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Earth Notes

Pregnant teen program expands

Two in five young women become pregnant in the United States before they reach the age of 20. In the Latina community the rate is higher -- three in five.

By Laurel Morales

Flagstaff, AZ – At first glance Flagstaff's Teenage Parent Program or TAPP looks like any other high school classroom with a chalkboard, bookshelves, a world map and tired teenagers. Take a closer look and you'll see baby toys, baby posters, baby bouncy chairs and babies.

Eighteen-year-old Chelsey Laben has a toddler at home and she's pregnant with her second child. She looks down at her basketball-sized belly as she thinks back to the day she learned she was pregnant with her first.

LABEN: I was scared. I didn't know how I was going to be able to raise a baby and go to school at the same time.

Laben continued to attend Flagstaff High School throughout her first pregnancy.

LABEN: Like yeah a lot of like people talking she's pregnant' and stuff.

Coming to TAPP for half days allows her to spend time with her son. She plans to be a nurse and realizes it will take longer now.

LABEN: You do have to give up a lot. You have to give up going places with your friends hanging out. You can lose a lot of friends that way. I did. I don't talk to them anymore just the girls that are here.

TAPP was created to give young girls like Laben a place where they can learn how to be good parents, juggle their new responsibilities and feel comfortable. Sandra Cota has taught at TAPP for 12 years. Now the director, Cota says most girls who try to continue in regular high schools drop out. Cota's goal at TAPP is to prevent that from happening.

COTA: Many of the girls I talk to say they wish they would have waited because they're missing out on a lot of high school activities like going to prom, cheerleading or whatever. If they could do it again they would say I would've waited until I was older. But they don't ever regret their children and what's happened to them.

Oftentimes Cota says she feels more like a social worker than a teacher.

COTA: We have a couple in shelters now or motels and that's a real fragile situation everyday are they going to be able to stay there or pay their motel bill or have food to eat It's sad a lot of them don't have family support a lot of them come from single families themselves no dad in the family or no mom. They just want a child for them to love them and for them to love back just have somebody there for them.

In the last school year TAPP had 68 students. That's double the number the program had enrolled a decade ago. And Cota says there's always a waitING list. Still, nationwide fewer teens are getting pregnant.

So what's different about Arizona?

Rachel Billowitz says it may have to do with what teens are taught or not taught. Billowitz is a sexuality educator and program manager for Planned Parenthood's community education program. She says more Arizona school districts choose to teach abstinence only compared to states where pregnancy rates are lower.

Flagstaff Unified School District actually cut its sex ed program in 2003 because of budget constraints. This year the district launched what they call an abstinence plus program where the instructor talks about other forms of birth control and disease prevention. Kathy Gill is the district's assistant superintendent.

GILL: The input we were getting from the public and also in looking at statistics from the county health department and looking at our increased numbers of young women in the teenage parent program indicated that we needed to look at revitalizing the sex ed program.

In addition to sex ed Billowitz says cultural barriers may also be an issue. Most TAPP students are Native American and Hispanic.

BILLOWITZ: Some Native American families do not openly talk about anatomy and how pregnancy can occur. In many families there's a taboo against saying certain words such as penis or vagina and there's a reluctance to explain processes that occur during puberty such as menstruation or wet dreams. And I do believe of all cultural backgrounds have questions about their bodies.

Billowitz says nationwide two in five women become pregnant before the age of 20. In the Latina community the rate is higher -- three in five Latina women will become pregnant before their 20th birthday.

Billowitz led a how to talk with your kids about sex discussion at the Family Resource Center recently. She told them children look to their parents to be their primary sexual educators. Sandra Ortega understands how important that role is.

ORTEGA: You know when I ask my mother about sex she say to me you just don't do that until you're married. We have a stereotype with boys. It's ok for boys to have sex but it's not ok for girls. There's a lot of cultural barriers. We have a problem in this particular ethnic group with teen pregnancy. This is what is happening. If you don't talk to your kids someone else will.

TAPP student Chelsey Laben, who is Hopi, says she plans to talk to her children about sex.

LABEN: I don't want them to put me in the same situation I put my parents in. I want them to wait cuz it is hard going to school and taking care of a kid trying to do what you need to do. Like my boyfriend's not going to school he has to work.

Laben is in her second semester at TAPP and her third trimester. She's due to have her baby sometime next month.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.