Nine girls, all eighth-graders at Brooklyn Center High School, carry their lunches into a conference room and grab a seat around a large table. They chat for a few minutes before their teacher, Haley Morgan Shepard, introduces an ice-breaking activity.
"Do you know anyone who is or has been in an abusive relationship?" reads one of the girls, pulling a question from a basket. Another teen is asked to "talk about a time when a guy was using you, or using a friend."
Warmed up, the girls shift to the subject of the day: HIV/AIDS transmission. It's a straightforward discussion about body fluids, with a moment of levity.
"What are ways to prevent it?" Shepard asks.
"No, thanks!" shouts one of the girls.
The hourlong lesson, which touches on abstinence and safer sex, abusive and healthy relationships, is comfortable, educational and likely life-changing for these girls who meet with Shepard weekly throughout the school year to build knowledge and confidence.
Teen pregnancy prevention efforts such as this one, with health mentors such as Shepard, are working incredibly well, giving Hennepin County legitimate bragging rights.
But instead of celebrating, program creators are scrambling.
Hennepin County has seen a 48 percent drop in teen births since 2007. But crucial funding to support the county's innovative efforts also is plunging.
A five-year federal grant of $3.28 million wraps up in August.
"If we get the next round of funding, it will be $1.25 million or $1.5 million," said Katherine Meerse, manager of Better Together Hennepin, which oversees the county's teen pregnancy prevention efforts. The deadline for federal grant requests is April 1.
"We know we'll have much less," she said. "But will it be less or tremendously less? How will we sustain all this great work?"
Since Better Together Hennepin began in 2006, more than 10,000 youths and their parents have received sexuality education, one-on-one mentorships and easy access to school-based health services.
Now, Hennepin County boasts a steeper decline in teen pregnancy than the national average.
Meerse laughs when asked whether she's being punished for her success. In truth, she said, this is the reality of grant cycles, which tend to focus on short-term solutions to long-term problems.
It's also the reality of funding. Everybody's fighting for precious few dollars.
But with pregnancy prevention in particular, funding more often goes to "reactive" services, such as teen parenting programs, day care and medical care for infants, instead of to efforts to postpone parenthood.
It's a classic case of pay now or pay later.
Public spending on the children of teenage parents in Hennepin County cost more than $95 million from 2008 to 2012.
And that doesn't include the incalculable loss of grand potential of young adults who could be our future leaders, teachers and doctors were they not derailed.
"When I look at the stats about teen parents, they're much less likely to graduate from high school, and the same is true for their kids," Meerse said. "Boys are much more likely to be incarcerated. They don't see a future for themselves that will be better if they wait to have children, especially if they're struggling in school and have no role models who went to college.
"These programs attempt to build up their confidence."
Normalizing sex ed
Confidence was palpable at Brooklyn Center High School on a recent Tuesday morning. Shepard teaches two all-girl classes weekly (other staff members offer coed classes) and helps to coordinate twice monthly visits by providers from the Annex Clinic. The clinic provides birth control, pregnancy testing and information to supplement what the school is offering.
Perhaps her most satisfying work is one on one with students who come in to talk in confidence.
"They'll say, 'I'm having a hard time at home.' They have mental health concerns. Being in the school, I have access to all the resources," she said.
Shepard leads the girls in a role-playing exercise where they are to answer a hot line, responding to callers with information they've garnered about sexually transmitted diseases. One caller asks, "Can we get an STD from oral sex?"
Instead of being grossed out or giggling, the girls are poised and thoughtful. They compose their own answers, then check them against the program's factual responses. In many cases, they're spot on.
"I've learned a lot about how to prevent STIs and STDs," said Allie. (Program facilitators requested that we use first names only.) "It's a lot easier for me to be open in a group. I have friends who come to me with questions. I say, 'You know you could get tested so you know you're both safe.' "
Another participant, Jiana, said she really looks forward to the class, "where people can share and talk."
Shepard regularly collaborates with Leah Post, a health educator at the school-based clinic. Both women are popular with the girls, with whom they have built trust over many months. Both women shared their concerns about impending funding cuts.
Dana, 15, participates in a classroom program run by Post called the Safer Sex Initiative. At first, she was "very uncomfortable" when Post came into her classroom to talk about sexual health and pregnancy prevention, she said.
"As time progressed, I started asking more questions," Dana said. "I would now know how to take precautions and be safer. Before, I didn't know anything."
This is just what Meerse wants to hear. What she doesn't want to hear is that these proven interventions will soon end or be seriously compromised. She'll be notified about federal funding in mid- to late June.
"We'll have to look at what we can we support with much more limited resources," Meerse said. "We'll need to provide for the areas of greatest need.
"The problem is, all these programs serve areas of need. I want to blow the trumpet. I am very worried."