How should Montclair be teaching its students about health and sexuality?

The school district is in the process of overhauling its curriculum for health and sexual education.

As part of that process, the district hosted a “think tank” at the George Inness Annex Thursday night, Nov. 30.

The evening was supposed to have included a chance for people to write their thoughts and input on index cards, and then have them addressed. But the index cards fell by the wayside as the presenters and audience members began talking directly, about concepts that included consent, optimal class sizes and how to improve communication between families and schools.

Betty Strauss, the district’s supervisor of nursing, told the audience that their participation was vital to the curriculum writing process.

“You’re what it is about,” Strauss said. “And if you turn on the news, every day, especially this week, you just want to shudder,” she said, referring to a series of high-profile sexual harassment and sexual assault cases that have been in the media over the past few months.

“We know our teachers are stellar. We know our parents are sending us stars. But we know that there’s a community element,” said Kendra Johnson, assistant superintendent for equity.

RoseMarie Boyle, the school nurse at Northeast, said that besides content, it was also critical to be able to teach health and sex education in small classes. “We don’t want to be presenting to 100 students on a gym floor,” she said.

“Having a large class, we lose our students,” said Yvonne Shannon, the gym and health teacher at Glenfield. She added that at Glenfield, students are taught that the gym, locker rooms and related areas are safe domains. If anything happens in any of those places, she said, the teachers will address it.

The presenting students were senior Kira Itkin-Weinstein; juniors Adira Brenner and Hanna Breyman; and sophomores Rachele Gaisie, Sydney Rosen and Eliza Salamon. They were accompanied by the club’s faculty advisers, Shana Stein and Anne Baney.

Brenner said it was important for students to learn the correct words for male and female anatomy and be allowed to use those words, even if using those words leads to a case of the giggles at first. “Sometimes, when you’re 14 years old and you haven’t experienced these things,” she said, it can be awkward the first time.

“Better than it not happening, and not learning it at all,” Breyman said.

Stein recounted an incident in which she had to pause a lesson she was teaching about the Civil War when she overheard a student say “you can’t get pregnant the first time.”

One topic that came up was the need to ensure that boys as well as girls are learning about respect and boundaries, and that men as well as women were acting as role models for students.

With the exception of two men in the audience, all of the speakers and attendees at the think tank were women and girls.

“Where are the male educators?” Stein asked. “Where are the fathers?”

In May, Glenfield Middle School came under fire for booking a presentation by First Choice Women’s Resource Center. Parents complained to the school after learning of the group’s perceived abstinence-only leanings.

“That makes you very, very concerned about, what do I want my kids doing or not doing in the public schools?” Sarah Blaine said of the First Choice incident. She said that the incident pointed to a need for clear communication between schools and families. She urged the district to send home a syllabus to parents. “We also know we can hold the schools accountable for whether they actually cover it.”

Strauss said a syllabus is available on the district website, and that she hoped that some of the issues that Blaine had raised concerns about were being addressed.

In response, Blaine said that the district needed to write up a document in parent-friendly language, rather than using a lot of terms that only educators would be familiar with. And she reiterated the need to send a copy hope to parents.

“Navigating the district website is a nightmare.”

Later, Johnson announced that the district was starting to look into a redesign of the website.

At the end of the think tank, the presenters collected all the index cards on which parents had written their input and feedback.
Johnson said the next step would be to go over the input from parents and teachers and compile that into an action plan for the curriculum.