. So I think it’s good that people are out there trying to spread awareness of it, instead of just hiding it and putting it in an area where no one’s going to talk about it, and also the fact that you guys are our age, so you can relate to certain things that we say and have experienced what we experience too.”

This fall, PHE will be accepting applications again! During the 2018-2019 school year, the organization seeks to recruit City College volunteers—a group of students whose diversity parallels that of the classroom. If you are interested in joining, be on the lookout for our table in the NAC Rotunda or just visit peerhealthexchange.org/apply!

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