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Two girls sit together in health class at John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx. Their assignment is to create a poster that describes what they have learned in a Columbia-led sex education program, Girltalk – Tackling a Livid Killer: Minority Girls Talk Back to HIV/AIDS.

"We're writing a poem," says 16-year-old student Shakeima Cooks. "It's a realistic poem on AIDS. This girl is scared and confused. She says ‘Damn, I should have used a rubber.' Her mother told her to use protection, but she didn't."

Shakeima's partner on the project, Jennae Correa, 16, adds: "Her boyfriend has AIDS, and she's in denial. She's so in love."

Shakeima and Jennae are students in Raymond Cusranie's health class. On this November day, he has turned over the class to Dr. Nwando Onyejekwe, chief resident in the Center for Family Medicine at P&S and founder of Girltalk. "The girls have been opening up slowly over the last few weeks," says Dr. Onyejekwe. "They're less inhibited. I was surprised they had such limited knowledge about HIV. One girl thought you could get it if someone cries on you."

The six-week course, led by residents from the Center for Family Medicine, targets minority students who live in areas where teenagers are at high-risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

In the fall of 2002, Girltalk began teaching sex education to female students at Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem and the Health Opportunities Secondary School in the Bronx. Dr. Onyejekwe was motivated to create the program based on the disproportionate rates of HIV infection in minority adolescent girls. The selected schools are all located in high-risk areas. Course topics are sex and sexuality, adolescent female health care, sexually transmitted diseases, safe sex and contraceptive options, and HIV/AIDS. At the end of the course, the students take a final exam and complete a "Talk Back" project showing what they have learned. They are then granted "peer leader" licenses from Girltalk, which enable them to co-instruct a future course with Columbia physicians.

Mr. Cusranie says that when the boys and girls are together in one class, the girls are reluctant to ask questions and disclose information. "Since this class was launched in October, they feel freer to express themselves," he says. "Some of the questions the girls ask would never have come out in our regular health class. When the class is combined with the guys in December, the girls will be ahead of them."

The posters created by the students this year were displayed on the ground floor of the Allen Pavilion and then moved to the Nagle Avenue Family Health Center.

"The program gives residents a good chance to get out of the hospital and into the community," says Dr. Onyejekwe. "Having direct contact with the students is a great opportunity to teach them about prevention. They've learned a lot they didn't know before and are in a position to tell their classmates and friends about how to stay safe and avoid being infected with HIV."

—Eric Levy


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