First Person

HIV program speaks to young Latinos

Thalia Ortiz walks into a classroom of ninth-graders on Denver’s west side hoping to harness some of the very cultural values that others commonly see as a barrier to safe sex practices in the Latino community.

boys in school
Seventh- and eighth-graders at Denver's Manny Martinez Middle School completed the ¡Cuídate! curriculum this winter.

By reframing machismo and marianismo – the distinct gender roles common among Latinos that dictate that men make the decisions and women defer – Ortiz wants to develop positive attitudes toward abstinence and condom use among the youngsters.

And if that happens, it can only help push down the area’s higher-than-average rate of sexually-transmitted infections.

Ortiz, a social worker with Denver Area Youth Services (DAYS), is using ¡Cuídate!, a six-hour curriculum that is one of the only evidence-based HIV prevention programs available for use with Latino youth ages 13-18.

“It really emphasizes HIV prevention in a language the kids will understand,” Ortiz said.

The classes involve role-playing, songs and games to make it fun for the students.

“It doesn’t get too scientific. There’s not too much biology and chemistry,” she said. “But it teaches a basic understanding of what HIV is and what it does to your body and how it can be prevented.”

Curriculum reinforces Latino cultural values

Most importantly, ¡Cuídate! – Spanish for “take care of yourself” – emphasizes how machismo means protecting others, and taking responsibility for keeping oneself and one’s partner safe.

It reinforces traditional Latino concern for familismo – pride in one’s family – and respeto, self-respect.

It also encourages Latinas to view abstinence or condom use as ways to practice that self-respect, and provides them with the skills to insist that partners respect their wishes.

“In the Latino culture, sex is something very private. A lot of parents don’t talk to their children about it,” Ortiz said. “When we talk about it in class, we talk about how sometimes the man feels he makes all the decisions and the woman doesn’t have any decisions in regards to sex.

“And if they were raised with this type of value, machismo, how will that affect their relationships when it comes to sex? And we talk about loyalty to family. If somebody in their family were to become infected with HIV, how would that affect their family?”

The curriculum, developed by University of Michigan researcher Antonia Villarrual, was tested among predominantly Latino youth in Philadelphia and in Mexico before coming to Denver four years ago.

In 2007, DAYS and Colorado Youth Matter won a grant to launch a trial program in Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School, targeting ninth-grade physical education and ROTC students.

More than 700 students will take part this year

Since then, thanks to continued funding, the program has become a regular part of the school’s health curriculum. Ortiz and others trained in the program have offered it at a number of other schools and youth organizations within the 80204 and 80219 zip codes, which encompass predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods on Denver’s west side.

Providers expect to offer the class to more than 700 young people in Denver this year.

School officials say they are pleased with the results. Gabe Trujillo, principal at Manny Martinez Middle School, where the classes were offered to seventh- and eighth-graders as part of the health curriculum, said he sat in on several classes and was excited at the way the students responded.

“The kids were easily engaged and eager to learn,” he said. “It wasn’t a ‘hee-hee-giggle-giggle’ type of thing. They really wanted the information. They’d start a lot of questions with ‘I’ve heard…’ and then they’d want to know things like if you could get HIV from sharing a soda or from kissing.”

Trujillo said that the program so challenged his students that the school devoted Home Room period twice a week for several weeks to discussing safe sex and HIV questions the students had. He said the students were not only retaining what they learned in class, they were discussing it afterward.

While students are required to get parental permission to participate in the ¡Cuídate! class, Ortiz says she’s never encountered a parent who objects. Instead, she’s encountered parents who come up to her and thank her for making such information available to their children.

Emphasis on HIV prevention, not just sex education

“We emphasize that this is not sex education. It’s HIV prevention,” Ortiz said.

Learn more

  • Read an article in AIDS Education and Prevention describing the trial program to introduce ¡Cuídate! at Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School.
  • Learn more about the specifics of the ¡Cuídate! program, or download a preview kit.
  • For information on bringing ¡Cuídate! to a school or youth-related agency, contact Courtney Griffin, 303-698-2300 or [email protected]

Nevertheless, it does involve a demonstration of proper condom usage.

Ortiz said teaching the program has proven to her how little education many students have in reproductive anatomy.

“You have to kind of prepare yourself for some of the questions they ask,” Ortiz said. “They don’t ask as a joke. They ask because they truly want to know. Some of the girls will ask why a person can’t get pregnant with anal sex or oral sex. They don’t understand the biology, and they’re 15 or 16 years old.”

Statistics bear out this observation:

  • In Colorado, Latino youth have higher rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections than non-Latino youth.
  • More than half of all babies born to teen-age mothers in Colorado have Latina moms.
  • Latino youth are also more likely to engage in sex before age 13 and more likely to have multiple sex partners than are non-Latino youth.

In the controlled trials, students who took part in the ¡Cuídate! program were significantly less likely than other youth to later report having sexual intercourse, having multiple sex partners or engaging in unprotected intercourse, researchers found.

For this reason, ¡Cuídate! is promoted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one of the best programs at reducing HIV risk among young people.

Lack of evidence-based programs

“It’s the only evidence-based sexual health program around right now,” said Courtney Griffin, director of treatment and prevention for DAYS, and one of the co-authors of a 2009 report on the ¡Cuídate! trial at Lincoln.

But she acknowledges that actually doing the research needed to prove the efficacy of such programs is difficult.

“Research takes a long, long time,” she said. “Sometimes there are funding issues. It’s hard to fund longitudinal studies. And to do so with youth, you need parental permission. There are just a lot of barriers and so many variables. It’s hard to get that research done when you’re looking at what actually makes a program good.”

Griffin invites any school or community organization in the targeted zip codes interested in making ¡Cuídate! available to young people to contact her.

“If you get the parental consent forms signed, then we’re thrilled to provide the programming,” she said.

Cost to participate is zero, both for the students and for the school or sponsoring organization.

“We’re an agency that comes in with free programming led by professionals,” Griffin said. “This is just a great way to enrich any young person’s life.”

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.