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 Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.