PEARLS for teen girls -- help and support to escape poverty

PEARLS for teen girls is a program that is working. Started in 1993 by Colleen Fitzgerald as a totally volunteer effort, it has grown into a program that served 688 girls in 2008 at approximately 13 different schools and youth serving organizations.

With weekly meetings, a typical PEARLS session features a guided conversation led by a highly trained Adult Program Coordinator and Teen Facilitator. Topics might include school, relationships with family, friends, and boys, careers, health or whatever the girls identify as pressing issues for them. Through these discussions, PEARLS girls practice important skills such as articulating ideas, clarifying beliefs, and learning to listen to and respect the ideas of their peers and adult mentors.

And it is working. Of the participants, 100% of PEARLS seniors graduated from high school in 2006, 2007 and 2008. In this past year, 90% of PEARLS graduates were accepted to college and 100% of the girls avoided pregnancy. In the words of a 2007 PEARLS graduate, currently a sophomore at UW-Parkside: "PEARLS provided me with the support system I need, community involvement, my first job, leadership opportunities, a safe place, opportunities to grow, and my second home. It makes me very happy to say that I will be the first out of my family to attend college."

This is no small feat. Like many large cities, Milwaukee has it's share of problems including the 7th highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation. Of those who become teen mothers, 70% drop out of high school. Girls born to teen mothers are 83% more likely to become teen mothers themselves and boys born to teen mothers are 2.7 times more likely to become incarcerated.

The 2007 Brighter Futures Youth Survey results confirm that Milwaukee youth are navigating a world full of dangerous choices. Results indicate that 59% of youth have had sexual intercourse, with the average age of first experience being 14.1 years for girls and 12.8 years for boys. More troubling, 18% of girls and 10% of boys reported using no method to prevent pregnancy. In addition, the survey demonstrates that large numbers of youth have used cigarettes (44%), alcohol (66%), and marijuana (41%) by the time they are 17.

In the areas of safety and violence, youth are confronted with different decisions. Thirty-five percent of youth surveyed had ridden in a car in the past 30 days with a driver who had been drinking; 21% had carried a weapon; and 58% had been in one or more physical fights in the past 12 months including 54% of girls. The female youth represented in the Youth Survey are PEARLS' target audience.

PEARLS reaches out to this at-risk group by working in collaboration with Milwaukee Public Schools, Choice schools, and other youth-serving organizations to provide PEARLS programs directly within the places where teens already meet. Serving over 22 groups, PEARLS program Coordinators regularly include conversations about academic achievement and its relationship to future success. Each year, PEARLS offers a College Tour trip for 15-20 girls in grades 7-11. The trips are designed to provide inspiration to the girls and to give them the vision and confidence to pursue post-secondary education.

PEARLS for teen girls is working. Let's hope other cities implement similar programs.

Barbara Bartlein is the People Pro. For her FREE e-mail newsletter, please visit: The People Pro

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