The state has awarded Clinica Sierra Vista a $555,000-per-year sexual education grant in an effort to reduce Kern County's staggeringly high teen birth and sexually transmitted disease rates.

Clinica beat out the Kern County Department of Public Health, which had also applied for the four-year Personal Responsibility Education Program grant -- though county health officials say they're still excited about the news.

"We wanted to make sure someone got the grant in Kern County given we have such high rates," said Lucinda Wasson, the county's director of public health nursing. "It's enough money to have an impact."

The state's funding comes via the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and targets 18 California counties with the highest teen birth rates. While the state's overall teen birth rate has seen a steady decline, some counties are still experiencing high figures.

Kern is just behind Tulare Country for the highest teen birth rate in the state, according to the most recent data from the California Department of Public Health. The county's three-year average teen birth rate is 60.2 per 1,000 females ages 15-to-19.

Other health officials expressed optimism the new effort could lower those rates.

"Clinica deserves it and they'll do a wonderful job," said Louise Arreola, the district school nurse for the Lamont School District. "I think this really might make a difference."

As a school nurse for 15 years, Arreola is on the front lines of the teen birth crisis. Every year, she sees at least one middle school student -- often ages 12 to 13 -- become a teen parent, and estimates the STD rates are even higher.

That district used to pay $3,000-$4,000 for Clinica representatives to teach sexual education. With the new grant, the new, more intense effort will be free, she added.

Clinica's evidence-based program will work with area middle schools as well as some alternative education schools, which house many at-risk students, said Barbara Gladden, assistant director of adolescent family services at Clinica.

So far, participants include schools in the Greenfield Union, Lamont and Edison school districts as well as Kern County Superintendent of Schools alternate education programs in Bakersfield. Bakersfield City School District has also expressed interest, but there is no official agreement yet.

The money will go toward staffing, curriculum development and training, Gladden said. The 10-day curriculum will involve going into schools and using their physical education or science class time for the sexual education program.

The program emphasizes plentiful activities and small group sessions instead of students passively listening to an instructor. Participants will learn refusal skills and the characteristics of healthy relationships. Instructors also will discuss birth control and STDs while emphasizing abstinence.

In addition, Clinica's effort will gather community officials from various agencies to meet as a group to discuss progress and outcomes.

If Public Health had received the grant, it would have concentrated efforts in local high schools.

Gladden said she and other Clinica staff were ecstatic to learn of the award and are eager to move Kern County out of the state's top counties for teen birth rates.

"We don't want to be one of the top 19," she said. "This will allow us the funds to do the work and make a difference."