By Katy Murphy
OAKLAND — Brian Pereira, 13, remembers when his parents were working so many hours a day that they didn't have time to take his older sister to the doctor when she was sick. Jose Guzman, 12, knows many of his classmates don't have health insurance, even though they don't speak about it openly.
But anecdotal data was not what the two boys were after when they took part in the Youth Action Institute, a research project launched in anticipation of the $15 million Atlantic Philanthropies grant announced Monday. With the help of a university researcher, Pereira, Guzman and dozens of other middle school students prepared a 35-question survey to determine their peers' behavior and the services they need the most. They are now weighing in on the health clinics that are soon to take root, or expand, at seven Oakland middle schools.
"We know what youth want," Pereira explained at a Monday news conference, his bright smile and clear, high-pitched voice drawing looks of admiration from the politicians and educators around him.
"We know what youth need," he continued. "We know what youth think."
About 77 percent of their middle school peers completed the survey — an off-the-charts response rate, said Adrienne Faxio, a University of California, San Francisco, researcher who helped the team formulate clear questions that weren't "leading."
The results were striking, and some of the findings surprised the students, themselves: 72 percent of their peers reported, for example, that they knew at least one person their age who had had sex. Many also said they wanted to talk with their parents about sexual health. (The group recommended a sexual health class for parents on how to talk to them about the subject).
On Saturday, the young researchers presented their findings at the Havenscourt Middle School auditorium and screened a video that documented the process. Guzman, wearing a red plaid shirt and tie for the occasion, said before the presentation that most of the students surveyed lacked medical insurance, and hadn't visited a dentist for over a year. Most of them also said they didn't know there were counselors available at their schools.
"That's bad because many people have problems in life, and they need somebody to talk to," he said.
Staff at the Alameda County School Health Services Department, which organized the institute, said they hope more youths will take advantage of the health services because of the student involvement. For all of their physical and mental health needs, adolescents use the health system far less often than other age groups, said James Nguyen, program manager for the Alameda County School Health Services Coalition.
"Whatever gets developed, we want to make sure youth are directly involved in shaping the program," Nguyen said.
For example, Nguyen said, high school students strongly opposed the idea of a fence around Youth UpRising, a youth center and health clinic next to the Castlemont High School campus. They also recommended that the main entrance face MacArthur Boulevard, so that the building would be as welcoming as possible.
"It's just amazing," he said. "When you actually let youth plan something, they plan it in a way that makes sense to them."
The recommendations made by the Youth Action Institute, as well as the complete survey data, will be available later this month. In the coming weeks, the students will present the information to their schools.