School of Public Health receives more than $3 million to expand teen pregnancy prevention program

HOUSTON – Houston Endowment has awarded a three-year, $3 million grant to researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health to expand a successful teen pregnancy prevention program that began in the Sunnyside community of Houston.

A $75,000 grant from Rockwell Fund will support an assessment of readiness for the expansion.

We Can Do More is a collaborative initiative to reduce teen pregnancy in communities across Houston and Harris County by providing young people and adults with information, resources, skills and opportunities. The initiative began in the Sunnyside community in 2012, where one in 10 girls ages 15 to 19 was a teen parent.

Susan Tortolero Emery, Ph.D.

“Our goal is to prevent unplanned pregnancies so that teens can lead productive lives. A secondary goal is to reduce poverty as teen birth is a major factor for poverty,” said Susan Tortolero Emery, Ph.D., lead investigator of the project and senior associate dean for academic and research affairs at UTHealth School of Public Health.

We Can Do More’s community-wide approach has made significant progress in breaking the cycle of teen pregnancy in Sunnyside. The researchers report a 16 percent decrease in unprotected sex and 20 percent decrease in teen pregnancy, according to preliminary findings. Contraception use is also on the rise among both girls and boys.

We Can Do More builds on lessons learned by researchers while developing and disseminating It’s Your Game (IYG), Keep it Real, a sexual health education program that emphasizes abstinence, contraception, healthy life skills and healthy relationships. IYG’s matter-of-fact, non-judgmental approach to delivering sex and relationship information has been shown through previous research to significantly delay sexual initiation.

“We had worked with more than 10 school districts and reached thousands of young people, but we learned that it was going to take more than a school district to have a lasting effect on sexual education,” says Kimberly Johnson, Dr.PH., program manager for We Can Do More and faculty associate in the Center for Health Promotion and Prevention Research at UTHealth School of Public Health. “We really needed a community-wide effort, with everyone working on behalf of this issue.”

The team partnered with Baylor College of Medicine to establish health clinics in the community’s two high schools, where students can receive free or low-cost contraception, regular checkups and treatment for injury or illness. Trained counselors are on hand to give students information about pregnancy prevention.

Kimberly Johnson, Dr.PH.

The researchers also developed Just Be digital magazine, which uses a unique blend of youth culture, humor and dramatic personal stories to deliver medically accurate sexual health information.

Another part of the project has been to increase family communication about pregnancy prevention through local churches, trusted cornerstones of the Sunnyside community. Researchers grounded in biblical knowledge train faith-leaders how to educate community members about sex, birth control and healthy relationships in a way that respects their beliefs and values.

With the new funding, We Can do More leaders hope to expand their work with local churches, train more teachers on teen sexuality and disseminate the Just Be digital magazine more widely.

The $75,000 grant from Rockwell Fund will support an assessment of readiness for five Houston communities: Independence Heights, Northside, Denver Harbor, Magnolia Park and Old Spanish Trail/South Union. Funding from Houston Endowment will allow researchers to expand We Can Do More to three of the five additional communities.

“It will be important to gain the trust of these communities and disseminate strategies that they can take ownership of. We want it to be sustainable,” said Tortolero Emery, who is also the Allan King Professor in Public Health.

—Written by Hannah RhodesMedia Contact: 713-500-3030