Pitt Public Health Epidemiologist Collaborates with Schools and Advocacy Group to Support Comprehensive Sexuality Education

By: Ava Dzurenda

Pittsburgh Public Schools has a new mandate to teach sex and sexuality education, thanks to evidence-based approaches provided by experts in the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health and the Black Girls Equity Alliance, an initiative that improves the outcomes for Black girls in child welfare, juvenile justice, education, and health and wellness. 

Local scientists at Pitt Public Health relied on models from other states and local school districts to suggest the best implementation methods for this approach, with plans to expand initiatives to the state level.  Dr. Ashley Hill, one of the scientists supporting the initiative, explains that the education method has been deemed successful because of its positive effects on students — both inside and outside of the classroom — and extensive community involvement.  

Dr. Ashley Hill

“I focus on the social environment: decision-makers, policies and how they influence our lives,” said Hill, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Pitt Public Health. “We may assume that people need to change their behaviors, but through my experience, I see behaviors that were unavoidable because of significant barriers in the social environment.” 

Hill earned an undergraduate degree in biology at Spelman College, but it wasn’t until she took an epidemiology course that she became interested in understanding how social determinants can influence health disparities and outcomes. 

“I took an introductory epidemiology course while an undergraduate student,” said Hill. “At the time, there were several faculty members — who were also working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention— engaged in HIV and pre-exposure prophylaxis research. These professors introduced me to the idea of social determinants, and this made me interested in epidemiology and the HIV prevention community.”  

While at Pitt, Hill has had the opportunity to not only mentor students, but also to work with local organizations — such as the Black Girls Equity Alliance — and collaborate with the community. One of her most important initiatives has been working with nearby school districts to adopt a policy to integrate comprehensive sex and sexuality education (CSE). 

CSE is an instruction method that addresses various aspects of sex and sexuality, along with the knowledge, skills and attitudes that are needed for holistic health. The program has been associated with benefits such as increased self-efficacy in sexual decision-making, acceptance of sexual diversity, recognition of gender equity and greater knowledge about healthy relationships. In the classroom, CSE is positively associated with academic success.   

“We work with Pittsburgh Public Schools — as well as other nearby school districts — to think critically about health education and to deliver content that will be comprehensive,” said Hill. “Although Pittsburgh Public Schools now mandates comprehensive health education for grades 6 through 12, we still have a long way to go. For example, we are working to ensure that teachers implement CSE in a meaningful way without bias.” 

In addition to advocating for school districts to implement CSE, Hill is a member of the Center for Innovative Research on Gender Health Equity, where she conducts research on sexually transmitted infections, preterm birth and social determinants of adverse reproductive outcomes. 

“I am extremely interested in understanding who is impacted by sexually transmitted infections,” said Hill. “Understanding the profiles of risk for young people gives us a sense of what we can do for prevention. By creating comprehensive approaches to sex education, our hope is that young people will have the knowledge and skills needed to better understand their sexual health.”