Assisting teen mothers 1 objective of new project

LAUREL — Check any school district in Mississippi and you’ll probably find several teenagers who are pregnant or are already mothers.

Their lives are not the same as those of other high schools girls. Besides attending school and doing homework, some work part-time to have money to care for their children and are often up late nights to care for the needs of their little ones.

“A lot of these girls want to be good mothers, but they’re still young and they just don’t know how,” said Josie Alford, a youth educator in the Lawrence County School District. “They need someone to show them how, to give them a little encouragement.”

That’s one of the objectives of the Laurel and Lawrence County school districts’ Safe Schools/Healthy Students Project. The two south Mississippi school districts are partnering with law enforcement and juvenile justice entities and public mental health agencies to create safer and healthier learning environments for students in preschool through 12th grade.

Alford, who works in Monticello, is one of eight Safe Schools/Healthy Students staff members in place to address a number of issues confronting students, as well as school districts. Staff members consist of professionals from both Jones and Lawrence counties.

The Lawrence and Laurel school districts’ Safe Schools/Healthy Students Project, is funded through a $1 million grant from the federal Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative. The primary partners in the project are the Laurel and Lawrence County school districts. Jones and Lawrence County Law Enforcement, Pine Belt Mental Healthcare and the Southwest Mental Health Complex.

“We have come together to discuss what things we can offer the school districts in developing safe school sand healthy students,” said Lindsey Blackledge, project director. “We brought together a good mix of people to have us get this moving in the right direction.”

Elizabeth Kilgore of Laurel, who has experience in working with expectant and youthful mothers, serves as the project’s early childhood community liaison.

“We very rarely see a teen who doesn’t want to be a good mother,” said Kilgore. “They don’t know how, and you have to teach them skills needed to raise a child.”

Kilgore and her team plan to work to increase the number of teenage parents enrolled in Family Literacy Programs such as Parents as Teachers (PAT) or Adult Basic Education by 20 percent each year.

Kilgore said they will go into the homes of program participants to talk to them about prenatal care, educate them about parenting and help them understand that they are the first and best teacher for their children.

“They are key to the child’s socio- and emotional development,” she said.

Alford said Safe Schools/Healthy Students also want to encourage teen mothers to stay in school.

“We want to help build their self-esteem and let them know that if they have to leave school, they can get their GED,” she said. “They can also go on to college and make a good life for themselves and their children.”

If a recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is any indication, those working with teen mothers will have a lot of work to do. CDC statistics show that Mississippi has the nation’s highest teen pregnancy rate. CDC also notes that Mississippi’s rate is more than 60 percent higher than the national average in 2006.

In Mississippi, there were about 68 births for every 1,000 women, ages 15 through 19 in 2006. About 435,000 of the nation’s 4.3 million births in 2006 were to mothers ages 15 through 19. That was about 21,000 more teen births than in 2005.

Blackledge said participating partners have agreed to provide support to implement, manage, and monitor the programs, activities, and services provided and attain the goals set forth by the project.

Charlotte A. Graham/Laurel Leader-Call