I’ve been working with pregnant
teen women and new teen mothers for several years now, teaching life skills
and voter education classes. One thing remains consistent for all the women I work with: balancing school and parenting is challenging
I am amazed by the dedication and commitment it takes for these
young mothers to graduate from high school. One third of
young women who drop out of high school cite pregnancy and/or motherhood
as the reason. So educators have been exploring programs to help
pregnant teens meet the demands of parenthood and while being a full time student. In recent years, special schools
for pregnant students have been phased out in favor of mainstreaming
those students in existing schools.
The young mothers I know are
experts on the system of social services and programs. They share
information with each other about Medicaid, food stamps, daycare, parenting
supports and transportation. A typical week revolves around city
bus rides, day care drop offs, feedings, diaper changes, study hall,
tests, classes and day care pick ups. They return home to balance
homework with parenting only to wake up and begin the routine again.
Each one of these young women
wants to be a good mother. They know that they will be able to provide
a better future for their family if they graduate from high school,
but they also feel that, in many ways, school time is time away from
their child. The present is at war with the future and time is
as precious as gold.
When I read the recent Christian Science Monitor article by Ben Arnoldy Special Schools
for Pregnant Girls?,
I thought of the young women I have met. The article covers special
schools for pregnant teens in Boise, Idaho, that are losing funding despite
successful outcomes. It points out that the value of these special
schools depends greatly on the services provided and that those vary
by region and school system. As school systems across the country
are opting to mainstream pregnant teens due to budget concerns and concerns over the quality
of education at the special schools, the impact of that on graduation
rates for teen parents remains unclear.
The Boise P school featured in the Monitor reported an 80 to 90 percent graduation rate and that 50 percent of graduates went on to attend college or junior college. But the article also cites a lack of national data on P school graduation rates versus mainstream graduation rates
for pregnant students and there are no definitive national studies.
I decided to reach out to some
student parents for their take on special schools versus mainstreaming.
Stacey, a 20 year-old mother
of two, attended a special high school for pregnant students or "P
School" when she was pregnant with her first child. Stacey’s
first pregnancy was the result of a rape and she chose not to transfer
to a P school.
"I was in therapy and it
seemed that everything about my life had changed after I was raped.
I just wanted to hold onto something from my life and going to the same
school felt normal. But everyone treated me differently even though
few knew about the rape. People just assumed that I had gotten
pregnant by choice or by being stupid. When I missed class because
of morning sickness my teachers didn’t believe me and I wasn’t able
to reschedule tests. My counselor at school was great and she
hooked me up with a lot of programs and Nurses for Newborns too. But I felt very isolated
and embarrassed. Support was there but I had to search it out
and that was a hard thing for me to do at the time."
Stacey dropped out after giving
birth to her first child. She missed a semester and didn’t want
to return, but decided to return after discussing her options with her
therapist. Stacey returned to her mainstream school and struggled
to balance parenting with course work. When she found out she
was pregnant again, this pregnancy was the result of consensual sex
with her boyfriend, she was resigned to having to drop out again.
"Going to school with one
baby was hard. There was no way I could do it with two!
I was sure I had messed my life up for good and I went to my counselor
to sign up for GED classed but she said there was a P school near where
I live. I decided to give it a try but didn’t really think going
to a P school would be any easier."
Stacey, who graduated for high
school and is now attending Community College, admits that the P school
made all the difference. She was able to attend school and nurse
between classes and she found the integration of skills classes into
the curriculum helpful.
"The best part of the P school
was that teachers and students encouraged each other. And no one
expected me to drop out. Instead people expected me to take advantage
of the program and stay in school. So when I fussed about being
tired my teacher worked with me to adjust my schedule. When I
ran into trouble with day care people stepped in with advice.
And when I had my baby people where there to explain to me how I could
make it all work and finish school. I returned to a regular high
school and it was hard but I learned a lot about what I could do while
at the P school. I owe my diploma to those people."
But P schools are not the perfect
solution to the problem of pregnant teen drop out rates. As Andrea
Lynch has pointed out, the P schools that were closed
by the New York City Department of Education at the end of the 2006-2007
school year had disproportionately low attendance (48%, compared to
89% citywide), poor test results (less than 10% of students passed a
required Regents exam), and low rates of credit accumulation (the average
P-school student accumulated 4-5 credits annually, significantly less
than the 11 annual credits required to stay on track and graduate on
time). More disturbing was the finding that may students reported that
they were forced to attend P schools because counselors and administrators
felt that they would be more comfortable. There was a concern
that these students were being forced from mainstream schools because
administrators were uncomfortable with their presence there and not
for their emotional and educational benefit.
Lynch also explored grassroots groups that advocate for programs that support
and provide quality educations for pregnant teens and teen mothers.
These groups are built on a reproductive justice model that seeks to
empower young mothers even as it challenges society and the education
system to meet their needs.
Stacey intends to take up that
challenge when she graduates from college with a degree in social work.
"Everyone has the right to
an education and the right to choose to be a parent or not. I
made my choice and found my right to an education somewhat limited.
Too much of my story is about luck and it should be about design.
If I hadn’t graduated it wouldn’t have been good for my family and
future or my community. When I get my college degree I’m going
to work on this."
With one third of young women citing pregnancy as the reason they dropped out of high school Stacey’s help will be needed. Since
some programs like the Boise P school report success while other
programs like those in New York City found major achievement gaps,
research is needed into these programs to improve upon what works and
phase out what doesn’t. Evaluating the success of P schools versus mainstreaming pregnant students is a start. The National Women’s Law Center
is lobbying Congress to amend No Child Left Behind so that it will
allow for the collection of data on pregnant students and the Healthy Teen Network is heading up a three year study to
determine if P school programs with high graduation rates are also providing students with good academics. These studies will assist in determining the academic value of P schools.
is also needed is a commitment to provide more support opportunities
for young parents and fund programs that we know are working. If school systems phase out P schools they must replace them with comprehensive programs that assist student parents. A lack of support programs does not serve as a misery-based
deterrent to teen pregnancy, but rather is a recipe for increasing an already daunting drop out rate.