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With her hair in a ponytail and her smile quick and wide, it’s hard to tell that high school junior Donyell Hollins has been pulling all-nighters for most of the semester to take care of her infant daughter.

Her situation isn’t unusual in the small Delta town of Marks, home to one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the state that leads the nation in the statistic. But unlike teen mothers in previous decades, 18-year-old Hollins is benefiting from a change in attitude that’s paving the way for frank discussions about parenting skills, career goals and contraception.

Instructors from the Delta Health Partners Healthy Start Initiative come to Hollins’ high school monthly to teach lessons that incorporate some of the newest theories on the relationship between poverty and teen motherhood. It’s a far cry from decades past, when women in Hollins’ situation were given little guidance and often left to drop out and languish.

Part of the goal is to change patterns of communication about sex that have persisted for years.

“I’m going to talk to her more about it, inform her,” Hollins said of her 5-month-old daughter. “‘Cause I didn’t have that talk with my mom. I had to learn on my own.”

The Delta Initiative, run through Tougaloo College since 1999, is a forerunner in the state’s changing attitude toward teen pregnancy. Next year, a new state law will require schools to teach sex education, and they’ll have more leeway in how much information they can incorporate about birth control. Schools previously had to get special permission to teach anything but abstinence. Delta Health Partners’ classes are run independently of the school districts’ curriculum, though they use classrooms at welcoming schools to make it convenient for the girls to attend.

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has also created a task force to discuss ways to reduce teen pregnancy — considered an important acknowledgement of the problem in a state where elected leaders were once loathe to discuss it.

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