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Local schools on road to combat teen pregnancy

BRADENTON -- A colorful, decked out bus painted with life-sized, smiling students serves as a mobile unit to combat a big problem plaguing Manatee County: teen pregnancy.

About 40 parents came to Johnson Middle School Wednesday night to find out how the bus, a $288,0000 grant and the district’s new “It’s Your Choice” program will help students learn about the consequences of risky behavior.

Manatee County Schools was awarded the grant because of its pregnancy statistics. Out of 67 Florida counties, Manatee ranks 11th for a high occurrence of teen pregnancy.

“We know we have 34 students who are either pregnant or parenting already,” Lynette Edwards, schools assistant superintendent of curriculum, told parents. “We know we have had students as young as fifth grade becoming pregnant over the years. We know that an unplanned teen pregnancy could have devastating effects -- not only on young people, but on their families.”

According to the Florida Department of Health, in 2008, Manatee County exceeded the state average for the number of births to mothers ages 15-19.

Such statistics led district officials to wonder, “What can we do to make a difference?” Edwards said.

The district applied for a Manatee County government grant, which relies on submitting information for an “evidenced-based, researched-based program that works,” Edwards said. The district received the dollars and now has set a new goal.

“Our goal is to reduce our teen pregnancies,” she said, “especially among our middle school students.”

Middle school students, district officials say, are “at a higher risk at that age.”

Parents listened to a 90-minute presentation from school district officials, the new program coordinator and volunteers of the “It’s Your Choice” program. A review of the curriculum was explained to parents, along with what makes the program unique.

“The respect part of this curriculum is the most unique part of it,” said Judy Griffin, science curriculum specialist.

Not all parents, however, believed the presentation set by school officials. Even though school officials went through what sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders will learn through the program, one parent believed she was “sold a bill of goods.”

“You really haven’t told me how you’re going to present it,” she said.

Griffin then showed her that the curriculum was available for her to peruse.

Another parent asked about social media: “Do you talk about the social media -- Facebook, Twitter?”

Schools social worker Joan Tomeo said pregnant teenage girls shared the dangers of social media.

“They said that’s where many young girls are building relationships that they think are meaningful,” she said.

She added that those relationships are usually with older men.

Griffin told parents that the mobile unit and the program will exist throughout the school district and at several co-sponsoring organizations.

“We want them to receive the abstinence and waiting message every place -- school, community, the bus,” Griffin said. “We want them to constantly hear this message to counteract the negative messages bombarding our kids everyday.”

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