By Edward Mitchell
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Andre Castro still remembers the days when teen pregnancy seemed an unsolvable problem. Young people were having unprotected sex at increasingly early ages. Pregnancy rates were rising across the country. Community leaders were frozen, debating the wisdom of abstinence-only education versus early childhood sex education.
But those days are long gone, said Castro, the director of Adolescent Health and Youth Development Programs for Gwinnett County's health department. Since 2005 at Meadowcreek High School, Castro has overseen a health program that exposed all students to both abstinence and sex education, as well as targeted counseling.
"Every student who entered Meadowcreek in 9th grade was touched by the program, and this is our second or third year with no new teen pregnancies," he said.
Meadowcreek is not a wholly unusual success story. In communities nationwide, the tide has turned against teen pregnancy, said Bill Albert, an official at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen & Unplanned Pregnancy.
"The decline...has been nothing short of extraordinary," he said. "We have seen more than a 40-percent decline in teen pregnancy and birth rates. We've seen declines in all 50 states and all age and ethnic groups."
Despite such dramatic improvement, teen pregnancy remains a significant problem. What's more: some fear the recent progress, much of it sparked in the classroom, could be lost due to school budget cuts.
"Without the funding to provide comprehensive health and improved sex ed curricula in schools, and without access to affordable, teen friendly health services, many of our young people won't have access to the important information and services they need," said Vikki Millender-Morrow, president of the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention.
School budget cuts may limit the reach of educational drives going forward.
"Schools are strapped for funds, so who's going to pay for teachers to be educated or for other health professionals to come into the school system?" Millender-Morrow asked.
Castro has already seen the effects of budget cuts.
"I started out as one-man operation and I'm back down to a one-man operation," he said. "The lack of funding could result in rising teen pregnancy rates."
Just as worrisome as the possibility of more teens becoming pregnant is the fear that teens — who are already pregnant — will drop out of school.
According to a report released in June by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen & Unplanned Pregnancy, teen pregnancy increases school dropout rates. The report listed Gwinnett and DeKalb counties as districts where teen pregnancy rates have harmed graduation rates.
"There really is a link between teen pregnancy and high school dropouts," Millender-Morrow said. "It is the number one reason that girls drop out of high school."
At Meadowcreek, Castro sought to keep teen parents in school by hiring case workers to assist them with daycare, and making up class credits.
"Those students ended up a year behind, but they graduated," he said.
But budget cuts could make similar efforts financially infeasible going forward.
Parents may have to take the lead in the struggle against teen pregnancy, said social worker and onetime teen mom Christy Ware, who now works with pregnant teens.
"We need to hold parents more accountable," she said. "The state offers so many things, but if we don't change the [family] environment, we're not changing anything."
That is one way to keep making progress, Castro said.
"We're going to have to approach this as a community, and not as separate institutions. All of us — parents, religious institutions, schools, public health agencies — have to come together to develop things that will meet [youth] needs, as opposed to what we think they need."
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