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Ambitious Anti-Teen Pregnancy Program Seeing Success in Milwaukee

In 2006, Milwaukee had one of the nation’s highest teen birth rates. With more than two years to go on an ambitious goal to curb teen pregnancies, the city has already cut its rate by more than a third.

Bevan Baker, head of the Milwaukee Health Department, was on his way to a meeting when he saw a bus branded with the city’s new pregnancy prevention campaign drive past a group of 12- and 13-year-old boys.

Baker watched the boys stop and point at the larger-than-life image splashed on the side of the bus. It was a picture of a boy about their age with a pregnant belly drooping over his jeans. “It did exactly what we hoped to do,” says Baker. “It was that moment in time when we knew we were onto something.”

The advertisements were part of an attention-getting campaign launched in 2006 to control what was widely called an epidemic of teen pregnancies in the Wisconsin city. The campaign began shortly after a damning, 50-page report from the United Way of Greater Milwaukee showed that only one U.S. city had a higher rate of teen births than Milwaukee, and that the city’s teen birth rate was more than twice the national average.

The report, “If Truth Be Told,” compiled data from 57 programs and agencies in order to outline the issue’s economic and social impacts on the community. It calculated, for example, the cost of each child born to a teen in Milwaukee -- $80,000 over its lifetime. And found that 71 percent of babies born to teen girls in Wisconsin are fathered by males over 20 years old. “It gave people the authorization to say, ‘OK, exhale, we know this is not good, but everyone now knows what I know,’” Baker says, remembering when he and other public officials first read the report.

Soon after its release, the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Oversight Committee was created, and an ambitious goal was set to reduce the rate of births to 15- and 17-year-olds by 46 percent in nine years.

With just over two years to go, city officials say they’re on track to meet that goal. In October, Milwaukee reported a decline in the teen birth rate for a fifth consecutive year. The rate has dropped nearly 36 percent since the committee was formed, compared to a statewide decrease of 16 percent over the same time period.

“If you see a teen pregnancy rate as high as we have here, it sends off alarms because you know the long-term ramifications,” says Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett as he rattles off statistics on the bleaker futures of children born to teen mothers. (Girls born to teen moms, for example, are 83 percent likelier to become teen mothers themselves.) “When it’s happening in your city, you can’t look away.”

To meet the city’s 2015 goal, the committee established a two-pronged attack. The first part was a massive public education campaign that consisted of ads that ran on billboards alongside roadways and at public transit stations. Besides the pregnant teenage boy, the advertisements, designed pro bono by a local consulting group, included one that gave a phone number and instructed people to “call for a good time.” When they did, the caller would hear a baby crying. Another ad showed a teen girl with a boa constrictor around her with the words, “What kind of man preys on underage girls?” The ad was meant to address the city’s high rates of statutory rape. Earlier this year, the ad company even helped install baby products in high school vending machines to call attention to the steep costs of raising a child.

Besides the media campaign, which Barrett calls a success for the outpouring of attention it’s received nationwide, the committee has also reshaped sex education in the city. In the past six years, the city health department has trained more than 1,000 teachers and partnered with schools across the district to create a new health curriculum based on science and tailored for each grade. After three years of test runs, the city’s 80,000 public school students began taking classes under the new system this fall.

Danae Davis, executive director of PEARLS for Teen Girls, one of the city’s few girl-only programs, says the new coursework tries to get girls to abstain from sex until they can support a child. It also teaches girls how to protect themselves if they do “make that very adult decision.”

PEARLS for Teen Girls serves about 800 girls -- up from 179 six years ago. Since the curriculum was put in place, Davis says participants’ surveys show that girls have a greater awareness about sexual health and that since 2006, more than 95 percent of the girls taking part in the program did not get pregnant.

Changes to sexual health education have drawn fire from conservative leaders in Wisconsin and other states. But Barrett says Milwaukee relied on the science behind the numbers. “It wasn’t just a shot in the dark,” he says. Baker adds, “We had to change the dialogue; we had to shock the culture. But we didn’t do it haphazardly.”

The committee was careful to include parents throughout the entire process, which United Way of Greater Milwaukee’s Nicole Angresano, vice president of community impact, says was instrumental in navigating the curriculum change. She also stressed that the program fielded opinions from business leaders and faith-based groups, trying to meet them where they are rather than “forcing the issue down people’s throats.”

The efforts as a whole have been regarded as a model of community collaboration. The project was featured in the White House Council for Community Solutions’ annual report this June, and it earned a Common Good Award for Advancing Health from United Way’s national affiliate earlier this summer.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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