"It’s a 24-hour job," Bristol Palin, young mom and newly
anointed teen ambassador of the Candies Foundation, said on Good Morning
America on May 6. "Your priorities completely change when you have a baby." Her
life, she suggested, is consumed by caring for her baby and trying to finish
But in Palin’s recent television appearances, she didn’t
explain why school is so hard on teen parents, or why only one-third of
adolescent mothers receive their diplomas.
The truth is, the nation with the highest adolescent
pregnancy and birth rates in the industrialized world has not figured out how
to meet the educational needs of pregnant and parenting teens. In fact, we’re
going in the other direction – gutting the too-rare programs that have developed to
meet the unique needs of teen parents.
In June, a two-year-old residential charter school for teen
mothers in Washington, D.C., will shut its doors for good. The City Council cited truancy, curricular
problems, and gaps in special education services in revoking MEI Futures
Academy’s charter, and ignored the school’s pleas to support
improvement efforts. Because it is a residential school, the 50 students at MEI
Futures Academy also must find a new place for themselves and their children to
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Similar news came from Baltimore two weeks ago when the City
Council voted to merge a school for pregnant and parenting teen mothers with an
alternative program for boys. The reason? Cost cuts.
These moves follow New York City’s decision to close its
four "p-schools" in 2007 in favor of mainstreaming teen parents. A recent report from the New York
Civil Liberties Union evaluating the consequences of this decision found that
current services for teen parents are too few, too difficult to access, and too
poorly advertised – to an embarrassing degree. The drop out rates for teen
parents in New York schools are as high as 70 percent.
"We didn’t think it was a problem when (the four p-schools
closed) because they were really flawed – students weren’t necessarily going to
them voluntarily, and academically they were far from satisfactory," said Karyn
Brownson, the NYCLU’s teen health initiative director. "But when they closed,
the Department of Education wasn’t really prepared to replace and expand the
services (to pregnant and parenting teens) in traditional schools."
Insufficient data about parenting students makes it
difficult to evaluate existing programs. Beyond the abysmal retention of
parenting students, Brownson said that the NYCLU has heard anecdotally about
pregnant students being pressured out of school and into GED programs because
it was "obvious they’re not college-bound" and "they’re supposedly a bad
influence on other students."
Yet unequal access to education for parenting students is a
violation of Title IX, said Lara Kaufmann, senior counsel with the National
Women’s Law Center. "A student’s pregnancy, childbirth or termination of
pregnancy are all specifically included in Title IX’s protections against sex
discrimination in publicly funded schools," Kaufmann explained.
But while Title IX is famous for its role in ensuring access
to sports opportunities for girls, its protections for equal educational
opportunities for parenting students are less well known and frequently
"People are generally supportive of gender equity in sports,
but many don’t have the same sympathy for pregnant students," Kaufmann said.
"There’s still a stigma that pregnancy is their fault, that they should be
punished, and there’s a great myth that if you support pregnant students, it
will make other teenagers want to get pregnant too."
This myth "defies common sense–young people aren’t getting
pregnant because their school gives them access to childcare," said Kaufmann. "And
stigmatizing or discriminating against pregnant and parenting students is not
only illegal, but it is bad educational policy because it increases the risk
that those students will drop out."
While Title IX affirms the right of parenting students to
equal education, very few legal cases have been filed to enforce these rights.
This is because, Kaufmann said, "it’s really hard to bring a
lawsuit, particularly if you are a teenager. Lawsuits are not only financially
draining–and many of the girls we’re talking about are from low-income
families–but they also can be emotionally draining. …. And it’s also important to note that many
pregnant and parenting teens are not even aware of their legal rights."
Given that, Kaufmann added, it is "especially critical that
the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights aggressively and
proactively enforce the law in this area."
Not much of that is happening right now, however. There is
nothing typical when it comes to the services that schools offer to pregnant
and parenting teens because the vast majority of them do not offer any support
at all, said Kaufmann.
But there are some schools that prove the possibilities – and
the worth – of ensuring educational opportunities for young parents.
If we can escape the trap of taking anything we can get,
it’s worth looking at what, exactly, is working best in contemporary p-schools
so that we can develop a strong foundation for advocacy in New York, in
Baltimore, in Washington, D.C., and far beyond.
Ferguson Academy, a public high school for pregnant and parenting teen
girls, is perhaps the shining star of a school system that’s under emergency
financial management. Despite the school district’s struggles, CFA has won
national recognition over its 20 years of operation for its educational
innovations and high graduation rate.
CFA, which hosts up to 400 students (and 200 children) at a
time, boasts a 90% graduation rate and a 100% college acceptance rate for
students who earn diplomas. These numbers are superior even to many traditional
high schools in Detroit.
"At first, I was a little bit skeptical–an all-girls school?–it’s not going to work … " said Evelyn Locke, a CFA senior, on a
recent episode of Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines. "But it’s really not that
bad." Locke became pregnant in ninth
grade; this year she’s graduating and going on to study neo-natal nursing.
Ebony S. Griffin-Williams is a 1996 graduate of CFA who
credits the school for helping her get a high school degree and become an IT analyst. "Before
attending CFA my future was bleak. I was one of many of Detroit … lost children…
and I’m almost positive if I did not attend CFA I would have become a Teenage-Mother-High
School-Drop-Out," wrote Griffin-Williams in
an online review of the school. "CFA became my family. One of the most
outstanding teaching methods taught to me by the loving staff of CFA was how
important it is to have self-pride."
So what’s helping these teen mothers to defy the statistics?
First of all, CFA takes a standard expectation for
p-schools – free on-site day care – a step further and offers free early education
classes, including kindergarten, to young children. CFA‘s childcare staff
extends its hours for students taking extra evening classes at a nearby
The school offers a flexible schedule based on quarters over
nine months and four-day weeks; this leaves teen mothers sufficient time to
keep appointments and make up absences. Among the credits counted for
graduation are parenting education classes, which allow the mothers to
participate in activities alongside their children.
An on-site nursing and midwifery clinic offering pre- and
post-natal support minimizes absences. It also facilitates access to Women,
Infants, & Children (WiC), the federal program that offers supplemental
foods to low-income parents.
Speaking of food: CFA has an on-site organic farm featuring
vegetables, animals, and a student-built barn. The farm is maintained by
students, volunteers, and science teacher Paul Weertz. The project began as
Weertz’s creative response to pregnant students who couldn’t use chemicals in
science class; rather than dissecting animals, the students created a living
laboratory outdoors on vacant land that surrounded the school. Today the farm
serves as an opportunity for science and construction education, healthful food
served regularly in school, and activities for mothers and their children to
One of the greatest challenges p-schools face is a lack of
public awareness about their existence; when school districts and the city
don’t consistently promote educational opportunities for pregnant and parenting
teens, students who need those services are often unaware they exist, making
drop-outs at traditional schools more likely.
CFA takes the lack of promotion into its own hands. This spring, the
school hosted a citywide baby shower that drew nearly 100 young mothers and
their children to the party. There, Principal Asenath Andrews encouraged them
to enroll at Catherine Ferguson and make the possibilities of pursuing their
education – even higher education – a reality.
And she did it with the spirit of celebration and
possibility-not punishment. Andrews once told me about how other p-school
programs she’d encountered were housed in the same building as programs for
youth who were expelled or in trouble with the law. "You’d think they’d done
something illegal," Andrews said.
Finally, and perhaps most uniquely, is that Catherine
Ferguson Academy is able to offer students essential consistency. Rather than
being a temporary "bridge" program that expects teen parents to move on to a
traditional high school, students are eligible for enrollment at CFA from the
time they become pregnant until the time they graduate. New students register in August of each year
on a first-come, first-serve basis; there is typically no waiting list.
Lund Family Center
The Lund Family Center in Vermont is not a school, but a
501c3 nonprofit and a multifaceted residential program for teen mothers. While
its student body is primarily drawn from Vermont, Lund occasionally enrolls
students from neighboring states. Lund’s services come at no cost to students; its
programming is funded by a diverse base, including the Vermont Department of
Education, the Department of Human Services, private donations, and school
districts that direct students to Lund.
Among its many services is an education program tailored to
the needs of each student. Lund’s
New Horizons Educational Program is approved by the Vermont’s Department of
Education and serves about 35 students a year on a rolling admission (some
in-residence, others as day students) through an ongoing school year. On staff
in the classroom are three certified teachers, a part-time tutor and a
classroom assistant that work directly with students.
Of the teens that Lund serves, about 50% had previously
dropped out of school and some are coming out of the corrections system. They
are between the ages of 12 and 27, thereby serving a wider range of students
than CFA is able to, though not nearly as many of them.
"(We) … can provide transitional services to assist a
student mother in returning to her high school, or continue to educate the mom
until she obtains a diploma from her high school," Kris Hoffman, the
educational services coordinator, explained. "We develop educational plans one
at a time for each student, and have achieved great success in this model,
although it is very labor intensive for our teachers."
Hoffman is clear that p-schools can’t skimp on resources if
they expect to be successful. From access to diaper-changing, breastfeeding and
milk-pumping, as well as frequent breaks and appropriate maternity leave,
Hoffman emphasized that adolescent student mothers need flexibility. "Our teachers can teach three
kinds of math in the same room while holding a baby," said Kitty Bartlett,
Lund’s communications and development coordinator.
While CFA offers students long-term stability in their
hometown, easing the obstacles towards graduation, Lund’s residential model
gives students a safe space away
from their native cities. "The common misconception is that the early pregnancy
is the only issue facing the student mother," Hoffman said. But according to Bartlett, most student
mothers at Lund have a "history of poverty, a pretty significant history of
trauma, and often mental illness, medical, and substance abuse issues." Hoffman
contends that the gender-specific environment helps the center to work with
multiple issues simultaneously.
The program offers "maternity leave, post-secondary
educational counseling, referral to substance abuse and mental health
treatment, free lunch and snacks, and peer support," said Hoffman.
Lund makes a commitment to the children of its residents and
day-school students, offering childcare even after the teen parents transition
out of the program if it makes sense for the child. It also helps teens find
quality preschools for their children in the town they return to.
Finally, Lund tries hard to help young mothers be teenagers
as much as possible and appropriate. "We’ve seen that not supporting this
developmental phase [of being a teenager] is detrimental to the vulnerable
families with which we work," Hoffman said. "Adolescence is a time of growth
and change, and simply treating teen moms as adults does not help them to move
forward toward independence."
Some in the teen pregnancy prevention movement are
suspicious of programs for adolescent parents, believing that they serve as an
enticement to pregnancy. Hoffman argues
that it’s important to overlay such programs with traditional environments,
particularly for very young mothers.
"I’ve noticed that really young mothers, aged 12-15, become
almost institutionalized when they remain in teen parent education programs for
their entire secondary school careers, and might continue to feel entitled to
public assistance and community involvement if they do not move on to a
different academic setting," she said. "However,
if educational support is provided in a teen parent ed model for these youngest
mothers during the year that they are working on pregnancy and childbirth,
return to traditional high school can be very productive."
White River Online
For adolescent student parents without access to a p-school,
online education is an option to continue schooling. As an alternative program
of the White River School District in Buckley, Washington, White River Online
serves just over 60 full-time students between the ages of 12-21 with a standard
high school curriculum. It issues diplomas and hosts an annual graduation
While it is not a program specifically targeting pregnant
and parenting teens, its flexible schedule and accessibility make it a viable
choice for them. Danielle McIntosh, a White River Online teacher, estimates
that at least 10% of White River’s students are pregnant or parenting, though
the only way the school knows if its students are parents is if they tell them
If they do so, White River Online is willing to work with
them and their unique circumstances. "I would say we unofficially cut them some
slack that we probably wouldn’t extent to other students," said McIntosh. "For
example, a parenting student recently had a sick baby. Just a cold, but nap
times were disrupted so work times were also disrupted. We just extended her
deadlines to meet the situation."
Ensuring Fair and Equal
Access to Education
School districts and cities that ignore the needs of pregnant and parenting
students would do well to observe that proven, workable p-school models exist.
Therefore, doing anything less than making these models standard and accessible
is at best ill-informed and at worst cruel. Not to mention bordering on
illegal – teenagers have a legal right to public education, no matter what their
parenting status is.
That translates into a requirement for schools to adapt
their policies for unexcused absences, make-up work, doctor’s notes, home
instruction, transportation, individualized graduation plans, counseling, and
class scheduling for the needs of pregnant and parenting teens – without steering
them into inferior or academically lax programs.
"I don’t think there’s one right answer (for how to support
the educational success of parenting students), in terms of whether programs in
traditional schools or separate settings are better," said NWLC’s Lara Kaufmann, while emphasizing that significantly more research and data is needed in
"We know of promising examples following both models,"
Kaufmann added. "What this tells us is that there is more than one way to
provide the necessary supports, and that’s encouraging. As long as they comply
with the law, schools can be creative about how they help their parenting
students. The important thing is the substance, not the form."
Whether it’s a four-year high school, a multifaceted
residential facility or an accredited online program, the goal should be to
provide several viable options for students to meet their various needs. While
some students need the stability and peer-experience of attending a
comprehensive school like Catherine Ferguson Academy in their hometowns, others
might not find this to be the best option.
When it comes to p-schools, Hoffman has a request: "If you
have these programs in your areas, please
help teens and tweens to see them!"
The thing is, there should be no "if" — these programs need to
be in all of our areas. To paraphrase the NYCLU, not just one but two lives
depend on it.