The annual number of teen births in Hennepin County has dropped by half since 2007, a startling reduction that many health officials are attributing to investments in "nonintuitive" sex education.
Declines were sharpest in Brooklyn Center and in Richfield, two communities where the county established school Teen Outreach Programs (TOP), which focus first on instilling personal and community values.
Giving teens community pride and personal goals makes them think twice before making risky decisions, such as engaging in unprotected sex, said Katherine Meerse, who directs the county's teen pregnancy prevention initiatives.
"The youth development and the service learning and decisionmaking [lessons] help young people understand that their future will be better if they wait until they are young adults to become parents," she said.
Goal-setting pushed some teens to use contraception when having sex, and others to choose abstinence instead. Either way, there is little debating the impact of the approach, which started in Brooklyn Center and Richfield and then expanded to several other schools in 2010 through a $17 million federal sexual education grant to the county.
Countywide, births to women ages 15 to 19 dropped from 1,170 in 2007 to 701 in 2012 to 597 in 2013, according to the Hennepin County analysis, which was released Wednesday. The 15 percent drop in 2013 meant, for the first time in at least decade, that the county had a lower teen birthrate than the state, Meerse said.
Brooklyn Center, however, continues to have one of the highest teen birthrates in the county, which partly reflects its diversity and the higher teen birthrates for minorities in the state. However, the number of teen births there dropped from 45 in 2012 to 26 in 2013.
The discussion in TOP classes often centers on personal goals and community service; activities include a student service project and an activity in which students bid fake money on the values that matter most to them.
In addition, educators do discuss the benefits of abstinence or of birth control, including alternatives to daily pills that some advocates believe are more reliable for forgetful teens.
But the protective effect often comes from the educators who become trusted and reliable adult figures, said Brooke Stelzer, sexuality education director at the Annex Teen Clinic, which provides TOP educators at schools in the north metro.
"It doesn't really have to do as much with the content as it does with the relationships," she said.
Derell Scott, a senior at Robbinsdale-Armstrong High School, remembers the first TOP classes as being somewhat uncomfortable. But gradually, classmates grew to trust and talk openly with one another about their hopes and concerns while also doing community service projects such as raising money for Feed My Starving Children.
"When we talk about something sensitive," he said, "we won't be judged by what we say. We can pretty much open up to any conversation."
Scott's plans after high school remain murky, but he knows unprotected sex could disrupt his ambitions.
"Yeah, I'd be more careful," he said.
Despite the progress, county officials are concerned. Federal funding to support the TOP programs ends this summer, and Meerse said the county is seeking replacement funding from the federal and county governments, as well as other sources.
Economic and racial gaps persist. Teen births declined substantially among Hispanics in the county in 2013, but not among blacks. And while Brooklyn Center's 2013 teen birthrate of 31.7 per 1,000 women ages 15-19 was a 35 percent decline from the previous year, it remained comparatively high. Edina's teen birthrate in 2013 was 2.9.
"This," Meerse said, "is a long-term issue."