Students in the county's public middle schools soon will receive a new sex-education curriculum, after the Beaufort County Board of Education voted last week to participate in a five-year project that will provide federal money for the transition.
The school district will join a project by the S.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy aimed at reducing the number of teenage girls who become pregnant before graduating from high school.
Beaufort County has had an average of about 300 teen pregnancies a year for the past decade, according to state data.
In 2008, there were 296 pregnancies among girls 15 to 19 years old in Beaufort County, according to the most recent data available from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Through the project, about two dozen South Carolina middle schools will begin using "It's Your Game, Keep it Real," a two-year, pregnancy-prevention and reproductive-health curriculum for seventh- and eighth-graders developed by researchers at the Center for Health Promotion and Prevention Research at the University of Texas-Houston.
The schools will be expected to contribute to a study of the program's effectiveness to receive a share of the federal money -- a total of about $1.5 million each year for five years.
Shannon Flynn, director of research and evaluation for the campaign, said the curriculum emphasizes abstinence. It has been shown to delay initiation of sex and increase teens' positive perception of abstinence in the communities where it has been tested, mainly schools in Texas, she said.
She said the campaign has contracted an evaluator in California to survey South Carolina students and determine if the curriculum has the same effects here.
"One of the things we are committed to as an organization ... is making sure we are doing what works," Flynn said. "This really ensures we'll be able to know we're providing a benefit to students."
The evaluation requires half of participating schools to adopt the new curriculum this fall. The rest will serve as a control group to establish comparison data and adopt the new curriculum two years later. The schools in the control group will continue using any pregnancy prevention or reproductive health programs already in place, Flynn said.
Beaufort County schools probably will be split between the intervention and control groups, but that won't be decided until later this spring, Flynn said. All participating schools will use the new curriculum by the project's fourth year, she said.
Sean Alford, the district's instructional services chief, said the curriculum change will standardize reproductive-health education and pregnancy-prevention efforts across the district within four years. Now, he said, different middle schools are using different programs.
Susan Cato, executive director of the Child Abuse Prevention Association of Beaufort, approached the school board last year about identifying a scientific pregnancy-prevention curriculum that has proved effective and could be used throughout the county's schools.
CAPA teaches pregnancy prevention to students at after-school programs at churches and youth organizations, such as Boys & Girls Clubs of the Lowcountry. Cato said conversations with students in those programs suggest access to pregnancy-prevention education has been inconsistent in public schools.
She said Beaufort County was identified as one of eight high-need areas of the state after the number of pregnancies among girls ages 15 to 17 rose by about 15 percent between 2004 and 2007. During the same period, the number declined by 1 percent statewide.
Cato said she is excited the school board-approved a curriculum for middle schools that has been effective elsewhere.
"Long-term, this could make a huge difference," she said. "... Our hope is if we can delay sexual activity, then you are going to have fewer teen births and fewer abortions and less health risk to young girls who are pregnant."
Alford said the new curriculum was approved by the district's 19-member Comprehensive Health Education Advisory Committee before being submitted to the school board. The state requires the group -- composed of parents, clergy, health professionals, teachers and students -- to approve changes to schools' reproductive-health education, family life education, and pregnancy-prevention education.
Middle school principals and school improvement councils also endorsed the change, Alford said.