By LAURA TILLMAN, Associated Press
MARKS, Miss. (AP) — With her hair in a ponytail and her smile quick and wide, it's hard to tell that high school junior Donyell Hollins has been pulling all-nighters for most of the semester to take care of her infant daughter.
Her situation isn't unusual in the small Delta town of Marks, home to one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the state that leads the nation in the statistic. But unlike teen mothers in previous decades, 18-year-old Hollins is benefiting from a change in attitude that's paving the way for frank discussions about parenting skills, career goals and contraception.
Instructors from the Delta Health Partners Healthy Start Initiative come to Hollins' high school monthly to teach lessons that incorporate some of the newest theories on the relationship between poverty and teen motherhood. It's a far cry from decades past, when women in Hollins' situation were given little guidance and often left to drop out and languish.
Part of the goal is to change patterns of communication about sex that have persisted for years.
"I'm going to talk to her more about it, inform her," Hollins said of her 5-month-old daughter. "'Cause I didn't have that talk with my mom. I had to learn on my own."
The Delta Initiative, run through Tougaloo College since 1999, is a forerunner in the state's changing attitude toward teen pregnancy. Next year, a new state law will require schools to teach sex education, and they'll have more leeway in how much information they can incorporate about birth control. Schools previously had to get special permission to teach anything but abstinence. Delta Health Partners' classes are run independently of the school districts' curriculum, though they use classrooms at welcoming schools to make it convenient for the girls to attend.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has also created a task force to discuss ways to reduce teen pregnancy — considered an important acknowledgement of the problem in a state where elected leaders were once loathe to discuss it.
Mississippi's teen birth rate declined modestly over the past decade as rates around the country fell. But Mississippi still has 55 births per 1,000 15- to 19-year-old girls, compared to a national average of 34.3, according to the most recent figures from the federal government's National Center for Health Statistics.
Experts say there was a culture of silence around the issue for decades in Mississippi, allowing the problem to build. Teen mothers were expected to drop out of school, or even leave town.
Delta Health Partners work in one of the poorest sections of the poorest state in the U.S. Recent research by economists Phillip Levine of Wellesley College and Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland challenges the long-held assumption that pregnancy is a deciding factor in whether a young woman slides into poverty.
"If two identical people going down a path in life, did the one who had a baby do particularly worse?" Levine asked. "It's hard to find evidence that's true."
In the Marks classroom, more than a dozen girls told Delta Health Partners caseworkers about their plans to become nurses, pediatricians and cosmetologists.
When asked how their pregnancies have impacted their lives, 19-year-old Shalendrick Tribble said things are largely the same.
"There's just certain things at certain times you can and cannot do," she said.
"For me, it got harder," Hollins chimed in. "My mom, she helps me to a certain extent. But she's trying to make me responsible, so she makes me do everything."
It was clear from the girls' stories that life has become more complicated. Some parents gave them the silent treatment. Others had watched boyfriends promise support, and then ignore them when asked to take on the responsibility of fatherhood. They also told of friends who dropped out of school when they couldn't arrange childcare.
Delta Health Partners is not the only initiative aimed at addressing teen pregnancy. The Mississippi Department of Human Services lists more than two dozen resource centers that provide education on teen pregnancy, and some districts work with the girls to keep them in school.