by Rachel Hall   |  April 9, 2019

In our work as evaluators, we are lucky to come across models that excite and inspire us. Our role is not only to explore how these approaches contribute to improving individual and community outcomes, but also to tell those stories so that others can learn about them, celebrate them, and draw on them for their own work. Today, I am pleased to share one of these models with you: The Comprehensive Sex Education (CSE) Network approach, led by Cardea in California and supported by the WISE (Working to Institutionalize Sex Education) Initiative.

We highlight this work in the case study we developed, which tells the story of the successes of the CSE networks in bringing high quality comprehensive sex ed to young people across the state and elevates a model for the other counties across the country that are seeking to enhance sex ed in their schools.

How do CSE networks support districts to provide high quality comprehensive sex ed?

WISE is a national initiative dedicated to Working to Institutionalize Sex Education – so that sex education is part of schools’ ongoing curricula. The goals of the WISE initiative are to:

1) advance school-based sex education programs by supporting targeted implementation efforts

2) expand the field’s body of knowledge related to best practices for institutionalizing sex education


LFA has served as the national evaluator for the WISE Initiative since it began in 2008. WISE has worked with 15 grantee organizations in 13 states, including Cardea, who leads the WISE work in California. WISE California faces the challenge of working in a geographically large and diverse state, where school districts have widely varying levels of need for support with CSE. To expand their reach across school districts and meet those different levels (and types) of needs, WISE California employs a CSE network approach. The networks are professional learning communities that bring together key district administrators, school staff, and community partners under the coordination of the local County Office of Education (COE). The networks support school districts to implement comprehensive sex education that is in compliance with state policy by providing a forum for sharing information and best practices, strategies, capacity building, and peer and technical assistance. There are currently CSE networks in eight counties across California working with at least 150 school districts.

To develop the case study, we conducted in-depth interviews with stakeholders in four of the counties in which WISE California has established CSE Networks. We identified the core components of CSE networks that are consistent across network, the types of supports networks provide school districts to advance sex ed, and how the networks have ultimately contributed to improving sex ed for youth. We describe the high-level takeaways here.

What are the core components of CSE networks and why are they important?

While CSE networks vary in structure and approach to meet the unique needs and climate in each county, networks share several core components that contribute to high levels of functioning and building toward sustainability:

  • Support from a champion in the County Office of Education to advocate for the network and create a pathway for sustainability

  • Regular network meetings – typically 90-minutes to three hours – for network members to meet, learn, share information and resources, and connect with each other

  • Engagement of a lead organizer who coordinates meeting logistics, communication, and sets the meeting agendas

  • Participation of district- and school-level leaders who can set or influence policy (e.g. assistant superintendents of instruction or directors of curriculum)

  • Involvement of community partners (such as local Departments of Public Health, LGBTQ resource centers, and other public health and rights experts) who share expertise and resources with district participants

How do CSE networks support districts to provide high quality comprehensive sex ed?

CSE networks hold regular meetings – typically quarterly – and tailor the topics to their district staff’s interests and needs. The network meetings include time for updates on state or local policies, instructions on best practices for policy implementation, and opportunities to review curricula options. Meetings also host guest speakers who discuss priority topics, such as LGBTQ inclusivity, trauma-informed sex ed, social-emotional learning, and healthy relationships. Of particular importance to network participants are the opportunities for discussion, learning, and resource sharing with stakeholders from the other districts. The opportunity to connect with others has contributed to a sense of community and helped them learn from each other’s successes and challenges.

Outside of the meetings, CSE networks connect participants with technical assistance. Cardea provides hands-on support to districts across the state who want extra assistance with issues such as curriculum review and selection, teacher training, and parent information sessions.

How has the CSE Network approach advanced sex ed for young people?

Through the support of CSE networks, school districts have made strides in improving the quality of sex ed their students receive. Districts have strengthened their policies and systems for teaching sex ed, including boosting the capacity of leaders in the districts to champion sex ed efforts and support their schools. Most notably, many have shifted from a focus on compliance with sex ed laws to a commitment to strive for excellence. CSE network stakeholders highlighted several important advancements that came through their engagement in the CSE networks:

  • Compliance with the California Healthy Youth Act: Many districts first joined a network because they needed support with understanding California’s new sex ed law, the California Healthy Youth Act. District leaders and County Offices of Education are now versed in the law, have updated their district sex ed policy, implemented curricula, and built teacher knowledge and comfort teaching sex ed.

  • Striving for excellence: Many districts did not stop their work after achieving compliance with the law. Rather, they increased their commitment to providing sex ed that meets the needs of all students. School districts have committed to ensuring that sex ed is gender inclusive, teaches students about healthy relationships, and is grounded in principles of social-emotional learning.

  • Strengthened district capacity to advance sex ed: Participating in the networks has helped local district leaders become sex ed champions who are now able to take the lead on sex ed work, ranging from curricula updates to teacher trainings to parent and community engagement.

  • Connections and community among districts: CSE networks have created a space for shared learning among districts. Participants have built relationships on which they draw for resource sharing, support, and thought partnership.

  • Support for responding to controversy: Sex ed is at times a charged issue, and communities across California (and nation-wide) have experienced concerns or pushback from community members about sex ed being taught in classrooms. Of course, communities are culturally and politically diverse, and while research shows that sex ed is widely supported by parents, incidents of pushback do happen. CSE networks have helped districts navigate challenges as they emerge, including providing resources and supports to facilitate effective conversations with parents, school board members, and sex ed opposition groups.

How can the CSE Network model support sex ed in other counties, California and beyond?

WISE California’s CSE network approach is replicable, and Cardea is in the process of developing an online toolkit that will serve as a “how to” for counties interested in starting a CSE network. This step-by-step guide will walk through the processes needed to start and manage a network. It will also include resources for networks to draw on.

How have you seen professional learning networks build individual and organizational capacity to achieve their outcomes?

This case study was conducted by LFA for the WISE Initiative, a collaboratively funded effort that provides much needed support to institutionalize sex education in public schools.