By ZOE MORGAN
In some Washington, D.C. high schools, sex education doesn’t just come from teachers, but also comes from peers trained in providing instruction and support.
The Young Women’s Project, a local non-profit, trains hundreds of male and female high school students every year to be peer health educators, as part of their Peer Health and Sexuality Education Project (PHASE). These students then go into their own schools and provide services to fellow students, including handing out condoms and making referrals to local health centers.
“We run trainings on sexual health, reproductive justice and workforce development, so it’s all packed in one,” reproductive justice coordinator Ayari Aguayo said. “And the youth get paid for becoming peer health educators in their schools.”
The program receives funding from the HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD and TB Administration within the District Department of Health. This funding helps to pay the students who work in the program.
“At the core this is a workforce development program,” Anderson said. “And so all of our youth are paid for their time in the office, the work that they do in school and anything else that their doing.”
The program began five years ago with some 30 peer educators at six partner schools. Today, there are more than 140 active educators at 24 schools throughout the District, reproductive justice manager Jessica Anderson said.
“It has been a huge impact,” Aguayo said. “We’ve seen the way that they have the conversations has been helpful in debunking myths, in correcting the information that’s out there.”
The students are expected to reach out to 20 peers at school each week, often providing accurate information about contraceptives or giving out various kinds of condoms – male, female and flavored – and explaining to students how to use them. All students pass a test before they hand out safer-sex materials in schools. The peer educators will also refer students to local health centers, often based at their own school. These referrals are most commonly for contraceptives, STI testing and Plan B, as well as pregnancy testing, Anderson said.
In addition to referrals, the peer educators will also offer guidance to students on topics including whether to choose long acting reversible contraceptives like IUDs as opposed to birth control methods like the pill that need to be taken regularly. Long acting options often to work well for teens, Anderson said, because they don’t require remembering to take a pill every day. However, the peer educators are trained to not push any given option on students, but rather to help them think through their own needs.
The peer-to-peer model has been important because students are more likely to listen to those their own age. Students can talk to each other using their own language, and speak about issues in ways that are honest to their own experiences, Aguayo said.
About 25% of students who receive services from the peer educators each week are repeat users of the program, although this varies widely based on school size and the personality of the educator themselves.
“Especially at the very beginning, our youth tend to have the same students that they’re cycling through,” Anderson said referring to the peer educators. “And as they get known in the school, then we start finding that they get a lot more youth who just know that they’re a peer educator, or heard that they have condoms, or heard that they can talk about what their options might be around sexual and reproductive heath.”
Before the peer educators begin working in schools, they complete a ten-hour initial training on anatomy, sexually transmitted infections, contraceptives and data collection, as well as a 24-hour training on being peer health educators. Once that training is complete, they continue to receive additional trainings on topics like communication, conflict resolution and workforce development.
Although students begin by working in schools as peer educators, more involved students will also meet with local leaders to advocate for health education within the District.
“They’ll meet with decision makers and with council members and other adults to work as partners to solve community problems,” Anderson said. “And so they do that piece of work as well, which is something additional to their peer education.”
The Young Women’s Project holds multiple recruitment drives throughout the year. As is common with programs that employ students, only a little more than half of the students who attend trainings will remain in the program, Anderson said. Many students join the program because of word-of-mouth and peer-to-peer referrals, but students can also apply online or through events at their schools.
The program has also adapted over time to fit the needs of the schools that it operates in. Originally, the Young Women’s Project was targeted exclusively towards young women, and involved more direct education in schools. Now, a third of the peer educators are men and the program’s model is based on community peer education.
The peer educators also used to be expected to make presentations during lunch or in classes. However, some schools didn’t want condoms in lunchrooms or didn’t allow presentations to classes, Anderson said. In the interests of standardizing the program, the focus is now on individual peer to peer education.
“It just didn’t work for our program design because administrations have varying support for this program and for sexual health interventions and so we couldn’t make it standard across schools,” Anderson said.