A study showing that girls who are involved in community service are less likely to get pregnant and fail in school has sparked interest in volunteerism as an effective tool to help prevent adolescent pregnancy.
But educators and pregnancy-prevention experts are doubtful that officials will rush to organize community-service programs.
In the study published last month in the journal Child Development, a team of researchers at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville followed 695 male and female high school students from diverse backgrounds in 13 states between 1991 and 1995. Nearly 85 percent of the students were girls.
About half of the students participated in the Teen Outreach community-service program, in which they engaged in volunteer work ranging from visiting hospitals and nursing homes to tutoring their peers.
The students, half of whom volunteered for the program and half of whom were assigned, also discussed their community-service experiences in classroom sessions, which were held at least once a week instead of their regular health and social studies courses.
The remaining students served as the control group and did not enroll in the outreach program. The researchers assessed the two groups of students before and after the nine-month-long course.
Researchers found that 4.2 percent of the girl volunteers became pregnant. In contrast, 9.8 percent of the girls who did not participate in the Teen Outreach program became pregnant.
The study also found that while 26 percent of the boys and girls who served the community failed a course, 46 percent of students in the control group failed a class.
Volunteerism is effective in preventing pregnancy, the study suggests, because it helps girls to be more capable and autonomous.
“This provides some of the strongest evidence we have that social programs can reduce teen pregnancy,” said Douglas Kirby, a researcher at Education, Training, and Research Associates, an education research group based in Santa Cruz, Calif., and an expert on teenage-pregnancy prevention.
Joseph P. Allen, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the lead author of the study, emphasized that the review was not a comparison between sex education and volunteerism as pregnancy-prevention strategies.
But he pointed out that community service may be a less controversial addition to the curriculum than comprehensive sex education, which critics have claimed encourages sexual activity. “Here is one technique that can make a huge dent in teen pregnancy and is palatable to people across the political spectrum,” he said.
Educators who integrate community service into the curriculum say the new research validates their work. “This study says we are on the right track,” said Luke Frazier, the executive director of the Maryland Student Service Alliance, which oversees Maryland’s requirement that students perform 75 hours of community service before they graduate from high school.
Maryland remains the only state to mandate community service, although a handful of districts in other states have adopted such a requirement.
Study’s Impact Questioned
But while Debra W. Haffner, the executive director of the New York City-based Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, an information and advocacy group for sex education, applauds using volunteerism, she cautioned against viewing community service as a “magic bullet.”
Research, for instance, has long shown that participation in sports boosts girls’ self-esteem and improves academic achievement. But that knowledge hasn’t prompted a massive expansion of school sports offerings for girls, said Art Taylor, the director of youth sports programs at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston.