Arlington schools get HHS grant to help prevent teen pregnancy

ARLINGTON -- When Colleen Plair got pregnant at 15 and saw her dreams of college fade, she found help at her school.

But even with all the child-care and parenting services that kept her from dropping out, she had made a tough path for herself that she doesn't recommend.

"Definitely, prevention is the best route to go," said Plair, who graduated from high school and at 26 is working on a master's degree in social work. "We need to head off the problem before it becomes a problem."

So Plair was excited to learn that the Arlington school district has been awarded a major grant -- potentially almost $5 million over five years -- to help steer students away from risky behaviors.

The district, which will soon receive its first-year funding of $996,000 for planning, is among seven Texas education institutions and organizations to share $7.6 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Risky behaviors

The agency announced last week that it will give out more than 100 grants worth a total of $155 million nationwide for two types of teen pregnancy-prevention programs: those that will replicate approaches proven to be effective and those that will test innovative strategies.

The Arlington district designed its own grant program that will provide off-campus services to prevent pregnancies and bring back dropouts.

"A lot of them start engaging in these risky behaviors like sex and alcohol and drug addiction, because a lot of kids are not supervised when they are not at school," Plair said.

The program will provide counselors and tutors who can work with students in their homes and at alternative education sites as well as help with transportation, life-skills training and contacting social service agencies.

Bill Albert, chief program officer for the advocacy group National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, said he hopes that the federal grants will reignite progress in pregnancy-prevention efforts.

"The nation has over the past two decades made extraordinary progress in reducing the rates of teen pregnancy," Albert said, citing a 37 percent decline since 1990. "The bad news is that recent progress has come to a virtual standstill."

The grants are intended to run five years, but funding must be approved annually, he said.

National model

If Arlington's program succeeds, it could become a model for other districts.

"It's a huge honor to have received this funding," said Tori Sisk, coordinator of pregnancy-related services for the school district. "We're hopeful to impact a lot of students across the country, not just AISD students."

Sisk is teaming with Wendy Carrington, director of drop-out prevention, which works with about 300 at-risk students. Her program arranges flexible learning schedules, provides tutors and lets some take courses online.

The grant funds will expand the program's capabilities, allowing better monitoring of the students.

"We do the best we can in our office to try to keep up with them, but that's a lot of kids out there," Carrington said.