Baby University graduates from the June 2019 session at the Crossroads Cultural Art Center in Clarksdale.

Between 2010 and 2016, Coahoma County saw a 60 percent decline in teen pregnancy rates, yet remained above the statewide and national averages, according to a recent report. In 2017, Mississippi State Department of Health data showed Coahoma’s teen pregnancy rates almost doubled the previous year.

The rates drop slower in areas like the Mississippi Delta, the report noted, as a result of socioeconomic barriers like discrimination, poverty, and restrictive sex education. The conversation surrounding teen pregnancy focuses mostly on prevention efforts, advocates say, but, what are the immediate next steps when a teenager becomes pregnant? 

Malynda Townsend, 20, now a single mother of 2- and 1-year-old daughters, wrestled with this very question. She recalled not knowing how “to take care of a baby,” as a senior in high school when she found out she was pregnant for the first time.

As a result, her father abandoned her and she dropped out of school, she said. 

“I did my best to take care of her,” Townsend said.

It wasn’t until last year, when she was pregnant with her second daughter, she sought help from Spring Initiative, a local nonprofit after-school and family programs organization. She learned about the Clarksdale Baby University program and decided to join. 

Baby University, established in 2014, is a free 10-week program for parents with babies up to age 3 to equip them with the knowledge and resources to be great parents. In addition, childcare and transportation costs are taken care of. At the end of the program, parents graduate and receive a gift of their choice: from strollers to playpens. 

Bianca Zaharescu, co-founder of Spring, said the program specifically focuses on parents’ individual needs, real life experiences and children’s development. Parents gain peer support networks, learn research-based early childhood development curriculum, and practice hands-on training with their children. 

Chelesa Presley, director of Baby University, conducts two evening class sessions a week for up to 10 to 15 families. Each class is a mixture of lectures, videos, games and interaction on various topics, for example, parenting styles, attachment, bonding and brain development.

For new mothers like Townsend, a lot of the information was new and shocking, but helpful, she said. 

It’s something I never knew about parenting. I didn’t know breastfeeding actually do other things like keeping children from getting sick more often,” she said 

Desiree Wilson, 26, a mother of three, attended Baby University sessions in 2015. Wilson echoed Townsend’s sentiments, adding a lot of myths she had about breastfeeding, healthy eating and child discipline were dispelled. 

“My daughter is actually a breastfed baby, and she is still breastfeeding at 2,” Wilson chuckled. “When I got (to the classes), I learned different things that weren’t healthy for (my children), and I changed it. …I learned how to interact with them. … The parents in the program, we set up play dates outside of Baby U and talked to each other. It was a great experience for me.”

Zaharescu noted it’s a lot of things parents just don’t know, but “It’s about helping them through that and not feeling guilt,” she said.

“It can make it more empowering if you have access to these things. .. and  just thinking how much that can improve parents’ lives and parents’ confidence and happiness levels,” Zaharescu said. “The idea of (parenting) has so many variables and you can always kind of benefit from more support and more resources as a parent because it’s an incredibly hard job and an incredibly important job.”

Despite the increasing teen pregnancy rates in Coahoma County, on-the-ground interventionists and Baby U participants agreed open-ended conversations and comprehensive, holistic education should be the priority in order to combat the problem head-on. 

“Some parents, they’ll get upset that their child is pregnant at a young age, but they’re not educated about condoms, pregnancy, sex. This community needs more parenting lessons and more education on how to prevent teen pregnancy or how to give them more information that’s not making them feel bad for getting pregnant at young age,” said Wilson.

Aware of the slow change, Presley added the program is not an end-all-be all, but it is a seed planter.

“Behavior change takes a while so we’re planting seeds that will mature later,” she said. “Everyone wants to start talking to the teenagers here, but we have to start with the parents and kids at birth. When you change the mindset here, it changes the whole dynamic of things. Just talking about stuff and being open.”

Mississippi Today investigative reporter Erica Hensely explored sex education policy in the most recent Inform[H]er, our newsletter dedicated to issues facing women and girls. 

Subscribe to the Inform[H]er here.

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.