J.R. Chester got pregnant the summer before her senior year of high school. A bright student with good grades, she gave birth, graduated, and was pregnant again when she arrived at college that fall.
She was a teen mom — like her mother, her grandmother, and her great-grandmother. Her school did not teach sexual health education, and preventing pregnancy was a foreign concept. Her sons are now teenagers.
“If you don’t know your options, you don’t have any,” said Chester, now a program director for Healthy Futures of Texas, a nonprofit sexual health advocacy and education organization. “Everyone was pregnant. And it just felt like: When it happens, it happens.”
While teen pregnancies have declined in the state and across the country in recent decades, Texas continues to have one of the highest state rates of teens giving birth at 22.4 births per 1,000 girls and women ages 15-19 — the lowest, in Massachusetts, is 6.1. Along with Alabama, Texas has the nation’s highest rate of repeat teen pregnancies. This fall, school districts across Texas are marking a shift to what educators call an “abstinence-plus” curriculum — the first time the state has revised its standards for sexual health education in more than 20 years.
Although districts may choose their own curriculum and teach more than the state requires, the state’s minimum health standards now go beyond focusing on abstinence to stop pregnancies and include teaching middle schoolers about contraceptives and giving additional information about preventing sexually transmitted infections, such as the human papillomavirus (HPV) that has been linked to several cancers.
Previously, a 2017 report showed 58% of Texas school districts offered “abstinence-only” sexual health education, while only 17% offered curriculums that expanded beyond that. A quarter of schools offered no sex ed.
Research shows that sex education programs that teach about contraception are effective at increasing contraceptive use and even delaying sexual activity among young people. Abstinence-focused education programs, on the other hand, have not been shown to be particularly effective at curbing sexual activity among teens.