Monday, October 6, 2003
By RUTH PADAWER
Aimed at 8,000 students and using hip-hop music and an interactive video game, The Choice Game is believed to be the most extensive abstinence-only curriculum in New Jersey schools.
Although a separate health class will briefly discuss condoms, the abstinence course will be the main component of sex education for ninth-graders, lasting 90 minutes once a week for the nine-week semester.
The program was created last year by a Bergen County abstinence proponent who runs homes for pregnant teenagers. From her Ramsey office, within earshot of wailing babies and the conversations of weary young mothers, Kathy DiFiore is overseeing the Newark program, including hiring five full-time teachers to hammer home one unwavering message: Sex before marriage can ruin your life.
But in Newark, where the rates for teen births and sexually transmitted disease are among the highest in the state, exasperated school officials say it's time to try something new.
"If the wheel wasn't broken, I would have said, 'Leave it alone,'" says Vincent L. Mays, the school official who helped bring the curriculum to the city. "But it's real broken. We have to end the cycle of teen pregnancy and dropping out of school."
Newark's position echoes that of a growing number of districts nationwide, and is supported both philosophically and financially by the Bush administration. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was so pleased by The Choice Game that it granted $2.3 million to launch the program in Newark, concluding it could be a model for schools nationwide.
The curriculum includes six CD-ROMs with interactive soap operas that present real-life quandaries and allow players to direct the game's characters: Yield to sexual pressure? Try drugs? Abide by parents' rules? Children will be encouraged to take the CDs and workbooks home to their parents.
|"The beauty of it is it allows students to make decisions and see the consequences, without actually having to suffer them themselves," says Tom Giorgio, director of health education for Newark's public schools.
Teen pregnancy remains a problem, despite a declining birth rate among American teens. In Newark, eight of every 100 girls 15 or older already have a child. Statewide, where almost 8,000 teens became mothers in 2001, the birth rate for black and Hispanic adolescents is more than five times that for whites. Teen mothers are less likely to finish school and will have fewer job opportunities. Their children, on average, have poorer health and cognitive development than other children, worse educational outcomes, and more behavior problems.
Shidae Jones, 16, of Newark has seen classmates get pregnant and drop out, and she wants to avoid that trap. She took part in the district's summer pilot program of The Choice Game.
"The game was great - it taught me a lot of things, like how you can catch STDs from oral sex," she says. "Some kids will heed the abstinence message, some won't. Some kids will say, 'I don't need no game to run my life; I run my own life.' I like the game's message, but I think kids need to learn more about condoms, too."
The Choice Game, already being taught to hundreds of middle and high school students in Newark's Catholic schools, will begin in public schools next month. At the end of each nine-week cycle, those who sign the abstinence pledge will be given sterling silver rings to wear on the third finger of their left hand, a tangible symbol of their commitment to chastity.
"When we tested the curriculum last year, 94 percent of the students chose to sign the pledge, but to be quite honest, I think some of those kids just wanted the ring," says DiFiore, the game's inventor. From now on, she says, teachers will de-emphasize the rings, instead stressing the importance of fulfilling the promise.
DiFiore first opened her own home to unmarried pregnant women 23 years ago, taking in girls as young as 12. Now she runs four shelters in North Jersey and requires residents to participate in chastity workshops. Their stories provided some of the game scripts. Whereas DiFiore's homes stress religious beliefs, her abstinence program makes no religious references. Nor does it mention abortion.
In Newark, contraception will be taught, but lessons will be on a different day, taught by a different teacher. Proponents of comprehensive sex education say that approach may confuse students and undermine the next day's message.
"These things make much more sense when they're taught all together," says Wilson. "Otherwise, it's like teaching the North's perspective on the Civil War one year, and the South's perspective the next year."
DiFiore and other abstinence-only supporters dismiss the skepticism, saying there's no reason to integrate talk of "safe sex."
"Those critics haven't seen the lives I've seen here, girls in the bathroom slitting their wrists, or the heartache because the guy who slept with her no longer remembers her first name," DiFiore says. "Even if condoms were 100 percent effective at preventing pregnancy or disease - and they're not - you can't put a condom on a broken heart. We'd be a lot better off if we taught young people the value of waiting, instead of thinking they need instant gratification."
Newark is not the only place where the federal government is funding the abstinence message.
n Paterson and Jersey City, abstinence-only proponents appear at assemblies and run after-school chastity clubs. In Camden and Irvington, they make classroom presentations and offer after-school clubs. In Burlington and Willingboro, they run summer and weekend programs to help kids navigate pressure over sex and drugs.
But nowhere else in New Jersey will the abstinence-only message so thoroughly permeate the public classroom. To meet the state's Core Curriculum Standards for health education, which require high school graduates to be well-informed about abstinence, monogamy, and contraception, most districts integrate discussion of contraceptive methods and abstinence.
Newark officials are delighted.
"You look at this and you say, 'This is going to be a national phenomenon that's started in Newark,'" Mays says. "This is where it originated, where it had its first breath."