"Look at the ones who get pregnant. It's not the ones you know, the ones that have a name or something like that. I mean sometimes it is, but the ones that are really getting pregnant are the ones that need attention. The bottom of the barrel, the quiet ones that don't nobody know, and they ain't around a lot of people."
Elishuwa is in the eleventh grade, and we're at Youth Visions, a youth organization in the heart of Frayser. He and three other students here are from Trezevant High School, another major high school in Frayser with an equally large share of Memphis' teen pregnancy problem.
When I ask how many of the students know a teen who is pregnant or has been pregnant, a collective chuckle breaks out, as all of their hands go up. "Dozens." "A lot." One young man raises his eyebrows and says, "A couple."
To hear these students tell it, the teen pregnancy problem is in no way limited to Frayser High School, profiled recently by the national and local media.
Health department statistics bear this out — broadening the scope to include zip codes in South Memphis and Binghamton. In these Memphis communities, one out of every four babies is born to a teen mom.
And this is not a new problem.
"Memphis City Schools knew they had a teen pregnancy problem. This isn't something they just found out about last week when Channel 5 did a story," says Joan Carr, director of Community Affairs for Planned Parenthood. "They knew it as well as everyone else did."
Angela Rogers, founder and executive director of A Mother's Heart in Frayser, agrees: "I don't have much to say about what's been on the news except, Where have you guys been? This stuff is not new. I've been doing this for almost 10 years, and for some reason, it has blown up in the media as something that is a huge new travesty happening in this community. The needs that these girls have are not new."
The way press coverage has been lately, you'd think all the pregnant teens in Memphis attend Frayser High School. In recent weeks, Memphis has been confronted with the daunting, if questionable, statistic that 90 girls at Frayser High are pregnant or have been pregnant within the past year.
Memphis, and Frayser in particular, quickly became a punching bag and a punch line. After WMC first reported the statistic on January 10th, the number 90 itself went viral, showing up in headlines in The Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News; on news aggregator sites like the Daily Beast and Buzzfeed; and even on "celebutante" Kim Kardashian's twitter feed, where she rebuked MTV programming: "Does the show Teen Mom disturb anyone else? Can't get this Memphis story out of my head. This should NOT be trendy!"
On the Today show, a New York-based psychiatrist, Janet Taylor, in what has since spawned the jocular Internet meme "Dr. Janet's Memphis," pointed to insufficient guidance and information from health-care providers as playing a crucial role in high teen pregnancy rates. "Reportedly, there is no OB-GYN in that county," she said, referring to Shelby County, the most populous county in Tennessee. "So when you talk about reliable, accurate information, there's a disconnect that really happens."
Superintendent Kriner Cash offered up his own stance on reliable, accurate information in a press conference with Mayors A C Wharton and Mark Luttrell held on January 18th at City Hall. "This notion that there are 90 pregnant students at Frayser High School right now is not true," Cash said. However, he went on to explain that, because MCS' data on teen pregnancies comes from self-reports and because there are inaccuracies inherent in a self-report system, MCS cannot provide an exact number to correct the viral 90.
"What there are," he said, "is probably that number who have a baby, may have two children, and are in a program out there that draws from all over that community to come in to that program."
The programs at Frayser High School that Cash identified as magnets for pregnant teens are Young Women's Summit and Frayser Preparatory Academy. Neither of the programs is directly aimed at pregnant teens or teen moms. Frayser Preparatory Academy is a program aimed at graduating over-age and older students, and Young Women's Summit is a series of leadership workshops and a cotillion. But according to Cash and former Frayser principal Cassandra Turner, these two programs have been magnets for at least 30 to 35 pregnant girls from other city schools.
Cash closed the press conference saying, "These young ladies deserve our respect, our support, our confidence, and [we should] not exploit them while they're going through a most difficult challenge in anyone's life, but particularly theirs. In fact, they are the heroes in our life, the example of why we do what we do at Memphis City Schools."
Beyond fending off reporters and vehemently denying the "90 girls" statistic, what exactly is being done at Memphis City Schools? In response to high teen pregnancy rates in Shelby County, deputy superintendent Irving Hamer requested an audit of the family life curriculum at all public schools, which is now under way. Since last fall, Turner reportedly has been visiting city schools to ensure that teachers understand and implement a health and sex education curriculum.
Elokin CaPece, director of education at Planned Parenthood of Greater Memphis, has long been concerned about the consistent implementation of sex education curriculum in the schools.
"What they intend is that the curriculum is taught for a year and then over the summer it's revised, and in the new year it's approved and taught again," she said in an interview last June. "That process has had hiccups, and there have been issues in making sure that there is school-wide compliance. Teachers and schools are not supposed to opt out, but as I understand it, there's not a really cohesive network in place to make sure that all of the health teachers are teaching exactly what they're supposed to."
In a discussion with the teens at Youth Visions, Nadia, an eighth grader at Georgian Hills Middle School in Frayser, said she has not had a sex education class at school. Eboni, an eleventh grader at Trezevant, said she went through a mandatory sex education course sponsored by Girls, Inc. in the ninth grade but has had nothing since. She says the classes are offered but are not mandatory.
As for the family life curriculum, CaPece, a member of the MCS School Health Advisory Council, says that there were changes that could be made. She submitted recommendations to the curriculum review committee on making the information more medically accurate and changing some of the suggested language for teachers on how to talk about HIV/AIDS, STDs, and pregnancy. In a follow-up interview, she confirmed that none of her recommendations had been adopted.
"The curriculum that MCS uses is broken down by age, and each lesson is meant to be taught for more than a hour. It includes lessons on HIV, STDs, lots of emotional health and healthy relationship stuff and self-esteem building, and then a little bit on reproductive anatomy and fetal development," CaPece says. "There's mention of condoms; there's a small mention of birth control that's supposed to be fleshed out by teachers. But there could be more."
Still, many stakeholders in the teen pregnancy issue are not certain what share of the blame should be placed on sex education in the city schools. Elishuwa's haunting interpretation of the type of girls getting pregnant — the ones at "the bottom of the barrel"— brings other approaches into focus.
"It's not just one thing that causes it. It's not lack of knowledge about contraceptives — these girls could tell me about that stuff," Angela Rogers says. She has spent the last 10 years at A Mother's Heart providing mentors, parenting sessions, job training programs, and general support for teen moms in Frayser. She recruits pregnant and parenting teens ages 13 to 18 primarily from Frayser and Trezevant High Schools. "Some of the reasons are emotional; they need a sense of belonging. It stems from a lot of different situations and you can't just finger point and say, 'They just don't know. Educate them about contraceptives.' I mean that is necessary, but that alone will not do it."
According to Rogers, the first step is to provide a platform for teens to talk openly about the emotional and physical consequences of sex and receive feedback from trusted adults. "Provide the platforms for them and then give them sound advice from an adult perspective," she says. "We think our kids don't want anyone telling them what to do, but that's not true. They want to hear somebody talk to them. Sometimes the parents at home aren't comfortable talking to them. School is not talking to them about sex education and the emotional stuff that goes along with it. Nobody is addressing it, so they get their definition of things from media."
Marron Thomas, executive director at Youth Visions, teaches abstinence but backs this up with programs to help kids focus on their futures: college prep classes, mentor sessions, and extracurricular activities. "We tell them what to say no to, but what do we tell them to say yes to?" Thomas says.
Girls, Inc. is taking a multifaceted approach, aiming for greater birth-control knowledge and stronger self-esteem among teenage girls. After teaming up with an anonymous group of donors and a marketing group, Red Deluxe, in early summer 2010, Girls Inc. decided to launch a bold multimedia campaign to end teen pregnancy — starting with Frayser. "No Baby.Org" consists of a series of candid questions about sex, plastered on billboards and wrapped around buses:
"Can we try it without a condom?"
"Is it safe if we do it right after your period?"
"Can we do it just a little?"
The answer to these questions is, "No Baby." A website, posters, T-shirts, radio promotions, and even text message updates are all part of the No Baby campaign.
Having met the $75,000 challenge grant from anonymous donors, Girls, Inc. will follow up its media campaign with its signature Preventing Adolescent Pregnancy Program of 12 sessions at Frayser High and Trezevant High, as well as after-school sites at both schools.
"A program alone, without some of the other support, is going to be short-lived," says Deborah Hester Harrison, executive director of Girls, Inc. "That's my observation and my study and research. You can show them all this and tell them all this, but if you're not providing them ongoing support, then they're back in with all the peer pressure."
Hester Harrison has made teen pregnancy prevention her passion. Not only was she a teen mom, but she spent two and a half years as the executive director for the Workforce Investment Network — a city of Memphis workforce development initiative in 2000 — and saw first-hand the economic and social impact of teen pregnancy.
"What I saw was that so many of the people we worked with were females in their 20s with little education, little job skills, and two or three children," she says. "And it was so hard at that point to help them, because they had so many factors going against them. I realized at the time that we were trying to solve the problem on the wrong end and that part of the root cause was kids having kids. If we could prevent or reduce this teen pregnancy, we wouldn't have nearly the problems or issues we were having on the other end."
In early 2011, Le Bonheur Children's Hospital is launching its teen pregnancy prevention program, Be Proud! Be Responsible! Memphis!, which targets teenage boys ages 13 to 18. The program is funded by a $4 million grant from the Office of Adolescent Health. The first year of the program will take place in North Memphis, including Frayser High and Trezevant High, but in years two through five, the program will expand to Memphis and Shelby County. The initiative focuses on reducing risky sexual behaviors and promoting pride and responsibility among teenage boys.
It's an important angle and one that often gets lost in the shuffle of baby bellies or pushed aside by a "boys will be boys" mentality.
"I know a lot of girls, most of their baby daddies are out of school," says Dimonte, an eleventh grader at Trezevant, the son of a teen mom and one of the boys at Youth Visions. He and the other students estimate that the fathers are typically two to three years older than the girls they impregnate. "They're the ones who are probably not doing anything," he says, suggesting that the fathers are often out of school or out of work.
The Shelby County Office of Children and Youth which is scheduled to become a joint city-county office, has announced its Teen Pregnancy and Parenting Success Project. Using a $4.2 million federal grant, Julie Coffey will head up the campaign, working to lower infant mortality rates and prevent subsequent pregnancies. "It's those subsequent, unspaced pregnancies that contribute to infant mortality," Coffey says. "There's not enough time for the mother's body to recover."
According to the Urban Child Institute, infants in Shelby County are dying at almost twice the rate of children across the country, and low birth weight is one of the primary causes of this trend. Teen moms are particularly at risk for inadequate prenatal care and delivering a low birth-weight baby.
Tacara, a senior at Trezevant, is not sexually active but says, "My friend has been pregnant since the 9th grade. She's had six or seven pregnancies but only one survived, and she gave him up for adoption." Of another friend, she says, "One day she had a miscarriage and she was really upset about it. She was pregnant with twins."
Tacara was recently accepted to the University of Southern Illinois, thanks to the college prep program at Youth Visions. She's also writing her capstone, a senior thesis project required of all MCS students, on teen pregnancy. "Everywhere I went and everywhere I turned, I saw pregnant people. It was agitating me. I want to get a message out that you should get an education and wait to start a family."