By William Grubbe, Northwestern University ’17
In 2017, the Chicago Public School (CPS) system is expected to operate $300 million below their original budget.1 This is not the first budget deficit that the CPS system has operated under, and is not likely to be the last. With rising costs of education and decreases in funding, schools often cut arts, health, and extracurricular programs first. These cuts have the potential to not only limit the students’ exposure to topics outside of the core curriculum of most schools, but could also lead to a lack of health education for an estimated 400,000 students.1 Furthermore, this curriculum is less likely to be consistent in pacing and content with what is expected to be taught in high schools across the nation.
In 1999, Peer Health Exchange (PHE) was founded by six Yale University students with the goal of delivering a comprehensive health education to high school students who would not receive one otherwise. Now, it has grown into a nationwide organization, operating in New York, Boston, Chicago, Northern and Southern California, and Washington, D.C., reaching 17,000 teenagers in 150 high schools across the United States, and has chapters at 25 universities.2 Their mission has remained constant: “Empower young people with the knowledge, skills, and resources to make healthy decisions.”
The novel design behind the PHE model for education relies on the use of college-aged students as teachers and role models, rather than a standard informative curriculum. This creates a collaborative environment where high school students are taught how to make healthy and informed life decisions, access resources that may be applicable to their health such as birth control methods, communicate with others, and reflect on the positive and negative consequences of their actions. While this does not completely encompass what is perceived to be a comprehensive health education, the curriculum targets issues that many conventional health classes tend to shy away from without inundating the lessons with unnecessary anatomy and physiology. For example, during my sophomore year of high school, we were taught facts and statistics in our health class and were told to memorize the parts of the male and female genitalia. The topic of “mental health” was never mentioned, nor was the idea of heteronormativity challenged. PHE excels in educating its volunteers (and, by proxy, its students) about the existence of parts of society that they may not encounter in their day-to-day life to raise awareness for the privilege of an education that caters to them, especially on a campus like Northwestern.
While health education may not be of paramount importance to high schools amongst other pre-collegiate concerns, it is one of the few classes offering students information that they are able to apply to different areas and disciplines of their life. Not only does a comprehensive health education such as the one in the PHE curriculum teach skills that result in a healthier lifestyle to its students, the mindset of focusing on your health and on the welfare of others permeates society at its most basic levels. By centering the education on concepts such as decision making and consequences, PHE teaches students to be conscientious about their actions and encourages them to put thought into their day-to-day routine: the words they speak, the way they communicate, the reactions to stress and success. Health is changing in this country, and health education must change with it. People are less afraid to talk about sex; birth control is becoming less and less taboo; sexual and mental health are topics prevalent in everything from political debates to music and art; drug laws are changing. The American population is a fluid, but unsettled, mosaic, and the ideas that society imparts in children will determine the direction in which the country moves.
When I joined this organization, I was a sophomore without a clear idea of what I wanted to make of my college career. While not fumbling for purpose, I was unsure of how my skillset would translate into a successful and fruitful career post-graduation, and my only experience in any field up to that point had been as a high school science tutor and working in a warehouse moving boxes for my uncle during the summers. Having served on the executive board of the organization for two years, and as I embark on my third year as an active volunteer, PHE has taught me more about nation’s education system than any news article, class, or conversation ever has. Education will be, and always has been, a cornerstone of great societies. A well-balanced education teaches people to challenge ideas, push themselves to failure, embark on journeys that cannot even be fathomed – but most importantly, it can teach people to critically analyze their decisions and choices. In our current age of greater awareness for mental health and the implications of actions on the psyches of other people, words have become an exorbitantly powerful tool that constantly shape the minds of those around us. PHE’s model of education should not be a back-up plan when CPS cannot fund a health department; it should be the pioneer that leads the United States into a health education system that directly mimics the amazing potential that every citizen holds.
1. Chicago Public Schools Fiscal Year 2017 Budget. (2016, November 30). Retrieved from http://cps.edu/FY17Budget/Pages/FY17Budget.aspx
2. Peer Health Exchange – About Us. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2016, from http://www.peerhealthexchange.org/about-us/