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This series looks at how local, state and educational policies affect the neighborhood – everything from City Council representation to childhood obesity.

How Teen Pregnancies at Mendez Middle School Were Cut Down to Zero
Last year 22 middle school students in Austin ISD became pregnant, but none were at Mendez Middle School, despite its location in the Austin neighborhood with the highest teen pregnancy rate. So what happened?

This article is part of KUT's yearlong series Turning the Corner, taking a look at Austin's Dove Springs neighborhood. For decades, the neighborhood has had a negative reputation. Now, many community members are trying to change the perception of the 78744 zip code. Listen to those stories here.

In the 2012-2013 school year, the Austin school district reported 303 student pregnancies districtwide. 22 of those pregnancies were middle school students.

Despite its location in the neighborhood with the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Travis County, none of them were at Mendez Middle School. So what happened? 

Five years ago, it was a different story.

Fifteen students at Mendez Middle School got pregnant during one school year. Since then, at least 19 other students at the school have also gotten pregnant. 

None of that has changed in recent years, so it's unclear exactly why the school saw such a sharp decline in pregnancies. The district didn’t make counselors, teachers or students at Mendez available on the issue. 

According to district officials, all middle school students get the same sex education and health instruction as part of their science classes. 

"We're really focusing on abstinence from risk taking behaviors in general," says Tracy Lunoff, who oversees the sex ed and health curriculum for AISD. "That includes drug, tobacco use prevention, gang-related behaviors, and we focus on and drive the curriculum and learning around goal setting." 

Then schools focus more on human sexuality and pregnancy prevention.

"We're talking about what are diseases, sexually transmitted diseases, sexually transmitted infections, how to prevent those things i.e. varying birth control methods," Lunoff says.

Lunoff credits the Dove Springs community for the sharp decline in middle school pregnancies in the neighborhood.

"I really feel strongly that it was the rallying and advocacy of the community saying, 'We need help,'" says Lunoff. "And there are resources in the Austin community and in the district to really help us. And they want healthy kids and want healthy families."

Another reason for the decline in pregnancies at Mendez could be the large number of nonprofits and community groups working directly with students at the school. One program is SafePlace, which runs the "Expect Respect" program at Mendez and other middle and high schools in Austin. While the group doesn't provide sex education, it teaches at-risk students about healthy relationships and how to respect themselves and others.

"That's a big piece of the curriculum is dating violence and dating abuse and just how to have a healthy relationship and what does that look like?" says SafePlace counselor Sydney Dickerson. The program splits boys and girls into two groups.

"Some of these kids have never seen a healthy relationship. They've only seen violence and control," she says.

Nate Morgan counsels the boys group at Mendez. "It's the only place they really have where they can be real about that stuff, talk about things they can't talk about other places," she says.

As these students enter puberty and begin dating, they have a lot of questions.

"Helping them question what it is to be a man and a woman, especially in middle school where it's just one of those developmental things," says Randy Randolph, who manages the Expect Respect program at Mendez. "Your body is changing, you're existing within a new form, you're not sure what to do with it, your hormones are starting and so all those things about being a man or woman becomes very  important to them." 

Morgan and Dickerson say they hear a lot of the same concerns around dating and families at all of the middle and high schools they work at in Austin. But Dickerson says at Mendez, it doesn't seem like a typical middle school experience.

"There are the same dynamics of 'he said-she said' and friendships and difficulty with drama – that's everywhere," Dickerson says. "But in low income families you have to add on top of it, 'my dad is in jail or got arrested last night for hurting my mom' or  'I can't see my sister anymore because she got a fight with someone." 

She says around half the students she works with have at least one parent in jail – and the other half have parents who are out of the picture. That makes these programs extremely important to support students. AISD's TracyLunoff says parents need to be involved in the conversation.

"Our expectation is that every child were graduate college, career life ready. That's what we promise," she says. "However, we can't dictate or teach children what their own personal morals and values should be. So we really rely on parents as our partner to help with teen pregnancy."

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