Quick Take:

As an English and health teacher at Delta Charter High School, Jamie Cutter has her hands full. Students and other education leaders say she’s made a difference in Santa Cruz County by helping youth develop healthy and critical decision-making skills in and outside the classroom.

Jamie Cutter started teaching English at Delta Charter High School a decade ago, but her impact has stretched beyond the walls of the 120-student school, across the county and to other parts of the country.

Due to a health teacher vacancy at Delta in 2013 and her drive to make sure students received informed sex education, Cutter wrote a health curriculum that is now being used as a guide by teachers in Santa Cruz County schools and has been purchased by teachers in different states.

The curriculum, and the training she offers for science educators who teach it, introduces critical concepts of gender identity and sexuality as well as providing inclusive and specific sexual health practices.

Cutter said she often hears from teachers who receive her training that although they’ve been trained on LGBTQ issues and on sex ed generally, combining the two hadn’t been an aspect in their training until they learned her curriculum. For example, teachers told her they previously hadn’t been taught how to provide students with birth control information for someone who is transgender.

“I love teaching students skills they’ll use in their real life. For English classes, it’s not how to write an essay — it’s how to form an argument and back it up with evidence, which they’ll need to do in all kinds of situations, whether they go to college or a career,” she said. “[It’s about] teaching them how to be self-reflective, how to have resilience — teaching them how to keep their body safe, and make healthy choices.”

Teacher Jamie Cutter listens to a student at Delta Charter High School on Dec. 12, 2022.
Teacher Jamie Cutter listens to a student as they discuss the end of a novel in her classroom at Delta Charter High School. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Delta sophomore Sion Erkiletian, who identifies as gender fluid, said they’ve had a class with Cutter every semester and see her almost every day. Cutter’s classes — both health and English — are their favorites. Erkiletian said the classes have helped them to become a better writer, taught them how to navigate gender and sexuality questions and how to help a friend in a mental health crisis.

“I just never really felt safe at my old school in general,” they said. “And Jamie really helped me transition.” Erkiletian said that when Cutter asked for pronouns for the first day of class their freshman year, it made them feel at ease.

As for the sex ed curriculum, Erkiletian said Cutter’s curriculum taught them everything from how to use gender-neutral language, to how to avoid contracting, as well as get treatment for, sexually transmitted diseases, and importantly, how to end stigmas related to sex and gender. For example, Erkiletian said they learned that rather than saying something like, “when a girl gets pregnant,” to say instead, “when someone gets pregnant.” Using gender-neutral language like this acknowledges that there are people who become pregnant who don’t identify as female.

It’s not just like she comes to work and she does her job, but she really always goes the extra mile. — Delta principal Jen Gebbie Ra’anan on Jamie Cutter

In the past year, the Pajaro Valley Unified School District has adopted the sex ed curriculum’s third edition for its high schools, and earlier this month Cutter trained science teachers in the Santa Cruz City Schools district on how to adapt the curriculum for middle school students. Individual teachers have also started using it as a guide at Kirby School, in the Soquel Union Elementary School District and several private schools, according to Cutter.

People who know Cutter aren’t surprised that she would do this kind of work in addition to her English teaching responsibilities.

Delta principal Jen Gebbie Ra’anan said Cutter is one of the most dedicated teachers she’s ever worked with.

“And it’s not just like she comes to work and she does her job, but she really always goes the extra mile,” she said.

Ra’anan recalled how one day a student was having a hard time during Cutter’s class and left crying. The student went to Ra’anan’s office to get help. Cutter later emailed Ra’anan to check in and make sure the student was all right and that she hadn’t done anything to make them upset.

Teacher Jamie Cutter describes a Margaret Atwood project to students at Delta Charter High School on Dec. 12, 2022.
Teacher Jamie Cutter describes a Margaret Atwood project to students at Delta Charter High School on Dec. 12, 2022. Credit: Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Local

Cutter, born in New Hampshire, moved at a young age to Santa Maria, where she was raised by her mom. In her teen and young adult years, she never had plans of becoming a teacher — she hated high school.

She came out as bisexual to some friends in middle school, and while some were supportive, others responded with disgust. In high school, there wasn’t a gay-straight alliance club or any open discussion surrounding gender and sexuality, so Cutter says she essentially stopped thinking about it.

As for sex education, Cutter says it consisted of an abstinence-only message (which has since been outlawed in California public schools) at a high school in Santa Maria where there was a high teen pregnancy rate. Studies have shown that teen birth rates are linked with comprehensive sex education.

These experiences drove her to make a sex ed curriculum that could inform all students on how to be safe and healthy.

She ended up in Santa Cruz in 2007 to study creative writing and sociology at UCSC. While at school, she had side jobs including working as a youth advisor for Girls Moving Forward, a tutoring and mentoring organization.

Cutter told an advisor at UCSC that she enjoyed working with youth. The advisor suggested she look into teaching — and specifically recommended Delta Charter High School.

Located on the Cabrillo College campus, Delta Charter High School’s nine teachers serve the students across three programs: independent studies done at home, independent studies on campus and a traditional in-person program.

Ra’anan said the school caters to students who have struggled in the traditional school system.

“We’re trying to bring them into the fold and we start with relationships first,” said Ra’anan. “And then we start pushing academics after we feel like the kids trust us and understand what we’re all about.”

Delta Charter High School teacher Jamie Cutter
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

It was about a year after starting at Delta that Cutter volunteered to write up a sex education curriculum.

“I just thought, OK, well, my mom’s a nurse and I’ve always been really passionate about risk reduction and health,” she said, adding that it went so well the school asked her to teach the entire health course.

Shortly after, she completed San Francisco Sex Information’s sex educator training — more than 60 hours of training on medically accurate and LGBTQ-inclusive sex education.

Nationally, only 43% of high schools and 18% of middle schools instruct students on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention topics for sexual health education, such as how sexually transmitted infections are spread and what communication and decision-making skills are needed to keep youth safe.

Since 2016, California school districts have been required to provide inclusive and comprehensive sex education and HIV prevention training at least once in high school and once in middle school.

“When I created the curriculum — I didn’t realize it was good. I just thought I was winging it,” Cutter said. “And then of course I made it queer-inclusive, because I’m queer. It didn’t occur to me to not make it queer-inclusive.”

She said the curriculum gained attention when her queer students talked in groups with the Queer Youth Task Force and the Diversity Center about how great it felt to see themselves reflected in the curriculum.

The Queer Youth Task Force is a group of individuals and organizations across Santa Cruz County that support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and questioning (LGBTIQ) youth through a range of services, programs and events. It’s an affiliate of the Diversity Center of Santa Cruz County — a local nonprofit founded in 1989 — supporting the LGBTQ community across the county.

The Queer Youth Task Force reached out to Cutter to learn more about the curriculum and connected her with the Safe Schools Project — one of the task force’s programs.

Ron Indra, a Harbor High School teacher for 34 years, leads the Safe Schools Project, which hosts workshops, provides guidance on LGBTIQ curriculum and offers consultations on how to make LGBTIQ-inclusive schools.

Indra said he met Cutter about five years ago and she later became part of the volunteer team at the Safe Schools Project, working as the health curriculum director. The project first published her curriculum in 2017 and has since published its third edition.

“She’s an excellent, excellent teacher and so committed to kids,” Indra said. “We’ve always used her as a sounding board. She’s our eyes in the classroom.”

After three years of reporting on public safety in Iowa, Hillary joins Lookout Santa Cruz with a curious eye toward the county’s education beat. At the Iowa City Press-Citizen, she focused on how local...