Teens: Health center is matter of wellness

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In less than three weeks, one T.C. Williams junior has gone from joking about pregnancy to learning she’s pregnant and having no real clue about what comes next in her life.

“I’m pregnantright now,” said the student, who wanted to remain nameless because most people don’t know of the pregnancy. “For me, it was shocking [to find out].

“Sometimes people with babies drop out because they don’t know what to do,” she said. “That’s my situation. I don’t know what to do next. I’m about to have a kid.”

The junior said she avoided taking birth control because “people said it makes you gain weight.” Condoms had been part of the equation, too, but she said she was unsure of how they failed her that one fateful time.

At any rate, she now finds herself on the cusp of one of T.C.’s most at-risk demographics teen mothers and one that Alexandria leaders are hopeful to reduce.

Proponents of the Adolescent Health Center, which has been a part of the city’s teenage fabric for more than 20 years, hope its move to the T.C. campus from a trailer on the Minnie Howard campus about a half-mile from the 10th- through 12th-grade campus will help educate youth more effectively.

A key part of that initiative to reduce teen pregnancy, which involves improving the wellness and health of all children, school leaders said, is the plan to relocate the health center, where the now-pregnant junior learned she was a month-and-a-half late, for better accessability.

Earlier this month, the Alexandria School Board approved $40,000 for renovations to accommodate the “teen clinic” in the building, where it will be renamed the Teen Wellness Center.

About half of the 2,000-plus visits to the teen clinic are for sex-related medical needs, according to Amy Carlini, a spokeswoman for Alexandria City Public Schools. The rest are routine physicals and immunizations or counseling visits.

Operated by the Alexandria Health Department, the clinic would provide the same services it does at its current location. Abortion operations are not performed at the center. But, the fact that comprehensive health services include distribution of birth control methods, pregnancy testing and family planning information has angered some parts of the community.

“There have been way more people who are for this than against it, but the people who are against it don’t like the birth control part and they don’t like where it is now,” Carlini said.

In at least one way, though, the move seems to be a matter of semantics.

The present location is on the Minnie Howard campus of T.C. Williams, city maps show, but situated on an innocuous corner of the property bordered by the Bradlee Shopping Center and a parking lot. The proposed location at the front of the city’s $100 million high school building grabs far more attention.

“It’s not just a birth control center,” Carlini said. “It’s going to be so much more than that … a real hub for student wellness.”

“It’s about the whole kid,” said T.C. social worker David Wynne.

Though not the sole driver for the idea to move, the effort to reduce the number of pregnant teens might easily be the most graphic, tangible result.

“From a public health standpoint, student pregnancy is like dropping a bomb on someone’s academic life,” said Wynne, who also served on the Teen Wellness Center planning team.

Nationally, 41 percent of teen mothers graduate high school and 1.5 percent graduate college by age 30, according to the Alexandria Campaign on Adolescent Pregancy websitealexgetreal.com.

“I can tell you we had 50 announced pregnancies last school year I counted each and every one,” Wynne said. “Now, this year, we’re up to 38. That’s a lot.”

Before and after the school’s Parent Teacher Student Associaiton meeting Tuesday night, nearly 20 parents were asked about the idea to establish the wellness center inside T.C. All agreed it would be a step in the right direction.

“If it’s moving from Minnie Howard to T.C., it’s really a half-dozen one way, six the other,” said parent Mark Longabaugh. “It’s common sense to have it here if you’re going to have it at all.”

Lois Cramer, another parent, called the move a “great idea.”

“It would be easier for kids that need help to get it right here at school,” she said, adding, “I think that we are not going to stop teenagers from having sex and I think we need to stop them from having babies.”

The new setting inside the 2,200-student building would raise the teen clinic’s visibility and accessibility. A school survey of more than 400 students found that about 45 percent of students had used the Adolescent Health Center at its current location, but 80 percent would use the services if it were in the building.

“If a school-based wellness center were in the building, then there wouldn’t be an excuse for people not getting good treatment for all of the above,” Wynne said. “It would be timely, it would be convenient and it wouldn’t involve danger or cheating or walking off campus or something.”

Currently, students have to visit the clinic after school if they do not have parental permission to leave for an appointment during the school day, making an awkward situation even more inconvenient, students said.

“Some people have to go home straight after school and cannot get over [to the clinic],” the pregnant junior said. “They can’t tell their parents, ‘Oh I’m going to go get some birth control or get checked to see if I’m clean.’ If they could do it here, it would go better.”

The school has had free condoms available to students for years, Carlini said, but sometimes that is not enough.

Sitting in the sunshine Tuesday afternoon outside of T.C., a friend of the unnamed junior talked about her own experience two years ago. The now-senior and mother of a two-year-old son said the majority of teen pregnancies could be avoided.

If the teen clinic moved inside T.C., “you’d have no excuse: ‘Oh, my parents don’t let me stay after school so that means I couldn’t sneak over there,’ or, ‘Oh, I had no time’ girl, if you have to go down to lunch or stop by the nurse or something, the teen clinic is right there.

“What excuse are you going to have that you didn’t use birth control or a condom?”

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