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Teen Birth Rates Drop, But Districts Fight Parent Dropouts

Pregnancy and parenthood are among the primary factors driving teens to drop out of high school.

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Critics slam MTV's "16 and Pregnant" for glamorizing teen pregnancy, but a new study suggests the hit show helped lower pregnancy rates among high school girls.

The report looked at birth rate, Google search and Twitter data, as well as Nielsen ratings, to determine what effect, if any, the show had on teen girls.

"Our estimates from the data suggest that when the show came on, teen birth rates as a result of this show fell by 5.7 percentage points over this 18-month period," Melissa Kearney, the report's co-author, told NPR last week. "To put that in perspective, that is a third of the overall decline in teen birth rates over that time."

Kearney, an associate professor of economics at the University of Maryland, also pointed out large spikes in Google searches for birth control the day after episodes aired, particularly in areas with a high percentage of teens watching MTV.

Teen pregnancy rates declined between 2002 and 2012, the last years for which data are available, and not just because of shows like "16 and Pregnant." The recession and increased access to birth control also played a role.

[Find out what some districts are doing to re-enroll dropouts.]

But 60 percent of teen moms fail to finish high school, according to a 2012 report by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and the America's Promise Alliance. And experts cite pregnancy as one of the primary factors driving students to drop out.

"This is a very challenging thing to do when you're in high school or middle school," says Amy Crease, who runs the Teen Parent Program at Palm Beach County School District in Florida.

To help teen parents stay in school, the district's program connects pregnant teens with free health services available through the county, including a nurse and case worker. After a student gives birth, the district covers the cost of child care so the student can return to school, Crease says.

"When they request child care, the only thing I need is a birth certificate," she says. "I simply do a placement request and every month, a bill comes to my office and the school board pays it."

[Learn how dropout rates vary by state.]

Palm Beach County's program, now in its 23rd year, removes barriers for students such as paperwork, waitlists and upfront costs. Crease has resources most districts don't have, including a $1.5 million child care budget, but the district's investment has paid off.

"I am proud to say that the graduation rate for our teen parents is higher than the regular graduation rate for all students," she says.

School districts that don't have the monetary resources can still help teen parents by working with students to develop a plan and support them along the way.

"That's really true for all dropout prevention," she says. "The kids that stick with it are the ones that feel like somebody wants them there and cares."

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