Hennepin County has won a $17 million federal grant to reduce teenage pregnancy by providing kids both sex education and life skills training, officials announced Thursday.

It is thought to be the largest ever infusion of public funds for teen pregnancy prevention in Minnesota.

By rewarding an evidence-based strategy with a proven track record, the grant, part of $155 million distributed nationwide, marks a major turning point in the federal government's effort to fight a protracted public health problem that has been particularly severe among minority teens.

"I give them credit," said Brigid Riley, executive director of the Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Prevention & Parenting. "They are taking leadership as a county on an issue that matters."

County health officials said the grant, awarded through a competitive process by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will amount to about $3.4 million per year over five years. The programs will be available to all teenagers, but will pay particular attention to those in minority groups. In Minnesota, Hispanics, blacks and Native Americans have teen pregnancy rates that are considerably higher than the national average for those ethnic groups, and twice that of white girls.

Teens in Hennepin County have slightly higher birth rates that the state's average of 27.2 per 1,000 girls, but range as high as 64.2 per 1,000 in Brooklyn Center and 63.9 per 1,000 in Richfield.

Katherine Meerse, the county's teen pregnancy prevention coordinator, said the money will allow eight schools to provide eighth- and ninth-graders with life skills education through a curriculum called the Teen Outreach Program.

The participating schools are in Brooklyn Park, Crystal, Hopkins, Minneapolis, New Hope and Robbinsdale. Schools in Richfield and Brooklyn Park have already been using it on a pilot basis. The estimated 13,000 kids who are expected participate will be required to perform 20 hours of volunteer work per week and take a class discussing goals, life choices and healthy relationships.

The grant also provides funding to offer the Safer Sex Program to an estimated 14,000 kids through the Teen Annex, the West Suburban Teen Clinic and other metro community clinics. The grants will allow them to hire counselors trained in effective ways to teach sexually active teenagers about contraceptives, disease prevention and avoiding risky behavior.

Hennepin County Board Chair Mike Opat, who led the effort to establish the pilot program in Richfield and Brooklyn Park, described teen pregnancy as a problem that ripples throughout the community.

"We deal with its effects everywhere else," he said. "Poverty, dropout rates, not being able to read, and most tragic is that the futures of the moms in particular are imperiled."

Support is not, however, unanimous. Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson last year awarded the pilot program his periodic "Golden Hydrant Award" as a program that he says diverts money from the county's priorities. Johnson couldn't be reached Thursday for comment.

The county's decision to apply for the grant contrasts with Gov. Tim Pawlenty's decision in August to reject an $850,000 no-strings-attached federal grant for statewide teen pregnancy prevention. Instead, he allowed the Department of Health to apply for a $500,000 abstinence-only grant. HHS announced Thursday that Minnesota will get the grant, but state officials said they haven't decided how to use it.

At one time Minnesota received $2 million a year to fund school programs teaching that abstinence until marriage is the only sure way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. However, that approach has been largely discounted as ineffective.

The two new programs in Hennepin County have been extensively evaluated and proven to work, Meerse said, a key component of the rules surrounding the grant. Meerse said a study of 10,000 kids who participated in Teen Outreach Program found that they were half as likely to become pregnant as those who didn't participate. And studies of the Safe Sex Program found that those who got the counseling engaged in less risky behavior, Meerse said.

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394 Staff writer Kevin Duchschere contributed to this report.