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New Mexico State University

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Alliance for Teen Pregnancy Prevention Forms in Bernalillo

BERNALILLO - School officials, community leaders and pueblo representatives have formed an Alliance for Teen Pregnancy Prevention in the Bernalillo Public School District, where nearly one-fifth of all teen births in Sandoval County are concentrated.

The alliance will work to broaden health and life skills education in the public schools, conduct workshops to help parents intervene against risky behavior by their kids, begin a public dialogue about contraceptive choices for sexually active teens and provide more extracurricular activities for youth.

"This is a critical problem in Bernalillo and one that we must address as a community," said Charolette Collins, alliance member and home economist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service in Sandoval County. "We need to provide immediate assistance to young people who are pregnant or who are already teen parents. But our long-term goal is to generate a community-wide effort to create healthy environments at home and in school to prevent these circumstances from occurring."

New Mexico has the fifth highest rate of teen births in the nation, behind Arizona, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas. In 1998, the latest year statistics were available, New Mexico teens 15 to 19 gave birth to 4,861 babies- a rate of 68 births per 1,000 teens. The national average is 51 births.

Sandoval County is also above the national rate with 54 births per 1,000 teens, but it is better off than most other counties, ranking 29th statewide. The problem, however, is particularly concentrated in some areas, such as Bernalillo.

Bernalillo High School has 32 male and female teen parents enrolled in classes, meaning about 1 out of every 25 students enrolled in the school is either pregnant or a parent. A total of 24 babies have already been born, or will soon be born, representing nearly a fifth of the 134 teen births registered in all of Sandoval County in the last annual tally in 1998.

The numbers are likely conservative, since more teen parents in Bernalillo may have dropped out of school, said Linda Phillips Lehrer of the New Mexico Teen Pregnancy Coalition, which is assisting the alliance in Bernalillo.

The high teen pregnancy rate led school district superintendent Gary Dwyer to ask that Lehrer's coalition start a community discussion about the problem in late 1999. A working group met this year, leading to creation of the Bernalillo Alliance for Teen Pregnancy Prevention, which includes representatives from agencies such as Extension, area pueblos, state and local health programs, and school officials.

The group has decided to focus on four central goals, with a committee devoted to each one:

* implementation of mandated health education standards in the school district and efforts to develop community support for K-12 health curriculum that includes comprehensive sex education;
* programs and classes for parents in easily accessible locations to improve their ability to mentor kids;
* a public dialogue on how to make contraceptive choices more easily accessible at Bernalillo High School's Spartan Health Center; and
* promotion of more youth activities including jobs, interdenominational involvement, recreational activities, and extracurricular opportunities.

The group received a $5,000 grant from the state Department of Health, in part to hire a parent to act as a community liaison for the alliance. The money will also support mentoring programs in the school district, fund "family night out" activities and put hotline phone numbers on student ID cards.

Group leaders will hold their first public presentation on Thursday, Oct. 12, to inform town officials, community leaders, local clergy, school board members, and interested parents about the alliance and appeal for their support. The presentation will take place from 4:45 to 6 p.m. at the Bernalillo School Administration Building.

"The presentation is open to the general public and represents the alliance's kickoff," Collins said. "We want to inform participants about our progress and the goals we've set, and we hope to convince many to either join the alliance or show support for it."

The group hopes to build a partnership among families, schools, community organizations and faith-based groups, since broad community involvement is essential to attack the problem at its roots, Lehrer said.

"Families and communities are much stronger and healthier when babies are born to women who have completed high school and are beyond their teen years," she said. "I think everybody recognizes that fact, and that's what this alliance is all about. We want teens to understand that these years are for growing up, getting an education and just being a teenager. Parenting is best delayed until they are adults."