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

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

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.