Public Health teen sex education program expanding nationally, making difficult conversations easier

“We have been doing this for so long now that kids in King County just call their sex ed FLASH.”

Andrea Gerber says this matter-of-factly. She has good reason to be proud of both the longevity and the quality of the FLASH curriculum. Along with her colleague Kari Kesler, the two led a three-day training in May that attracted 35 leaders and health educators from 14 states across the U.S. to become experts on FLASH, showcasing the success of the curriculum and its far-reaching impact.

“It was amazing to have people from all over the U.S. attend the training. It was really great,” said Kari.

FLASH is a widely-used, and incredibly popular sexual health education curriculum developed by Public Health – Seattle & King County employees. Its four main goals focus on preventing teen pregnancy, STDs and sexual violence, and increasing family communication about sexual health. It is also LGTBQ friendly and designed for use with students from all walks of life. The curriculum covers elementary, middle and high school as well as special education classrooms.

“Many districts in the County use FLASH in some way or another,” said Kari. “So to the kids, sex ed is FLASH.”

Originally created in the in the mid-1980s by Family Planning Health Educator Beth Reis, the curriculum has been updated and revised many times by Health Educators at Public Health as well as by community partners in schools and agencies. The High School curriculum underwent a major overhaul in 2011, and then again in 2014. During this most recent makeover Kari and Andrea worked with another Family Planning Health Educator, Becky Reitzes, as well as community partners Rebecca Milliman from the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault Traumatic Stress and Mo Lewis from the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center to redevelop and improve the curriculum. A comprehensive overhaul of the curriculum was done, with a focus on bringing it to a larger audience through national endorsement.

“We want to bring the curriculum to a wider audience, so we’ve changed the scope slightly and added some new components,” explained Andrea. “There’s been lots of new research on teen pregnancy and STD prevention, and new standards for sexual health education. We wanted to put FLASH in alignment with current research and these new standards.”

“The results from our evaluation will determine if can be listed as an evidence based program, instead of a promising program as we are now.”

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Andrea Gerber and Kari Kesler are working to revise the FLASH curriculum for national endorsement.

Andrea is referring to the five-year grant FLASH was awarded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Adolescent Health (OAH) to evaluate and improve the curriculum. While broadly used since its inception, FLASH will now undergo a formal evaluation process to prove its success in preventing teen pregnancy. This is necessary for it to be included in the elite list of national programs identified by the OAH as evidence-based models of education.

In its second year of the five-year evaluation, the curriculum is still going strong, gaining momentum and followers on its course to becoming one of these “proven” programs.

“It’s comprehensive in scope and covers everything needed in a classroom, like many text books,” said Kari. “It’s just that few sex ed programs have the advantages of a textbook, as well as being practical, which is probably why it was identified as the most ready program to fill that gap.”

“The curriculum is designed with a lot of scripting, which is a big support for teachers who may be anxious about teaching sex ed.”

A topic that can be overwhelming for adults to bring up with teenagers, it is important to provide health educators with the tools needed to do so in a safe and comfortable environment. Andrea and Kari explain that having competent, capable educators means youth are more likely to feel comfortable as well, and open up about their experiences, including those most difficult to speak about.

“FLASH is meaningful and resonates for all students in the classroom,” said Andrea. “We’ve actually heard stories from other states, where people have been using FLASH, where kids came forward and said they were currently experiencing sexual abuse.”

Andrea and Kari share that due to its ability to connect with youth, the curriculum has been used not only by teachers, but also PeaceCorps volunteers, home school programs and parents. It has even received interest from California to become a state-approved curriculum for school-led mandatory sex education classes. While the current version is used in many places, once it is a fully vetted, evaluated program with national endorsement then it can also be used by programs that require an evidence-based curriculum.

“FLASH is already being used in every state at every level, and even internationally,” said Kari.

The two employees look forward to continuing their work evaluating the curriculum and leading the educator trainings. Andrea and Kari understand the work of Public Health as a department and their input on the program are measured not just in awards and national recognition, but in the community impact it has on youth and families.

“This has brought positive attention to King County in such a great way,” said Andrea.

“We love to hear from students and teachers who have enjoyed the curriculum because it was meaningful to them,” said Kari. “It’s very satisfying to do this work. We are lucky we get to do it.”