"If you illuminate their futures they will reduce the risks on their own." - Michael Carrera
We can only hope.
Carrera, perhaps the nation's foremost teen-pregnancy prevention expert, has spent nearly 30 years developing strategies to lower the risk of kids having kids and to help those adolescents whose lives, without intervention, could become one long obstacle course.
When Carrera first visited Oklahoma he walked into a state that ranks No. 5 out of 50 states in teen birth rates among females ages 15-19 (with 1 representing the highest rate and 50 the lowest).
In 2010, about 6,600 Oklahoma teens gave birth, a number exceeding the combined total of young women enrolling in the freshmen class at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma.
One of the surest ways for most teens to encounter economic hardship is to have a baby. Unless they have financial means coupled with a strong support system, they will struggle to further their education and training, to pay the bills, to find and maintain employment, to be a good parent.
A baby born to a teen, without the means to support that child, costs Oklahoma taxpayers about $26,000 annually in services. Multiply that figure times the thousands of teens who cannot support their babies and the cost zooms out of sight.
A different approach
Union Public Schools is taking a different approach to the issue. Every Oklahoma taxpayer should pay attention to what occurs there over the next several years. Union might well become a national model in preventing teen pregnancies and giving vulnerable kids the tools to create better lives.
Funded by grants, the program is a public-private partnership between the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the Community Service Council and Union Public Schools.
For starters, the 440 6th and 7th graders enrolled in the special program are referred to as "at-promise" children, not "at-risk" kids. It is a distinction with a difference.
The intensive prevention program, developed and honed by Carrera and the New York-based Children's Aid Society, has been replicated in communities in more than 20 states. Initially, the program focused almost entirely on educating children about the consequences of sexual activity and unintended pregnancies. But through the years Carrera expanded the model into a more holistic approach that captured kids, both boys and girls, early (6th grade) and provided resources and support through high school to improve students' lives and futures in myriad ways.
Those involved at Union receive "the whole package," says Superintendent Cathy Burden - tutoring, individual counseling, age-appropriate sex education, health, vision and dental care and other services. They even receive a small bank account of $25 upon which they can build. A team of 15 professionals make it their mission in life to support these children who have experienced poverty, family dysfunction, academic challenge - hardship on every levels.
The program is incorporated into the child's school schedule and is undertaken with the full consent of parents, who turned out in force at the first meeting about 18 months ago.
Already, teachers and parents are noticing dramatic differences in how the children view themselves. One boy for years had literally shut down in math classes. A tutor, working with the boy, discovered that the student could do math in his head.
"He was gifted and nobody had recognized it," Burden said.
And that is the key to the program, helping kids identify, define and achieve talents and goals. The specialized staff doesn't preach to kids; these professionals talk to them, and they listen, something some kids have seldom experienced. The staff offers options and possibilities.
When students get excited about changing their lives, risk behaviors usually recede, Carrera said. Through the years, he has seen reductions in school violence, poor academic achievement, teen pregnancy and drug issues as students were exposed to new experiences. Kids start taking ownership of their lives and their futures and realize that failure or limitations are not preordained.
"We don't prevent pregnancy or other risky behaviors; they do," Carrera says. Kids tend to make better choices if educated on options. "They're exposed to what it takes to be a good person."
The students will be tracked from 6th grade through the beginning of college - at least seven years.
The evidence-based program has a phenomenal success rate. Other communities using the program often have seen pregnancy rates cut in half, a higher percentage of students go on to college.
"This is the way children can be salvaged" from lives filled with bad choices, Burden said.
Program costs average about $2,600 per child per year. Burden, Carrera, and Alice Blue, with the Community Service Council, see it as an investment that they wish could extend to every "at-promise" student in the Union system, and beyond. But the foundations supporting the program could never afford to pay for every child who needs it.
Would the state even consider investing in such an evidence-based program, even on a limited basis? If history is any judge, Oklahoma usually opts for the $26,000 after-the-fact option over the $2,600 proactive choice. There's a tradition of paying on the back end what we should have invested in on the front end. Health care, incarceration and remedial education are three areas where proactive measures might have changed outcomes.
To invest in prevention, would take a "massive change of will," Carrera said. "This is called the long fix. It is not a quick fix."
Julie DelCour, 918-581-8379
email@example.com SUBHEAD: A lesson plan for life touches Union students
Original Print Headline: Great Expectations