When the federal government started a new grants program in 2010 to finance and evaluate programs to reduce teen pregnancies, Hennepin County decided to give it a shot.
The Minneapolis-area county already had a pilot project in two suburbs with high teen pregnancy rates that it had developed after intensive consultations with young people, parents, and community organizations. But an influx of federal money would allow it to expand its efforts to encourage young people to delay sex or use contraception.
The county won a five-year grant from the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, operated by the Office of Adolescent Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The money paid for two efforts. One, the Teen Outreach Program, was on a list that HHS had compiled of “evidence-based programs” — that is, approaches that had already proven effective through rigorous evaluation.
“It was all the rage,” says Kathy Wick, initiative manager at Better Together Hennepin, the county’s teen-pregnancy program. ”It was really a youth-development program that supposedly had positive results in terms of impacting teen behaviors around pregnancy prevention and whether to have sex or not.”
The Teen Outreach Program (TOP), which had shown good results in a 1997 study, involves weekly classroom sessions, community-service learning, and adult support. The county spent about $500,000 a year out of its annual $3.3 million grant to conduct a randomized controlled trial involving 1,644 students in 24 middle and high schools.
The results? The program had no impact.
Three months and 15 months after the intervention, participants were just as likely as students who followed the regular school curriculum to have had recent sexual activity as well as unprotected sex. They also scored no better in areas like school performance, school engagement, educational expectations, and civic responsibility.
“We spent five years very intensively building TOP with a whole lot of school partners,” says Katherine Meerse, former manager of Better Together Hennepin. “Results showed it didn’t have an impact, what do we do about that?”
There was only one answer, she says: “It wasn’t effective for our kids, we needed to move on to something that was.” Continue reading