Beyond Problems and Prevention Strategies

Andrea Lynch

In this two-part series, Andrea Lynch looks at the closure of the New York City Department of Education's "P schools" - educational programs for pregnant and parenting students - and the new ways grassroots groups conceive of teen parenting.

In this two-part series, Andrea Lynch looks at the closure of the New York City Department of Education's "P schools" – educational programs for pregnant and parenting students – the programs that have arisen in the P school's absence, and the way teen pregnancy is understood by those who make policy to prevent and address it. This week, she reports on P school closures and the challenges now facing organizations who work with young mothers. In next week's piece, she will address federal policy that has devastating impacts on adolescents who parent and the new ways that grassroots groups such as Brooklyn Young Mothers' Collective and Sistas on the Rise conceive of teen parenting.

At the end of the 2006-7 school year, the New York City Department of Education announced that it would be closing its four special educational programs for pregnant and parenting students-known as "P schools." The decision was part of a sweeping set of reforms to the DOE's District 79, which encompasses a broad range of alternative programs within the New York City school system. The conditions that sparked it, and that some argue have endured in its wake, raise important questions about the particular challenges adolescent mothers-and particular young mothers of color-face in their efforts to balance school, parenthood, and survival within a wider culture that often views them as problems rather than possibilities. Regardless of their life circumstances, these young women must negotiate their demands and livelihoods within the confines of a policy environment more inclined to discourage adolescent pregnancy than deal humanely with its consequences.

Despite differing opinions about the DOE's decision to close the P schools, it is clear that the schools, as they stood at the close of the 2006-7 school year, were not adequately serving pregnant and parenting teens. According to a report prepared by a consultant hired by the DOE to assess the situation, the P schools 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). Further, many girls reported having been pushed into the P schools against their will by principals or guidance counselors who felt they would be "more comfortable" with other pregnant and parenting teens-a desire that many advocates felt was more motivated by administrators' discomfort with the girls' continuing presence in their schools than genuine concern for their educational and emotional well-being. Although Title IX makes it illegal to force pregnant girls out of their home schools, few girls knew their rights well enough to resist the pressure applied by principals and guidance counselors. As a result, around 300 of the roughly 7,000 girls who become pregnant every year in the New York City school system wound up in the P schools.

Amidst widespread consensus that the P schools were of substandard academic quality, reactions to the closing of the schools among pregnant and parenting teens and their advocates were mixed. The Brooklyn Young Mothers' Collective (BYMC) ran workshops on sexuality and reproductive health in the P schools before the schools closed, and continues to provide life skills, sexuality education, and parenting classes, as well as legal and social support, to pregnant and parenting girls across the city. BYMC founder and executive director Benita Miller was put off by the educational standards and practices she witnessed in the P schools, and thus supported their elimination, but she remains skeptical of the DOE's commitment to ensuring educational equity for pregnant and parenting girls in the wake of the schools' closing. "My concern now with the P schools closing is that some of the hope that I had for the dialogue that would come from it hasn't really happened," she says.

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Lee Chee Leong, director of the Teen Health Initiative at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), shares Miller's doubts, especially within a system where schools' successes are disproportionately judged by measures like attendance records and test scores. "The P schools as they were executed were certainly not providing adequate services or education to young women," she acknowledges. "That said, now that the P schools are no longer open, we don't have much of a sense that things have improved for young women. The reality was that most of the young women who were strongly encouraged legally or illegally to attend the P schools were primarily overage and undercredited-these were young women that principals did not want bringing down their test scores, and that was the bottom line." Now that the P schools are closed, there's doubt among pregnant and parenting girls' advocates as to the fates of overage, undercredited women who may continue to face hostile environments in their home schools. Bernard Gassaway, a former superintendent of District 79 who resigned in protest over what he perceived as the DOE's unwillingness to invest in students it did not consider successful, isn't optimistic: "Out of sight, out of mind, many of these young ladies will probably fall between the cracks," he speculates.

But Cami Anderson, current superintendent of District 79, vehemently disagrees. Anderson, who joined the NYC DOE in the summer of 2006 and presided over the closing of the P schools this past spring, emphasizes that the P schools were failing young women on multiple fronts, and that a new strategy was clearly needed. "We know that this population-girls who are young moms-with some support and assistance in finding the right place, they can graduate, and they do graduate at pretty great rates," she says. Anderson stresses that the vast majority of pregnant and parenting students who wound up in the P schools were already at risk of dropping out, and the P schools offered them few opportunities to catch up or even keep pace with their peers. In the past few years, District 79 has increased the number of alternative programs-such as transfer schools, which offer smaller class sizes and more one-on-one engagement, and Young Adult Borough Centers, which offer more work-centered, flexible schedules for older students-designed to help such students accumulate enough credits to graduate. This fall, the DOE also set up six referral centers to connect students with the full range of alternative programs and support services the DOE provides. Anderson is confident that between the increase in alternative programs known to be successful in pushing failing students toward graduation and the referral centers set up to help students navigate their new options, pregnant and parenting girls will stand a slimmer chance of falling through the cracks.

But the closing of the P schools was a blow to organizations like the South Bronx-based young mothers' and women of color activist group Sistas on the Rise, who staunchly opposed the DOE's decision based on their own experience, supplemented by research they had conducted with P school students from four boroughs in 2004. Their research identified significant problems and gaps in the P schools, but the majority of the young women they spoke with were hoping for enhancement, rather than elimination, of the existing spaces. Leslie Grant, a young activist, student, and mother in Sistas on the Rise's leadership circle who first connected with the group when she was a15-year-old pregnant student at the Bronx-based Martha Nielson High School (a P school) five years ago, stresses that "a lot of the women who attended the schools really wanted to be at those schools, felt comfortable being in that smaller, safer, more intimate environment."

Flawed as they were, the P schools did provide a platform for groups like Sistas on the Rise to reach current and future adolescent mothers at a critical juncture in their lives. The youth-founded, youth-led Sistas on the Rise conducted workshops for women within the P schools and in their own office space on topics such as healthy parenting and healthy relationships, economic independence, college prep, resume writing, sexuality education, cultural parenting, and movement history (which highlights young women of color's contributions to a range of social movements). Until the P schools were definitively closed last spring, Sistas on the Rise had also succeeded in improving conditions at Martha Nielson through their organizing and advocacy work: in a few short years, they were able to secure a math teacher, an English teacher, a computer lab, prenatal and post-partum yoga as a means to earn gym credits, and a stronger maternity leave policy. Without the P schools as a place to gather young mothers and address their particular concerns, what programs will meet their needs and what spaces will be dedicated to encouraging them to build alliances with one another, and to flourish?

Check back next week for Andrea's continuing coverage of adolescent parenting, looking particularly at new, grassroots organizations that work directly with young mothers!

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Commentary Politics

On Immigration, Major Political Parties Can’t Seem to Agree on What’s ‘Un-American’

Tina Vasquez

As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Immigration has been one of the country’s most contentious political topics and, not surprisingly, is now a primary focus of this election. But no matter how you feel about the subject, this is a nation of immigrants in search of “el sueño Americano,” as Karla Ortiz reminded us on the first night of the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Ortiz, the 11-year-old daughter of two undocumented parents, appeared in a Hillary Clinton campaign ad earlier this year expressing fear that her parents would be deported. Standing next to her mother on the DNC stage, the young girl told the crowd that she is an American who wants to become a lawyer to help families like hers.

It was a powerful way to kick-start the week, suggesting to viewers Democrats were taking a radically different approach to immigration than the Republican National Convention (RNC). While the RNC made undocumented immigrants the scapegoats for a variety of social ills, from U.S. unemployment to terrorism, the DNC chose to highlight the contributions of immigrants: the U.S. citizen daughter of undocumented parents, the undocumented college graduate, the children of immigrants who went into politics. Yet, even the stories shared at the DNC were too tidy and palatable, focusing on “acceptable” immigrant narratives. There were no mixed-status families discussing their deported parents, for example.

As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other. By the end of two weeks, viewers may not have known whether to blame immigrants for taking their jobs or to befriend their hardworking immigrant neighbors. For the undocumented immigrants watching the conventions, the message, however, was clear: Both parties have a lot of work to do when it comes to humanizing their communities.  

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“No Business Being in This Country”

For context, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his running mate Mike Pence are the decidedly anti-immigrant ticket. From the beginning, Trump’s campaign has been overrun by anti-immigrant rhetoric, from calling Mexicans “rapists” and “killers” to calling for a ban on Muslim immigration. And as of July 24, Trump’s proposed ban now includes people from countries “compromised by terrorism” who will not be allowed to enter the United States, including anyone from France.

So, it should come as no surprise that the first night of the RNC, which had the theme of “Make America Safe Again,” preyed on American fears of the “other.” In this case: undocumented immigrants who, as Julianne Hing wrote for the Nation, “aren’t just drug dealers and rapists anymorenow they’re murderers, too.”

Night one of the RNC featured not one but three speakers whose children were killed by undocumented immigrants. “They’re just three brave representatives of many thousands who have suffered so gravely,” Trump said at the convention. “Of all my travels in this country, nothing has affected me more, nothing even close I have to tell you, than the time I have spent with the mothers and fathers who have lost their children to violence spilling across our borders, which we can solve. We have to solve it.”

Billed as “immigration reform advocates,” grieving parents like Mary Ann Mendoza called her son’s killer, who had resided in the United States for 20 years before the drunk driving accident that ended her police officer son’s life, an “illegal immigrant” who “had no business being in this country.”

It seemed exploitative and felt all too common. Drunk driving deaths are tragically common and have nothing to do with immigration, but it is easier to demonize undocumented immigrants than it is to address the nation’s broken immigration system and the conditions that are separating people from their countries of originconditions to which the United States has contributed. Trump has spent months intentionally and disingenuously pushing narratives that undocumented immigrants are hurting and exploiting the United States, rather than attempting to get to the root of these issues. This was hammered home by Mendoza, who finished her speech saying that we have a system that cares more about “illegals” than Americans, and that a vote for Hillary “puts all of our children’s lives at risk.”

There was also Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a notorious racist whose department made a practice of racially profiling Latinos and was recently found to be in civil contempt of court for “repeatedly and knowingly” disobeying orders to cease policing tactics against Latinos, NPR reported.

Like Mendoza, Arpaio told the RNC crowd that the immigration system “puts the needs of other nations ahead of ours” and that “we are more concerned with the rights of ‘illegal aliens’ and criminals than we are with protecting our own country.” The sheriff asserted that he was at the RNC because he was distinctly qualified to discuss the “dangers of illegal immigration,” as someone who has lived on both sides of the border.

“We have terrorists coming in over our border, infiltrating our communities, and causing massive destruction and mayhem,” Arpaio said. “We have criminals penetrating our weak border security systems and committing serious crimes.”

Broadly, the takeaway from the RNC and the GOP nominee himself is that undocumented immigrants are terrorists who are taking American jobs and lives. “Trump leaned on a tragic story of a young woman’s murder to prop up a generalized depiction of immigrants as menacing, homicidal animals ‘roaming freely to threaten peaceful citizens,’” Hing wrote for the Nation.

When accepting the nomination, Trump highlighted the story of Sarah Root of Nebraska, a 21-year-old who was killed in a drunk-driving accident by a 19-year-old undocumented immigrant.

“To this administration, [the Root family’s] amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting,” Trump said. “One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders.”

It should be noted that the information related to immigration that Trump provided in his RNC speech, which included the assertion that the federal government enables crime by not deporting more undocumented immigrants (despite deporting more undocumented immigrants than ever before in recent years), came from groups founded by John Tanton, a well-known nativist whom the Southern Poverty Law center referred to as “the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement.”

“The Border Crossed Us”

From the get-go, it seemed the DNC set out to counter the dangerous, anti-immigrant rhetoric pushed at the RNC. Over and over again, Democrats like Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-CA) hit back hard against Trump, citing him by name and quoting him directly.

“Donald Trump believes that Mexican immigrants are murderers and rapists. But what about my parents, Donald?” Sánchez asked the crowd, standing next to her sister, Rep. Loretta Sánchez (D-CA). “They are the only parents in our nation’s 265-year history to send not one but two daughters to the United States Congress!”

Each speech from a Latino touched on immigration, glossing over the fact that immigration is not just a Latino issue. While the sentiments were positiveillustrating a community that is thriving, and providing a much-needed break from the RNC’s anti-immigrant rhetoricat the core of every speech were messages of assimilation and respectability politics.

Even in gutsier speeches from people like actress Eva Longoria, there was the need to assert that her family is American and that her father is a veteran. The actress said, “My family never crossed a border. The border crossed us.”

Whether intentional or not, the DNC divided immigrants into those who are acceptable, respectable, and worthy of citizenship, and those—invisible at the convention—who are not. “Border crossers” who do not identify as American, who do not learn English, who do not aspire to go to college or become an entrepreneur because basic survival is overwhelming enough, what about them? Do they deserve to be in detention? Do their families deserve to be ripped apart by deportation?

At the convention, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), a champion of immigration reform, said something seemingly innocuous that snapped into focus the problem with the Democrats’ immigration narrative.

“In her heart, Hillary Clinton’s dream for America is one where immigrants are allowed to come out of the shadows, get right with the law, pay their taxes, and not feel fear that their families are going to be ripped apart,” Gutiérrez said.

The Democratic Party is participating in an all-too-convenient erasure of the progress undocumented people have made through sheer force of will. Immigration has become a leading topic not because there are more people crossing the border (there aren’t) or because nativist Donald Trump decided to run for president, but because a segment of the population has been denied basic rights and has been fighting tooth and nail to save themselves, their families, and their communities.

Immigrants have been coming out of the shadows and as a result, are largely responsible for the few forms of relief undocumented communities now have, like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows certain undocumented immigrants who meet specific qualifications to receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation. And “getting right with the law” is a joke at this point. The problem isn’t that immigrants are failing to adhere to immigration laws; the problem is immigration laws that are notoriously complicated and convoluted, and the system, which is so backlogged with cases that a judge sometimes has just seven minutes to determine an immigrant’s fate.

Becoming a U.S. citizen is also really expensive. There is a cap on how many people can immigrate from any given country in a year, and as Janell Ross explained at the Washington Post:

There are some countries, including Mexico, from where a worker with no special skills or a relative in the United States can apply and wait 23 years, according to the U.S. government’s own data. That’s right: There are people receiving visas right now in Mexico to immigrate to the United States who applied in 1993.

But getting back to Gutierrez’s quote: Undocumented immigrants do pay taxes, though their ability to contribute to our economy should not be the one point on which Democrats hang their hats in order to attract voters. And actually, undocumented people pay a lot of taxes—some $11.6 billion in state and local taxes last year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy—while rarely benefiting from a majority of federal assistance programs since the administration of President Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we know it” in 1996.

If Democrats were being honest at their convention, we would have heard about their failure to end family detention, and they would have addressed that they too have a history of criminalizing undocumented immigrants.

The 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, enacted under former President Clinton, have had the combined effect of dramatically increasing the number of immigrants in detention and expanding mandatory or indefinite detention of noncitizens ordered to be removed to countries that will not accept them, as the American Civil Liberties Union notes on its site. Clinton also passed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which economically devastated Mexican farmers, leading to their mass migration to the United States in search of work.

In 1990, then-Sen. Joe Biden introduced the Violence Against Women Act, which passed in 1994 and specifically excluded undocumented women for the first 19 of the law’s 22 years, and even now is only helpful if the victim of intimate partner abuse is a child, parent, or current/former spouse of a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident.

In addition, President Obama is called by immigrant rights advocates “deporter in chief,” having put into place a “deportation machine” that has sent more than two million migrants back to their country of origin, more than any president in history. New arrivals to the United States, such as the Central American asylum seekers coming to our border escaping gender-based violence, are treated with the same level of prioritization for removal as threats to our national security. The country’s approach to this humanitarian crisis has been raiding homes in the middle of the night and placing migrants in detention centers, which despite being rife with allegations of human rights abuses, are making private prison corporations millions in revenue.

How Are We Defining “Un-American”?

When writing about the Democratic Party, community organizer Rosa Clemente, the 2008 Green Party vice president candidate, said that she is afraid of Trump, “but not enough to be distracted from what we must do, which is to break the two-party system for good.”

This is an election like we’ve never seen before, and it would be disingenuous to imply that the party advocating for the demise of the undocumented population is on equal footing with the party advocating for the rights of certain immigrants whose narratives it finds acceptable. But this is a country where Republicans loudly—and with no consequence—espouse racist, xenophobic, and nativist beliefs while Democrats publicly voice support of migrants while quietly standing by policies that criminalize undocumented communities and lead to record numbers of deportations.

During two weeks of conventions, both sides declared theirs was the party that encapsulated what America was supposed to be, adhering to morals and values handed down from our forefathers. But ours is a country comprised of stolen land and built by slave labor where today, undocumented immigrants, the population most affected by unjust immigration laws and violent anti-immigrant rhetoric, don’t have the right to vote. It is becoming increasingly hard to tell if that is indeed “un-American” or deeply American.