MARKS, Miss. – In the improvised river delta towns of Mississippi, the towns with the highest teen pregnancy rates in the state the state that leads the nation, a new approach in building towards changing patterns of communication about sex that have persisted for years.
With her hair in a ponytail and her smile quick and wide, it's hard to tell that high school junior Donyell Hollins has been pulling all-nighters for most of the semester to take care of her infant daughter. Her situation isn't unusual in the small Delta town of Marks, but unlike teen mothers in previous decades, 18-year-old Hollins is benefiting from a change in attitude that's paving the way for frank discussions about parenting skills, career goals and contraception.
Instructors from the Delta Health Partners Healthy Start Initiative come to Hollins' high school monthly to teach lessons that incorporate some of the newest theories on the relationship between poverty and teen motherhood. It's a far cry from decades past, when women in Hollins' situation were given little guidance and often left to drop out and languish.
Part of the goal is to change patterns of communication about sex that have persisted for years.
"I'm going to talk to her more about it, inform her," Hollins said of her 5-month-old daughter. "'Cause I didn't have that talk with my mom. I had to learn on my own."
The Delta Initiative, run through Tougaloo College since 1999, is a forerunner in the state's changing attitude toward teen pregnancy. Next year, a new state law will require schools to teach sex education, and they'll have more leeway in how much information they can incorporate about birth control. Schools previously had to get special permission to teach anything but abstinence. Delta Health Partners' classes are run independently of the school districts' curriculum, though they use classrooms at welcoming schools to make it convenient for the girls to attend.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has also created a task force to discuss ways to reduce teen pregnancy — considered an important acknowledgement of the problem in a state where elected leaders were once loathe to discuss it.
Mississippi's teen birth rate declined modestly over the past decade as rates around the country fell. But Mississippi still has 55 births per 1,000 15- to 19-year-old girls, compared to a national average of 34.3, according to the most recent figures from the federal government's National Center for Health Statistics.
Experts say there was a culture of silence around the issue for decades in Mississippi, allowing the problem to build. Teen mothers were expected to drop out of school, or even leave town.
Delta Health Partners work in one of the poorest sections of the poorest state in the U.S. Recent research by economists Phillip Levine of Wellesley College and Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland challenges the long-held assumption that pregnancy is a deciding factor in whether a young woman slides into poverty.
"If two identical people going down a path in life, did the one who had a baby do particularly worse?" Levine asked. "It's hard to find evidence that's true."
In the Marks classroom, more than a dozen girls told Delta Health Partners caseworkers about their plans to become nurses, pediatricians and cosmetologists.
When asked how their pregnancies have impacted their lives, 19-year-old Shalendrick Tribble said things are largely the same.
"There's just certain things at certain times you can and cannot do," she said.
"For me, it got harder," Hollins chimed in. "My mom, she helps me to a certain extent. But she's trying to make me responsible, so she makes me do everything."
It was clear from the girls' stories that life has become more complicated. Some parents gave them the silent treatment. Others had watched boyfriends promise support, and then ignore them when asked to take on the responsibility of fatherhood. They also told of friends who dropped out of school when they couldn't arrange childcare.
Delta Health Partners is not the only initiative aimed at addressing teen pregnancy. The Mississippi Department of Human Services lists more than two dozen resource centers that provide education on teen pregnancy, and some districts work with the girls to keep them in school.
States such as Idaho and Texas have public schools designed specifically for pregnant and parenting teens, which provide in-school daycare. Deborah Hedden-Nicely, head teacher at the Marian Pritchett High School in Boise, Idaho, says schools designed specifically for teen parents make a difference by pushing them to finish high school and go to college.
"Our mascot is a mortar board and a diploma," Hedden-Nicely said. "We have speakers who come in and tell them, 'yes, life is going to throw down roadblocks. You've got to get around them.'"
Advocates say that fighting teen pregnancy ultimately requires a lot more than sex education classes.
"It really circles back to education and job opportunities, it circles back to health care, to generational poverty," said Jamie Bardwell of the Mississippi Women's Fund. "These are all interconnected issues with lots of different players. Good people are working on it, but we have to realize for the teen birthrate going down, we need more than people talking about it. We need legislative action. We need more funding for this issue."
Research by Levine and Kearney underscores this message. When poor young women are pessimistic about their chances of reaching the next economic class, researchers say they tend to care less about whether they'll get pregnant.
The Delta Health Partners know they must fight this ambivalence and instill in the girls hope that they can accomplish their goals. To do this, they visit the girls both in 17 Delta high schools and at their homes.
A recent visit to Hollins' school, Madison S. Palmer High School in Marks, was the last day the case workers would see some of the girls in school before graduation.
Jodi Bailey, a nurse and case manager, read off some statistics to the students. Half of high school students who get pregnant don't graduate. Three in 10 girls in the U.S. will get pregnant before age 20.
"We want to keep you in high school, we want you to graduate and say 'I did it,'" Bailey said. "If you're having problems, we're here. We'll help you any way we can, OK?"
For its part, the Marks school district plans to adopt a curriculum to include more comprehensive sex-education, which will still emphasize the benefits of abstinence.
Some in the small town about 70 miles south of Memphis, Tenn., still think teen pregnancy should be addressed in the home, not the classroom. Harold Smith, a local evangelical pastor, said sex outside marriage is a sin and parents — not educators — should teach children to avoid it.
"You've got to spread the gospel," Smith said. "If they get a hold of God just right, they won't have (children)."
But limiting discussion to the home didn't work for Hollins: "I wish my mom would have talked to me more about sex."
That's why Delta Health Partners is seeking to change the pattern.
"You've got to do something different," said social worker Debra McGee. "You cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result."
This article based on the reporting of Laura Tillman of The Associated Press.