Sex education has long sparked controversy, with some believing it does not belong in public school curriculums. Budget constraints, meanwhile, have recently forced some districts to drop the subject altogether.
In this environment, a nurse at a private medical practice in this area has come up with an instructional program that appears to have taken the edge off for many parents by pitching sex education to them as well as to youngsters. The pilot Smart Sex Education Program, offered free and conducted outside of school, has drawn rave reviews from parents, who say it has made them more comfortable about discussing the awkward subject with their children.
The course is also a boon in communities where schools have had to limit sex education because of a lack of funds.
"I think it's a wonderful way to approach it," said participant Angela C. Waszak, a Westford mother of three girls, ages 4, 8, and 9. "I want to be the information source [about sex] - not have them hear it on the bus or from their friends. Once they know the facts, you can talk about values."
Over the past few weeks, the creator of the course, Thu Anh Lewin, a nurse at Pediatrics West, has taught the facts of life to middle and high school students, and held a class for parents, encouraging them to become the primary teacher about sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, and healthy relationships.
The five-week course, ending today, was developed for a limited number of people, but Lewin said she plans to hold more classes this summer and hopes to obtain funding to make it more widely available in the future.
The course was welcomed by Beverly Jean Pinney of Pepperell, where budget cuts this year forced Nissitissit Middle School to lay off a health teacher and forgo its sex education offering. Although assistant principal Diane Gleason said the course is scheduled to be reinstated next fall, Pinney said she was glad to fill in the gap for her 13-year-old daughter by sending her to Lewin's course.
The squeeze is likely to recur elsewhere, as communities face continuing budget woes, said a spokesman for an organization that promotes comprehensive school-based sex education for teenagers.
Until several years ago, Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts spokesman Angus McQuilken said, the state funded local school health education, including courses on sexuality. But those funds are no longer available, and many districts with limited resources have cut back on what they offered.
"This is an enormous problem," McQuilken said.
Lewin said she learned that sex education was no longer available in some places only after developing her course. She said she became aware of the importance of reaching parents after reviewing findings in a report about the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, compiled by schools for the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lewin said she was surprised to find, for example, that 23.5 percent of Westford students in grades 9 through 12 responding to the survey in 2006 - the latest data available - reported having had sexual intercourse, while 32.1 percent reported having had oral sex, and 24.5 percent reported they believed more than half their peers have had sexual intercourse.
Lewin said she decided parents should be aware of the prevalence of sexual activity among teens and have the tools to discuss it with their children.
With the help of Emerson Hospital in Concord, she advertised in local media. Parents expressing interest came from several towns, including Westford, Groton, and Pepperell. Instruction took place at Westford's J.V. Fletcher Library. The classes, beginning in April, met once a week.
For parents, Lewin held a single class divided into two sessions - one during the day that attracted 16 mothers, and another at night with 15 mothers and three fathers. The class offered them 2 1/2 hours of recommendations on how to broach the subject of sex with their children.
"We don't tell them what to say," Lewin said. "We just help them to feel more comfortable."
Pinney, a colleague of Lewin at Pediatrics West, said she appreciated the advice. "One thing that surprised me is, [Lewin] said don't have 'The Talk' with the kids," Pinney said. "It's not one talk. It's a whole bunch of little talks [and] finding teachable moments."
Lewin had eight students attending the course, at their parents' insistence.
For the middle school students, ages 11 to 14, she broke down the instruction into separate classes on communication, the reproductive system, puberty, and sexually transmitted diseases and protection, including a discussion of abstinence.
For high school students, she covered the same ground, but skipped the sessions on the reproductive system and puberty, and added discussions about relationships, both healthy and abusive, and gender roles, including homosexuality.
"They need to understand everybody is different; they need to be empathic," Lewin said. "I'm not telling them what's right and what's wrong. I'm just giving them information."
She said she took a three-day course from the Worcester-based affiliate of Planned Parenthood to prepare herself, and used one of its associates to help with her class for parents.
The course was paid for out of a $5,000 award from Fallon Community Health Plan, an insurance and healthcare provider. Fallon is not affiliated with Pediatrics West, located in Groton and Westford and contracted to provide healthcare to some schools there and in Chelmsford, Lawrence, Pepperell, and Tyngsborough.
While receiving no complaints about her course, Lewin said she recognizes that sex education is controversial. Still, she said, her course is private and voluntary.
"I'm not forcing them to take it," she said.
Connie Paige can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.