How Latino communities can fight high dropout rates – through teen pregnancy prevention

Less than 2 percent of teens who have a baby before 18 will have a college degree by age 30.  A new report out today shows how this happens – it found the top 25 persistently low-achieving school districts also account for 16 percent of the nation’s teen births. This is sobering, since about half of Latinas will become pregnant by age 20, and they are a large part of the country’s future workforce.

But here’s the good news. Several communities across the country – some in Latino neighborhoods – have come up with effective programs which connect sex education to educational achievement,and are producing good outcomes,  according to the new report by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancyand America’s Promise Alliance.

“Successful programs have known how to combine a community’s public health resources with the district schools, and have provided great tools for teens, parents and educators,” says Ann Marie Benítez, Senior Manager of the National Campaign’s Latino Initiative. “All these resources have to go hand in hand,” she adds.

One such program is “Changing the Odds Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program,” in the Bronx, New York. Its director, Estelle Raboni, is a Dominican-American public health specialist who places “facilitators who look and talk like the kids” in 9 high schools and three middle schools. The teens attend sessions twice a week during the entire school year, and Raboni says this is crucial. “We help these children with the most important lesson – life skills. It takes time.”  Many teens tend to think short-term, Raboni explains, and do not see the link between risky sexual behavior, skipping school here and there, and a diminished economic future for themselves and their children if they get pregnant and drop out of school. The teens also do community service, “where they realize their behavior can have positive outcomes.”

The result?  The Bronx program is modeled after the Missouri-based Wyman program, an evidence-based program which led to 53 percent less teen pregnancies, 60 percent lower risk of course failure, and a 60 percent reduction in the school dropout rate.

Another successful program highlighted in the report is in Harris County, Texas, which includes the Houston area. The University of Texas’ Prevention Research Center, under Dr. Susan Tortolero, has developed the “It’s Your Game, Keep It Real” program, specifically designed for middle schoolers.  ”We literally have teen birth maps, where we localize the issue, and then we go to schools and community groups and dispel a lot of myths about sex education.”

Dr. Tortolero explains children do not have more sex if they are given information; it is actually the other way around. “We emphasize abstinence but teach sex education and contraception, and in two randomized trials, our program was effective in delaying teens’ sexual activity as well as increasing condom use.”

What about Latino parents?  ”Our schools poll found Hispanic parents, and even more specifically Spanish-speaking Hispanic parents, were the most supportive of proper sex and contraception along with abstinence education.”  This did not surprise her.  ”Latino parents see what is out there.  They are asking for help.”

The Texas researcher says society has to realize sex happens, and children are under pressure to do it. It is not just teaching about abstinence or birth control, she explains.  ”We need to teach kids strategies – how does a boy who does not want to have sex early respond to pressure from friends?”

Preventing teen pregnancy and thus increasing high school and college graduation rates does not just help teens and their families, says the National Campaign’s Ann Marie Benítez.

“When we work on pregnancy prevention, we are really working to improve our community and future generations,” she says. To put it in perspective, the new report finds a college graduate, on average, will earn $1 million more than a high school dropout.

Estelle Raboni, who grew up in the Latino neighborhood of Washington Heights, New York, says she is seeing the Hispanic teens in her program start “connecting the dots,” understanding the benefits of delaying pregnancy and working toward a high school graduation. She is working on including college visits as part of her program, “to show them it’s not mythical, but tangible.”

Avoiding teen pregnancy, Raboni explains, is intrinsically tied to imagining – and planning – a future.

“For many of our teens, it’s hard to imagine what the future can be like,” she says. “We say to them, this is what is possible.”

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