Empowering Teens with the Knowledge and Skills to Make Healthy Decisions

Peer Health Exchange was founded to address a growing crisis: teenagers today are engaging in risky behavior at alarming rates, harming their bodies and their futures. In Los Angeles,

• 1 in 5 teens is a binge drinker

• 2 in 5 are sexually active; & 39% of these teens did not use a condom the last time they had sex

• Nearly 1 in 5 indicate that they have never been taught in school about AIDS or HIV infection

• More than 1 in 10 has been physically abused by a boyfriend or girlfriend

• 1 in 10 has attempted suicide

(All stats used: 2011 Los Angeles Youth Risk Behavior Survey)

These serious health problems are in large part the result of teens lacking the tools they need to prevent them. In recent years, public schools’ increased focus on academic testing combined with budget cuts & staffing shortages have exacerbated this crisis by eliminating health courses in many schools. Many teens are not receiving comprehensive health education in this critical setting, & increasing numbers are left unprepared to protect themselves against the serious health risks they face. Teens who engage in risky behavior today are more likely to struggle or drop out of school, enter the criminal justice system, or live in poverty.

Peer Health Exchange’s mission is to give teenagers the knowledge and skills they need to make healthy decisions. We do this by training college students to teach a health curriculum in public high schools that lack comprehensive health education & in which a majority of students qualify for free/reduced lunch. Our vision is to build a health education organization that serves teens nationwide in order to give as many teens as possible the knowledge & skills they need to make healthy decisions. We are a national nonprofit founded in 2003, & began serving LA County in 2009. Since then, we have trained more than 750 college student volunteers to provide health education to over 8,800 low-income teens in LAUSD high schools.

Peer Health Exchange (PHE) has a unique 4-part program model:

1. PHE partners with LAUSD high schools that lack health education and where the majority of the students live at or below the poverty line. These students experience a disproportionate number of serious health risks, ranging from teenage pregnancy to obesity.

2. PHE recruits, selects and rigorously trains college students to teach a year-long health curriculum in these schools, consisting of 13 standardized health workshops on topics ranging from decision-making and communication, sexual health, pregnancy prevention, substance abuse prevention, healthy vs. abusive relationships, sexual assault prevention, mental health, and nutrition and physical activity. Over the 2012-2013 academic year, PHE Los Angeles is partnering with four colleges (University of California, Los Angeles, University of Southern California, California State University Northridge, and Occidental College) and 22 public high schools in the LA area. We plan to expand to serve even more LAUSD schools in the coming year, and estimate that we will reach 3,600 teens with 300 volunteers in the 2013-2014 school year. We are also piloting expansions of our program model, including training teens as health educators and affecting the entire school culture to support health and wellness. The latter initiative includes interventions like organizing school-wide health fairs and providing follow-up workshops for our host teachers to continue the dialogue with students after our volunteers have presented our program.

3. PHE gives teenagers the knowledge and skills they need to make healthy decisions. In the classroom, PHE high school students articulate their values and goals, learn basic, accurate health information, explore attitudes and perceptions of peer norms and peer pressure, analyze the influence of culture and the media on health, discuss barriers to healthy behaviors and strategies to overcome them, and identify and learn how to use the health resources in their communities. By addressing teen pregnancy prevention, common mental health issues such as depression, and substance abuse prevention, our program not only helps teens protect their health, but also supports them in their path to high school graduation (research has shown that unplanned pregnancy, mental health issues and substance abuse are three factors that directly hinder high school students’ progress to graduation).

4. PHE fosters a commitment to public service in LA college students, directly engaging them communities beyond their campus, and preparing them to serve as leaders in their communities throughout their lives. Many of these volunteers will go on to be doctors, teachers, public interest lawyers, and policymakers who maintain a commitment to serving low-income communities in Los Angeles thanks to the insights and experiences gained during their service with Peer Health Exchange.


What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?

Since our founding in 2003, we have trained more than 6,200 college student volunteers to deliver effective health education to over 76,000 low-income public high school students in New York City, Boston, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. This year, we reach 19,000 teens across six cities.

Peer Health Exchange grew to Los Angeles in 2009. Since then, we have trained more than 750 college student volunteers to provide health education to over 8,800 low-income Angelinos.

This year, PHE Los Angeles is piloting several unique strategic investments as part of our larger organizational growth plan, including:

1) Accessibility of PHE Program for Volunteers: This investment aims make PHE more accessible to students from a variety of backgrounds by making additions and adaptations to our program model, including changing the organizational structure, incentivizing PHE through course credit or stipends, and adjusting the training structure to make it accessible to all learning styles. We are piloting this investment at Cal State Northridge.

2) School Environment: Extended Teen Learning: This investment will test whether addressing the overall school environment in which teens operate impacts their learning around health behaviors. We are working closely with teachers, administrators, and other external organizations partnering with pilot schools to co-construct interventions through multiple modalities beyond the 13 standard PHE workshops. We are piloting this investment at selected LA high schools.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

Next year, we will continue to draw our volunteer corps from UCLA, USC, Occidental College and Cal State Northridge. In 2012-13, we partner with 22 LAUSD high schools, reaching 100 ninth grade classrooms. Next year, we will expand to more schools, reaching 120 classrooms. Current partners include Partnership for LA Schools, LA Alliance College-Ready Schools, Green Dot, ICEF Public Schools, The Accelerated School, Big Picture Learning, Bright Star Schools, LA Leadership Academy, and additional charter schools. This year we also partnered with a community organizations to provide extended training to our volunteers, including Planned Parenthood LA, YWCA of Greater LA and Tarzana Treatment Center. We will grow our community partners next year.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?

To increase PHE high school students’ ability to make healthy decisions. PHE uses a pre- and post-test survey administered to PHE high school students before and after the program to assess their knowledge of the health topics we address.

In 2011-2012, PHE Los Angeles high school students made statistically significant increases in their health knowledge, with a 19 percentage point improvement in health knowledge, representing 51% growth from Pre-Test to Post-Test.

In the 2012-2013 year, we are continuing to measure knowledge growth, and are expanding our evaluation methods to measure our impact on teen behavior for the first time, using a scientific program evaluation including a control group, led by an external evaluator.

To measure our success in building a commitment to public service in PHE college student volunteers, we administer a program evaluation to our college student volunteers to assess their experience in the program and how it has affected their future plans. Last year, 75% percent of PHE college student volunteers said that their volunteer experience had already affected their future career or educational plans. Our goal for 2012-2013 is to have more than 75% of PHE Los Angeles volunteers express interest in continuing to pursue public interest educations or careers in the future.

How will your project benefit Los Angeles?

Many LAUSD schools are opting to forego the traditional 9th grade semester-long health class, instead absorbing the minimum mandated CA Education Code HIV/AIDS prevention education into advisory or science classes. Our program is a free service to schools, and includes not only HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness education, but also education on a number of topics that have the potential to impact high school graduation rates, public safety (such as sexual assault and intimate partner violence), and the overall health and wellness of low-income communities in LA. We also increase civic participation and social connectedness in LA County by engaging college students in the communities beyond their campuses.

What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?

More adults are empowered to make healthy decisions, and know how to support teens in their lives to do the same. Public safety, health and social connectedness have all improved, and more people understand the impact and efficacy of peer education in supporting community and individual health.