By Dr. Janice Key, Professor of Adolescent Medicine at the Medical University South Carolina
In my community, Charleston, South Carolina, more teens get pregnant and fewer graduate from high school than the national average. This is especially true in the rural parts of our county where there are few resources and lots of poverty. For example at Baptist Hill High School, the small school that serves the Sea Islands communities, each year about 30 out of 200-225 girls had a baby. Think about those numbers; each year 1 out of 7 girls had a baby. The combination of teen parenthood and dropping out of school translated to another generation of continued poverty. Recognition of this problem, confirmed by a local needs assessment, lead to development of the Sea Island Teen Opportunity for Prevention Programs (STOPP) in 2004, through generous support from the New Morning Foundation.
Initially you might think that impacting teen pregnancy should be easy, just combine sex education and birth control. Turns out, it's not simple. In fact most teen pregnancy prevention programs don't work Those that do work require intensive services over a long time to reach kids on an individual level. One example is our school-based program for teen mothers, the Second Chance Club, which reduced subsequent teen births by half (resulting in cost savings of $19,097/birth prevented) and increased high school graduation. (See reviews in "Another Chance" and "Science & Success: Programs That Work to Prevent Subsequent Pregnancy Among Adolescent Mothers")
The STOPP program at Baptist Hill High School also uses several other methods. For the past six years the staff has worked diligently with the school to provide education in the classroom and the community, individual care coordination, and medical services. STOPP closely collaborates with other organizations serving youth in the community such as the churches and the community health center. The program builds upon the community's greatest asset, large extended families with many generations caring for their young people.
It has been hard, difficult work but the results look good. The number of teen pregnancies has decreased each year. Last year only 3 girls had a baby, down from 30 a year before the program began. And more good news: instead of diagnosing pregnancies, the STOPP clinic did a record number of college physicals! These young people are on their way to building successful lives.
As a pediatrician I am all about kids achieving their full potential, from infancy through young adulthood. That's why I hope that all babies will be born to parents who are prepared to be good parents. That's also why I hope that teens will be able to focus on their own development tasks and postpone pregnancy until they are adults. While difficult to achieve, these goals are not impossible. Its worth the effort when you think of what it could mean, empty jails and overflowing colleges whose graduates are productive tax-paying citizens. Caring for teens through programs such as STOPP is exhausting work but will pay off with long lasting benefits for many generations. Our young people are worth the investment.