Seventh graders at a South Bronx school are getting lessons in sexuality and reproduction through a voluntary after-school program that aims to lower Bronx teen pregnancy rates and address the emotional and mental well-being of young people, many of whom are in distress due to the pandemic.
Just Ask Me – or JAM – is an after-school program taking a peer-led approach to sex education. Three days a week, students at M.S. 218 in the Concourse neighborhood of the Bronx learn about healthy relationships, contraception, sexually transmitted infections, and gender. The optional program is funded by the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corp.
Founder Nicole Jennings developed JAM with middle schoolers 12 years ago due to concern around teen pregnancy rates in the Bronx. She trains graduates of the program like Rayanne Figueroa to lead the lessons to the next group of students. Figueroa is now a high school senior who instructs a 7th grade class of 15 students.
On March 16, students learned about the basic anatomy of a penis and a vagina and how every individual’s body is unique.
Although the city’s teen pregnancy rate has declined in recent years, the Bronx remains the borough with the highest rate. A recent NYU study links federally funded sex education programs to the decline in teen birth rates.
Last year, Sen. Cory Booker introduced the Real Education and Access for Healthy Youth Act. It aims to provide accessible, evidence-informed, age-appropriate information and services to young people. Congress found that only 29 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education, and that sexual health services are not meeting the needs of marginalized youth.
In his State of the Union speech, President Biden said that children’s mental health is on the nation’s agenda, following the traumas created by the pandemic.
In the meantime, JAM is also getting active in the elementary school attached to M.S. 218, also known as the Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School. The program is expanding to teach third through fifth grade students lessons like familial love, the meanings behind the colors of the LGBTQ flag, and introduce them to the proper names of body parts.