It's 9:17 a.m. at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg, time for Parenting 1. Eight girls dressed in jeans, T-shirts and hoodies file into Room 136. "You're showing," one girl says to another. "I know," the other girl responds, matter of fact. These are the newly pregnant girls. One has a college scholarship she's still bent on using. Another is on the principal's list and a few others usually make honor roll. There's a boxer, a cheerleader, some softball players. "All you high achievers," teacher Margie Senior asks, "did you feel disappointed in yourself when you found out you were pregnant?" Jennifer Calder, four months pregnant, leans back in her chair. "I wish I waited," she says, her hands stuffed into the pockets of her hoodie. Her pregnancy has derailed her plans to join the Army. And in another month, she will have to stop playing for the softball team, doctor's orders. Ms. Senior, the teacher, takes the opportunity to get down to the hard facts of the situation. "It's no longer about you anymore," she says. "You have a baby to think about."
Teen pregnancy — a problem that seemed under control — is on the rise again.
After 14 straight years of declines, teen birth rates have inched up the past few years both nationally and in Tampa Bay. And the number of girls taking voluntary teen parenting classes at Pinellas high schools has grown from 344 in 2005 to 573 in 2008. Hillsborough County's numbers went from 73 in 2005 to 137 in 2008.
It's too early to tell if the increase is a long-term trend, but experts cite possible reasons.
Some point to the growing number of TV shows and movies that have glamorized teen pregnancy and reduced its stigma, including MTV's Teen Mom and 16 & Pregnant and Lifetime's The Pregnancy Pact.
Others believe fewer teens are using contraceptives, possibly because they are less afraid of HIV.
And many criticize the country's federally funded sex education program, which has emphasized abstinence until marriage. Some experts say the abstinence pledges that some teens take don't last. When they eventually engage in sexual activity, says Patricia B. Koch, a professor of health at the Pennsylvania State University, they are less likely to use contraception.
Whatever the reasons, the reality is that in 2008, four out of every 100 girls in Pinellas and five out of every 100 girls in Hillsborough gave birth to babies.
• • •
The problem is clearly visible on the walls of social worker Tari Connell's office at Gibbs. There, she has hung four years worth of scrapbook-style posters filled with pictures of the babies produced by the school's teen parents.
Last year's poster was the most crowded.
Where a few years ago the school had 40-plus teen parents, last year there were more than 60. And halfway through this school year, Gibbs had registered almost 60 pregnant or parent teens.
"My numbers are the highest in the county," Connell says.
The rising numbers at Gibbs, located in a lower-income neighborhood, could partly be because of Pinellas' return to neighborhood schools.
But this semester, the school's teen parenting classes became so crowded that Gibbs added a third class.
Here they learn how to tell fake contractions from real ones, how to give their babies CPR, how to avoid future pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Today teaching a pregnant high schooler to become a parent has become almost as routine as teaching her to drive.
Joining the teen parenting program is voluntary. But if they do, they get free day care. Transportation on a school bus for mom and baby to school and day care. A social worker to help solve problems.
The purpose is to keep them in school. If they don't show up for class, they lose the free day care. And they'll find voicemail messages on their phones from Connell and Senior: "Where are you?"
But sometimes the babies have an unanticipated effect. Sometimes they motivate their young mothers to stay in school.
"My 11th grade was so hard and I was going to drop out," says Gibbs High senior Miquela Neal, now a mother of 5-month old Malachi. "But then I found out I was pregnant so I stayed in school."
• • •
It's not always that easy though.
It's 8:34 a.m., a new semester, and another group of teen parents are gathering in Room 136. This is the class with the girls who already have babies at home.
Amani Coston, 18, sets down her books and sinks heavily into her seat. Up on a wall in the front of the class is a picture of her baby, 4-month-old Jadon. All around her sit young teen moms like her who are equally tired, dragging, yawning.
"Where you been?" asks another girl.
"I just couldn't make it," says Amani. "We're getting to the point where he tosses and turns and I can't sleep."
Listening to her, you begin to understand how much these girls are juggling. Once she was a majorette. Then her mother kicked her out of the house; a condom failed and she got pregnant from her boyfriend; she moved in with her aunts.
Now she gets to school just after 7 a.m., leaves just before 2 p.m., works at Target until 10 p.m. Somehow, she squeezes in her homework at school and time with her baby at night while she makes up his bottles for the next day.
"I'm still trying to get the hang of it," Amani says. "I'm not good at it. Yesterday I couldn't come to school. I just couldn't. I was just tired."
Senior, who has been counseling pregnant teens for 27 years, comes over. It's her job to make sure Amani stays in school, to help her graduate, despite all of the obstacles.
But there are more of them like Amani to keep track of and their problems run deeper. Some tell her they planned to get pregnant, either because they wanted attention or someone to love. Some are seeking to hold on to boyfriends, many of them older. Some have lost their mothers and fathers to drugs or jail.
Senior tells Amani that sometimes she needs to come to school even though she may not feel like it. She says she didn't feel like going to a three-hour training in Largo the night before. But she summoned motivation because she knew she wanted to better herself.
"You've got to make a better living for you and your baby," Senior says.
Inside she's thinking she just needs time to get used to juggling it all. But she admits that without the phone calls from Connell, without the encouraging words from Senior, she would probably not be in class today.
She would have dropped out long ago.
• • •
After Amani's class leaves, the next group of pregnant teens comes in. These are the newbies, the group that includes the boxer, the cheerleader and Jennifer Calder.
The 17-year-old became pregnant by a boyfriend she is no longer dating. She says she used birth control; it just didn't work.
"I'm disappointed in myself. I was trying to break the chain in my family because they all got pregnant when they were 17."
Her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were all teen mothers.
It also has changed concrete plans Jennifer had for her life. In the ROTC program at Gibbs, she had signed a contract to join the Army after graduation in June.
"I was already a future soldier," she tells the class.
Now she's trying to see if she can join the Army Reserves. She has to give up wrestling and her beloved softball, which she has been playing for 11 years. Last year, Jennifer was Gibbs' MVP.
Senior asks the class about how their families have reacted to the news. Jennifer says her family has been very supportive but they are disappointed.
"They told me 'you're throwing away your life,' " she says, shifting in her seat. "You were doing so good."
Senior nods sympathetically. Sometimes the girls just need to know someone is listening.
The teacher asks the class if any of their biological fathers are involved in their lives.
"My mom's my father figure," one girl says.
"My Dad just started being in my life," says Jennifer. "He bought me these Jordans for Christmas this year."
"Anyone think about adoption?" Senior asks.
Several girls shake their heads.
"My grandma wanted me to hand the baby over to my auntie," says one girl.
"My Dad wanted me to get an abortion," says another.
"How many of you are scared?" Senior asks.
She doesn't really need an answer.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8640.