T wo words come to my mind,” says Summer Owens as she scans an auditorium full of pregnant teenagers. “Dream and move. You have to have a dream, something to aspire to. And you have to begin to move towards that dream.”
Elegantly dressed in a jewel-toned blouse and black pants, Owens is thoughtful, poised. She tells the girls, “I’ve been where you are,” and they sit up to listen closer. “I became pregnant at 15, and it could have derailed my dreams,” she says. “But I wouldn’t let it.” Now, at age 31, Owens is a college graduate with a well-paying job and the means to care for her 16-year-old son, Jaylan.
Owens shares her story with pregnant teenagers at the Adolescent Parenting Program, where she also volunteers as a mentor. This Memphis City Schools program provides a high school education and day care to pregnant teenagers and mothers with children up to age 2. Some listen attentively as Owens speaks, others fidget with cell phones. Her journey seems light years away from the reality many face.
In 2009, 16 percent of Shelby County births were to teen mothers. Unlike Owens, less than half of teen mothers earn a high school diploma. And statistics show that fewer than two percent will go on to earn a college degree before reaching age 30. Principal Dorothy Hopson introduces young women like Owens in hopes of motivating her students, and helping these girls realize that having a child doesn’t have to be the end of their dreams.
“Girls that come here get their lives back on track and can come back [after giving birth] no matter what point it is in the semester and complete the year,” she says.
Hopson has been principal here since its inception in 1987. The school serves between 70 and 100 girls a year. (MCS doesn’t track teen pregnancy rates system-wide.) While the majority of her students used to be older teens, “Now, girls in ninth and tenth grade are having babies,” says Hopson. “We even have a few eighth graders.” It is a troubling trend, since once a teen becomes sexually active, it can be just as difficult to avoid a second pregnancy. With two children and little education, the climb out of poverty becomes long and steep.
Girls who elect to come into the program have often fallen behind academically. But smaller class sizes and one-on-one instruction help some flourish. When students see counselor Ebony Suggs, she pieces together their school transcripts and talks to each one about their dreams for the future. “I want them to leave with a feeling of hopefulness, because I don’t feel like they come in with much hope,” says Suggs.
The numbers tell the story
That lack of hopelessness is reflected in Memphis’ teen pregnancy rate, which is well above the national average. Nationally in 2010, 10 percent of babies were born to teen mothers. In Shelby County, the pregnancy rate is closer to 16 percent.
“As a community, we have to do a better job of protecting our teens’ health and futures,” says Rebecca Terrell, executive director of the Memphis Center for Reproductive Health and co-chair of Memphis Teen Vision.
According to figures released by the Urban Child Institute, there were 2,334 teen births in 2008: 1,480 births among girls ages 18-19, 804 births to girls ages 15-17, and 50 births to girls ages 10-14. But it was the number of young mothers at Frayser High School that drove the issue home this year. When the story broke in January that 86 girls were pregnant or had given birth during the school year, the news rocked the city and made national headlines. University of Memphis professor Lynda Sagrestano points out that the shocking piece of this story is that Frayser is not unique.
“We’ve got that problem in many places, not just Frayser. This isn’t just about what’s happening in Frayser, it’s about what’s happening in Memphis and across the Mid-South,” says Sagrestano, director of the Center for the Research on Women (CROW) at UM.
Sagrestano heads up Memphis Teen Vision (MemTV), a coalition of 50 nonprofit agencies in Memphis that are working together towards preventing teen pregnancy and supporting teen parents.
“The coalition wants to work with the schools to get kids the help they need,” adds Terrell. Her clinic reaches out to teenagers with Between Teens, a program that teaches about reproductive health and helps girls develop their own reproductive health plan. The clinic also makes contraceptives available and affordable.
The Memphis City School Board recently passed a resolution acknowledging teen pregnancy as a serious issue and agreed to seek more aggressive prevention strategies. It also calls for collecting data on pregnant students throughout the school system, and shoring up the family life curriculum that’s taught in the city schools.
The curriculum, which is abstinence-based, touches only briefly on pregnancy prevention. “The family life curriculum doesn’t have the details these girls need. While the girls are here, they need to know birth control information and how to avoid sexually transmitted disease,” says Hopson.
Through a grant with Shelby County, MCS will also be addressing the teen pregnancy issue by implementing system-wide programs, placing nurse practitioners in schools and hiring five additional social workers to work with students.
Children having children
Muriel Rice, a MemTV board member and the family planning coordinator for the Shelby County Health Department, says the focus must be prevention.
“Our whole approach is prevention, to keep kids healthy and help them make decisions so it’s a decision to get pregnant instead of unintended,” says Rice.
Working in neighborhood clinics, Rice has encountered the problem first-hand. She’s seen some teens who have wanted to have a baby or had an older boyfriend who wants them to. “And they’re influenced by their peers. That has a strong impact on their decisions.” Many come from unstable families and are often being raised by young parents as well. “We must find an effective way to get sex education in the schools. They have a captive audience and we need to somehow get information that will effectively change behavior,” says Rice.
Several other agencies are working towards that end. Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital received a $4 million grant to develop pregnancy prevention programs for teen girls and boys. And Deborah Hester Harrison, president and CEO of Girls, Inc. says her email box was full of responses following the mid-January launch of NoBaby.org. The media and education campaign, which is aimed at empowering teen girls with knowledge and resources they need to prevent pregnancy, will launch after-school programs to reach teens in Frayser. If the program is deemed a success, it will be replicated in other neighborhoods across the city.
Teen pregnancy is a community-wide problem. It will take a community-wide effort to begin to chip away at this complex problem.
Help Your Teen Avoid Pregnancy
• Talk to your child about sexuality. If you’re uncomfortable having that conversation, take your child to a clinic or doctor who can make sure she understands how her body works. If she doesn’t get the information from you or a doctor, she’ll be relying on friends.
• Make contraceptives available. No parent wants to encourage a teen’s sexual activity, but once your child hits 15, the likelihood is good that he or she will soon be coming of age. While abstinence until marriage is a good goal, it’s not often achieved. Better to arm your teen with the information she needs to make informed choices.
• Have your teen seen by an OB-GYN. Make sure she gets regular check-ups. If she is sexually active and has had multiple partners, she needs to be screened for STDs.