In 1990, Rochester made a "top-city" list. But it wasn't for best restaurants, quality of life, or employment opportunities. Out of 7,730 teenage girls ages 15 to 19, nearly 1,000 had babies. That distinguished Rochester as having the highest teen-pregnancy rate in the state and one of the highest in the country.
Most of the girls lived in the city's poorest neighborhoods.
The good news: The rate has been declining. While the number of teenage girls remained about the same through 2004, the number of births dropped to 559. (Officials at Metro Council for Teen Potential, a national non-profit that tracks teen-pregnancy data, are still compiling numbers for 2005.)
But 559 is still a high number. And figuring out how to reach inner-city teenage girls is critical --- both for the girls and for the community. In 2002, 18 percent of all the babies born were to teenage mothers living in the city, Metro Council reports. That's enough to fill more than a dozen Rochester school-district kindergarten classes.
"We have a long way to go, but it's no accident that these numbers are coming down," says Steve Aronson of Planned Parenthood of the Rochester-Syracuse Region. "We are finding --- as are most agencies across the country --- that age-appropriate, honest conversations about sex and reproduction are the first line of defense."
Since the mid-90's, Aronson says, agencies like Planned Parenthood have taken a multi-faceted approach to the problem, starting with expanded access to health care in schools for teenagers.
Planned Parenthood surveys indicate that teenagers see doctors as the most reliable source for sex-education information, says Aronson. "They feel the relationship is personal and confidential, and that allows them to open up and talk about what is going on in their lives," he says.
With parents, Aronson says, the goal is to increase engagement, because research shows that parents don't talk to their children about sex as much as they think they do. "We want to not only increase the information flow, but increase the frequency of conversations," he says. "This is not just a one-time thing."
It's important, says Aronson, to get teenagers from poor families to see the link between having children too early and a limited future.
"A lot of these kids haven't thought about the future," says Aronson. "They don't have goals. They don't know what they like and dislike. That's why it is so important to start early with touring a college, volunteering at a school or nursing home, painting a mural, or creating a video. We have to make it clear to them that if you think you want to go to college and become a teacher, having a baby is going to make it much more difficult for you to attain that goal."
That's the approach taken by LaMarr Powell, program manager for In Control, a youth-advocacy agency on West Main Street.
In Control's counselors try to get teenagers to accept more responsibility for their choices, says Powell. Building a sense of self-worth instead of just letting life happen to them is one method. The youths at In Control learn how to create the videos and public-service announcements that publicize the agency. They develop computer skills and explore fields that interest them for career options.
"A higher self-esteem means you are going to respect your body," says Powell. "Life is important to you. There are things you want to do with your life."
Both Aronson and Powell say they are encouraged by programs like Keeping It Real, a campaign designed to deliver frank, accurate information on sexuality and reproduction to young African Americans.
The Rev. Carlton Veazey created Keeping it Real when he saw how hard the African-American community was being hit by teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. Veazey, president of the Washington, DC-based Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, disagrees with the many African-American clergy members who insist on abstinence-only messages.
Keeping It Real has been presented to clergy, educators, and health workers around the country. Veazey has just been asked to take the program to South Africa, and he is presenting it in Rochester on September 12 in an event sponsored by Planned Parenthood.
"If we are trying to save lives, I say we must break the silence," Veazey said in an interview with City last week. "No, we are not advocating casual sex. We are very openly saying abstinence is preferred. Abstinence is the safest. But we are also saying: realistically speaking, abstinence doesn't work for everyone. We must provide comprehensive sex education to our young people so they protect themselves."
The Rev. Carlton Veazey will discuss his Keeping It Real initiative at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, September 12, at the MemorialArtGallery auditorium. The talk is sponsored by Planned Parenthood of the Rochester-Syracuse Region and is open to the public. Tickets are $25, free for students. Seating is limited.