MANATEE -- Ella Biggins has seen the effects of teen pregnancy at school and in her community.
So when the Braden River High sophomore joined the Manatee County Youth Commission last year, she jumped at the opportunity to join a subcommittee working to prevent teen pregnancy.
"I knew what a severe problem it was in Manatee County. I knew I could make a difference," said Biggins, chairwoman of the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Committee.
The latest data from the Florida Department of Health ranked Manatee County No. 29 of 67 counties in the state in percentage of births by teen mothers. The 2011 data shows Manatee County recorded 335 births to females 12 to 19 years of age, or 23.4 percent of all births in the county. The state average was 18.9 percent or 4.5 percentage points lower.
Teen pregnancy costs taxpayers a bundle, too. An in-depth analysis by Healthy Teens Coalition found $11 million spent in Manatee each year for social services and health care for teen moms and their children.
To conbat the problem, rhe Teen Pregnancy Prevention Committee created surveys on reproductive education for middle-school students, lobbied local governments to support their cause and sponsored a town hall meeting at Pirate City for teens and adults to discuss tough topics such as sex and drug use.
Biggins said she believes the work they are doing contributed to a recent decrease in teen pregnancy by raising awareness of the topic.
Jessica Spencer, project director for youth commis
sion, said the students are making a difference in the community.
"She's (Biggins) really focused on doing a great job," said Spencer. "She's amazing and she has proved her dedication to the group."
Biggins said her committee reviewed the Florida Department of Education health education curriculum after the FDE asked for feedback. Biggins and five other committee members suggested teaching students as early as the fourth grade about their soon-to-be changing bodies -- and teaching sex education in middle school because some students are already having sex at that age.
Spencer said the students worry their message may ruffle conservative feathers in Manatee County.
"They don't want to step on toes but they want to get the message out there," said Spencer.
Spencer said the students need a political leader willing to help deliver their message, too.
The youth commission works closely with the Healthy Teens Coalition of Manatee County. a nonprofit started in 2010 to promote healthy, responsible behavior in partnership with schools and community organizations.
Coalition Chairwoman Mary Ann Legler said teen births have dropped in the last decade. The Florida Department of Health reports live births to Manatee County teen mothers dropped 27.5 percent when comparing a mean of 498 births in 2003-2010 to the mean of 361 births in 2011-12.
Yet why are so many Manatee County teens still getting pregnant?
"There's no simple answer," Legler said.
Legler said 45 percent of teen births in Manatee over the last decade involved Hispanic teens, 36.5 percent were African-American and 18.5 percent were Caucasian.
Socioeconomic factors are important predictors, Legler said. Nan Gould, director of education at Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, agrees.
"You're looking at education, you're looking at poverty and access to services," Gould said. There are other risk factors, too.
"Sixty-six percent of pregnant teens report a history of sexual abuse," Legler said. "Teens who date older partners are also much more likely to become pregnant."
Babies born to low-income teens tend to have lower birth weights and are at-risk for not receiving proper post-natal care, Legler said
"Children of teen mothers also tend to grow up poor and have a higher school-dropout rate," she said.
Children of teenage mothers also have a higher rate of incarceration. "There a long list of implications," Legler said.
At Braden River High School, Biggins said her friends were shocked to find her involved with the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Committee.
"I think they were surprised, but they know this is a big issue," said Biggins.
Her friends realized the importance of the work once they considered the number of pregnant teens they knew at school.
"Now they think it's cool," she said. "Creating awareness and informing the community is key to solving this issue."