Berrin saw a huge void in the traditional high school health curriculum: She had attended Ransom Everglades from seventh to ninth grades and Miami Palmetto Senior High from 10th through 12th grades, and recalled mostly uninspiring health classes during high school. And she watched with concern as the State of Florida decided to eliminate the health class graduation requirement as she was exiting law school.
“Having attended both private and public schools, I knew what the health education landscape looked like,” Berrin said. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t seeing anything innovative. It was all the same: adults leading with outdated textbooks, cheesy videos and scare tactics.
“Not only was Florida not improving health education, they were getting rid of it,” she added. “Instead of fixing the problem, people just gave up. I didn’t feel that was acceptable.”
“The best part is being with the kids. You can tell how proud they are of the work they are doing. The kids feel so empowered. They are so happy that adults have given them that trust to be part of the solution.”
Risa Berrin ’98, HIP Founder and Executive Director
Berrin had a deep, personal interest in student health, having managed the challenges of autoimmune disease throughout her childhood. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, she covered health for the college daily newspaper, and later worked on health stories as a part-time writer at the Miami Herald.
And she had learned at Ransom Everglades – through favorite teachers Ginny Onorati and Don Kappelman – that she could enjoy subjects she didn’t particularly like if a great teacher delivered the material.
She began to wonder: Was there a better way to provide health education to students? Could it be comprehensive, engaging, effective and, in the eyes of adolescents, hip?
During her years at UM law, she participated in the school’s STREET Law program, which used law students to teach law to high school students. She thought a similar model – students teaching students – might work for health and wellness in secondary schools. She believed if students were given the responsibility of passing on important information to their peers, they would rise to the challenge, and the experience would benefit all involved.
Thirteen years later, it appears she was right. Since 2009, Risa Berrin’s Health Information Project (HIP) has brought an innovative health curriculum to 310,000 ninth-grade students at 85 schools – and counting.
HIP at RE
At the start of the mid-day break at Ransom Everglades on a recent Friday, some 50 juniors and seniors wearing orange HIP T-shirts fanned out across campus in groups of two or three, heading to classrooms filled with freshmen. The Peer Health Educators (PHEs) were armed with notes and presentations that they projected on screens, and adults were notably absent from the classrooms. Standing in front of their ninth-grade peers, they went through the day’s module – one of eight they would share with freshmen during the school year – which discussed drugs and alcohol.
A PHE and vice president of HIP at RE, Dina Kaplan ’22, recalled teaching a class of freshmen about eating disorders. During that session, one student shared a deeply personal story that affected all in the room – and indicated to Kaplan that HIP was making a difference.
“It was really eye-opening,” she said. “We knew we were actually having an impact. To see students willing to share their personal experience, and make other people aware, was very moving.”
Kaplan said her experience as a freshman with HIP was so powerful that she aspired to be a PHE when she reached the 11th grade. RE juniors and seniors become PHEs through a selective process, then undergo hours of training to ensure they are prepared for their new leadership roles.
“When kids are hearing from adults on health topics, they are more likely to zone out,” Kaplan said. “They are way more attentive when juniors and seniors are talking to them about things … Watching your peers in leadership roles with HIP definitely inspires young people to get involved.”
“I originally heard what she was doing with peer-to-peer health education and was fascinated by the genius of it, since I knew that even my own kids didn’t listen to their doctor-mother when I gave them teenage health advice.”
Joely Kaufman-Janette ’88, P’18 ’24, HIP board member
Joined by Charlotte (Joseph) Cassel ’03, HIP’s Director of Partnerships, Berrin made a visit to the upper school campus in late December and met with some of RE’s HIP leaders after school. In its sixth year at Ransom Everglades, HIP has been a resounding success; it was an RE student who told Berrin that “HIP has made it cool to be nice.”
“The best part is being with the kids,” Berrin said. “You can tell how proud they are of the work they are doing. The kids feel so empowered. They are so happy that adults have given them that trust to be part of the solution.”
The way Berrin describes it, she “reluctantly” founded HIP in 2009, propelled more by a sense of duty and pangs of conscience than by any spirit of entrepreneurship: She had become convinced that science-based health and wellness education was critical, and that the peer-to-peer model of teaching could work. At the time, even some of her Miami friends and education contacts struggled to embrace her idea. She recalled many skeptical questions.
“You want do this during the school day? And with kids being the teachers?”
Adding to the challenge: there were few financial resources for nonprofit, socially minded start-ups.
“I knew,” she said, “it wasn’t going to be easy.”
Encouraged by her mother, Fran Berrin, who had been a school guidance counselor for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and father, Bob Berrin, who worked in commercial real estate, Berrin forged ahead with her idea. She called on a number of contacts with medical, legal or educational expertise to flesh out a plan and help create a curriculum.
Ransom Everglades alums, parents and trustees were supportive of HIP even before RE became a HIP school. As soon as Joely Kaufman-Janette ’88, P’18 ’24, a dermatologist, learned about HIP she decided to get involved. “I originally heard what she was doing with peer-to-peer health education and was fascinated by the genius of it, since I knew that even my own kids didn’t listen to their doctor-mother when I gave them teenage health advice,” said Kaufman-Janette, who is a member of HIP’s board. “I was excited to be involved in a health program that would successfully reach teenagers.”
Alice Jacobson Lash ’78, P’10 ’13, a former RE trustee, attorney and mindfulness expert, also agreed to join the HIP board.
“I thought: This is exactly what is needed,” she said. “Life is stressful, and kids don’t always have information about where to go and what to do … To have conversations with your peers is incredibly helpful, even for students who aren’t struggling.”
The next step was reaching out to Miami-Dade County Public Schools. In this quest, Berrin seemed to have luck on her side: the Chief Academic Officer for M-DCPS, Millie Fornell, had been the principal at Miami Palmetto when Berrin attended. Berrin set up a meeting, and Fornell – whom she remembered as an innovator – helped her secure permission for a one-year pilot. (Fornell, who retired from Miami-Dade County Public Schools a few years later, now sits on the HIP board.)
In 2009-10, HIP began in two schools: Miami Palmetto and North Miami Beach Senior High. At the time, HIP had a staff of one – Berrin. “It was me, solo,” she recalled. “I was running around in sneakers and a HIP shirt, from classroom to classroom, watching every module.” Even so, the program went better than she could have imagined.
“Ninth-grade teachers welcomed HIP into their classrooms,” she said. “Even at the beginning, I realized: This is resonating with the kids. They are really responding to it.”
In year two, as HIP added additional schools and made plans for expansion, Berrin realized she needed help. In the summer of 2011, she persuaded her sister, Valerie Berrin, to join HIP as Director of Operations upon her graduation from Barnard College.
That gave HIP two full-time staff members. Like her sister, Valerie – who did not attend RE – also had a passion for wellness education. While at Barnard, she spent much of her free time teaching health classes in New York City through a student club. She, too, had navigated health issues throughout her childhood. She was excited to help Risa, nine years her senior, continue to expand the program and fine-tune the programming.
Over the next few years, with the two Berrins at the helm, HIP grew with increasing speed. As schools came onboard, the subject matter also expanded; in recent years, HIP has added topics such as vaping and COVID-19. And every module includes resources, so as students learn about various issues, they simultaneously find out where and how to get help.
“What’s really important about our curriculum is that it’s evolving as science evolves – every year it changes,” said Valerie Berrin. “It’s not a textbook that sits in schools for several years. We’re able to update it in real time. It makes it really cutting edge and really applicable to what kids are dealing with today.”
Those who know the Berrins say they have skills that complement one another – Risa being more visionary and Valerie more practical – and together make a formidable team.
“They’re not afraid to meet with anyone, speak in front of anyone, talk about their mission with anyone – they’re fearless and tenacious,” said Katie Lane Arriola P’18 ’21, the chair of HIP’s board whose son, Ben Arriola ’18, was in the first class of RE PHEs and daughter Grace Arriola ’21, was also a PHE.
“It’s really the only organization of its type in the country, and it started here with two female founders. That’s great for girls. It has a lot of momentum.”
During the pandemic, as many nonprofits and other agencies faltered, HIP continued to grow. Risa Berrin made her second round of hires in 2020; this time, she expanded HIP’s staff to five, bringing in three people including Cassel, who had earned her master’s in public health from Columbia University. In the aftermath of remote learning, schools seemed to realize the significant toll the pandemic had taken on their students. They looked to Berrin’s programming to help.
“One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that everyone has come to realize how important psychological and mental health is for students,” Cassel said. “You can’t think of students as little robots. You have to give them the tools and resources to be healthy.”
As HIP added schools, the Berrins noticed something else: Not a single school with which they established a relationship in their 13 years of existence had backed out of the program. Not only were they working with 59 schools in Miami-Dade County (including every public high school), 22 in Broward County, 3 in Pinellas County and 1 in Monroe, but also they also had achieved a 100 percent retention rate.
At Ransom Everglades, the HIP program is extremely popular. Every year, more students apply to be PHEs than the program can accommodate. Students wear their HIP T-shirts with pride, and the program is now a mainstay in the school’s curriculum. Ransom Everglades alumni and parents remain huge supporters of HIP.
“Ransom Everglades puts a big focus on the academics and different activities, things that are so enriching for the kids, and this is important, also,” Lash said. “What could be more important than the emotional wellbeing of our kids, so that they are in a position to be able to thrive, academically and pursuing their passions and interests?”
The Berrins are working to take HIP outside of Florida, certain the model can work anywhere in the nation – or beyond. All they need to expand are a few open doors; they are sure they will find eager kids. “We know a lot of high school principals are looking for HIP,” Risa said. “They just don’t know we exist.”
That, of course, is changing.
“HIP,” Valerie said, “is a simple solution to a complicated problem.”