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!

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