Teen pregnancy is on the rise in Schenectady while falling nearly everywhere else.
In the most recent numbers released by the state Department of Vital Statistics, 295 Schenectady teens ages 15 to 19 got pregnant in 2010. In 2009, 202 teens got pregnant.
Nearby in Albany, the teen pregnancy rate is falling. It went from 284 pregnancies to 266 in the same time frame. The statistics are based on hospital reports gathered by county health departments.
Since Albany has almost twice as many female teens as Schenectady, the cities’ teen pregnancy rates are vastly different. Albany’s rate is nearly half that of Schenectady’s. Yet the two cities are similar in terms of poverty, youth unemployment, high school graduation rates and other factors that affect teen pregnancy.
Along with Albany, most of the state is seeing a decrease in young mothers, while Schenectady’s rate keeps rising. The statistics are sobering: Schenectady is bucking the trend in every category.
Not only are 15- to 19-year-olds getting pregnant more often, but 10- to 14-years-olds are too. Schenectady’s rate for very young mothers went up slightly, while the state’s average went down.
Among teens age 15 to 17, the age most often focused on because the mothers are minors, Schenectady is also seeing a steady increase.
Outside of New York City, only Monroe County has a higher teen pregnancy rate in that age category than Schenectady County. Among cities, Schenectady and Rochester are neck-and-neck. They’ve even beaten two of the five boroughs of New York City.
In Schenectady, Planned Parenthood and the AIDS Council have organized an advisory board to seek help from Girls Inc. and other agencies that work with teens. They were hoping the other agencies would help them reach more teenagers and persuade them not to become mothers.
“What can we be doing differently?” Planned Parenthood Education Team Manager Eileen Lawson said. “Lend us your expertise, help us get the message out.”
So far though, she said, the board has offered little advice.
“They’ve given us some feedback on materials, tweaked some materials, suggested different locations [for events],” she said.
But they have not coalesced yet into the community-wide powerhouse she feels is needed.
“I would like us to look at this as a community responsibility. I’d like everyone to take a piece of it: churches, health care professionals, schools, after-school agencies,” she said.
Some of the youth agencies have welcomed Planned Parenthood’s programs. Girls Inc. runs a Teens Helping Teens program with teens who have been trained by Planned Parenthood to discuss healthy relationships and how to set safe boundaries. Those teens also learn about contraception and the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases.
Limited in schools
But Planned Parenthood is not invited to run sex-ed programs in the city schools. Teachers can only teach an abstinence-based sex-ed curriculum that was last updated in the 1990s. While seventh-grade teachers do mention contraception, it is only during one class period and there are no demonstrations or displays.
Students get abstinence education twice: during an 18-day unit in seventh grade and again for a unit in 10th-grade health class.
School officials did not return calls seeking comment.
In Albany, where the teen pregnancy rate is roughly half that of Schenectady, Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood is welcome in the schools, at community centers and at after-school programs.
From middle-school age on, students are taught how to insist on safe sex — “condom negotiation,” as Education Director Meaghan Carroll said.
“It’s very skills-based,” she said. “For those who aren’t ready to be sexually active, we can teach them how to communicate that to their partner.”
The programs emphasize communication skills, particularly with parents. Learning how to talk about sexual issues with parents is critical to preventing teen pregnancy, Carroll said.
“Parent-child communication, that’s really a key piece. That’s so very important,” she said.
Planned Parenthood officials teach sex-ed at any opportunity — even in the waiting room at the Albany clinic, she said.
Every Thursday from 3 to 6 p.m. the agency holds a teen clinic. While teens are waiting for their first exam or for an HIV test, teachers run classes.
“It really is finding the program that matches the population,” Carroll said. “What we’re talking about is comprehensive sex-ed. The programs have been designed and scientifically evaluated to show a positive outcome.”
In Schenectady, Planned Parenthood has found inventive ways to teach without going to the schools. Teens that attend a program are given a text number to ask questions that they might have been too embarrassed to ask in person.
The organization trains teens because they can talk about sex-ed at parties and social gatherings where Planned Parenthood teachers are unlikely to be.
“Sometimes it’s easier to talk to someone your own age,” spokeswoman Linda Scharf said.
They also train parents on how to deliver “the talk,” which they say needs to be a series of conversations rather than a one-time event. Parents can call for advice, get one-on-one help from a teacher, or borrow materials from the Planned Parenthood library. The agency’s website also offers a host of resources for both parents and teens.
But thus far it hasn’t been enough. Teens are still giving birth.
Planned Parenthood’s Lawson said she doesn’t know why Schenectady’s rate is so much higher than other cities, but she said getting more people involved in the conversation would help.
“There are so many variables here,” she said. “Sex and sexuality is a fundamental part of life. Talking about sexuality isn’t shameful. It can be embarrassing and uncomfortable for some, but it doesn’t have to be.”