The birth of Teen Health Mississippi can be attributed to the development of CHART (Creating Healthy and Responsible Teens) taking place in the early years of Mississippi First. Though many policymakers were vocal advocates for better teen health, it was a federal funding opportunity that sparked the CHART initiative, which as of today has reached thousands of students in the Magnolia State. From the growth of the CHART initiative, we became keenly aware of the need to expand our work to include engaging youth advocates and community stakeholders to increase awareness of important policies relating to teen sexual health; and provide training and resources to develop the capacity of youth-serving adults and organizations to effectively implement evidence-based strategies, programs, and services that are guided by key positive youth development practices.
Something Must Be Done
The first development in the creation of CHART was the building of interest among lawmakers to address our teen health crisis. At the time, Mississippi led the nation in rates of teen births, chlamydia, and gonorrhea. As former educators, we recognized the impact that our state’s high teen birth rate was having on academic performance and high school graduation rates. But for several years, legislators were unable to get a sex education requirement to the governor’s desk.
An Opportunity to Take Action
When the Affordable Care Act was signed into law in 2011, it created the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP). PREP was created to provide funds to states, which could be used to develop programs with schools and community-based organizations (CBO’s) to reduce teen birth and STD rates. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) also conducted a comprehensive review of hundreds of sex education programs, which resulted in a list of 28 evidence-based programs recommended for use with PREP funds.
With this opportunity in place, Mississippi First sought a partnership with the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) to use PREP funds to work in public schools. Through what would eventually be called the Creating Health and Responsible Teens (CHART) initiative, we would use PREP funding to implement HHS-recommended sex ed programs into school districts with significantly-high teen birth and STD rates. Each district would be required to adopt our model sex education policy, which outlined how sex education would be provided for middle and high school students. By adopting the CHART policy, districts would receive (1) evidence-based curricula, (2) teacher training, and (3) technical assistance at no cost to the school district.
State Requires Sex Education
The final development in the birth of the CHART initiative came in 2011 with the passage of a new sex education law. When House Bill 999 was signed into law, each public school district was required to teach sex education for the first time. Districts were required to adopt either an “abstinence-only” or “abstinence-plus” policy. The key difference being that “abstinence-plus” districts were allowed to use programs that addressed risk-reduction information in addition to abstinence. The law, however, included several challenging restrictions (ex., no condom demonstrations, gender-separated classes, opt-in parental consent instead of opt-out).
With the state law in place, CHART was modified to comply with both PREP requirements and the state law. Although the state law created many hurdles, we have been able to work in over 30 school districts over the past 4 years. This includes over 80% of the districts in our counties which had teen birth and STD rates that were significantly higher than our state averages. In the years ahead, we’re hoping to extend our reach to other districts.
In 2015, we saw a great need to expand our work to include additional trainings for evidence-based sex education curricula, professional development opportunities for educators teaching sex education and other related courses, workshops and resources for parents, and youth-friendly trainings for healthcare providers. This shift allowed us to expand our work with teen pregnancy, and in 2016, we launched the Focus4Teens program. A 5-year cooperative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to work with publicly funded health centers and youth-serving systems to reduce teen pregnancy among youth from vulnerable populations in Coahoma, Quitman, and Tunica Counties in the Mississippi Delta.