High School for Pregnant Teens and Young Mothers

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The New York City school system has a number of programs for pregnant and parenting teens. There are daycare centers in several high schools. And there are four separate schools just for pregnant teens and young mothers. But these programs have been criticized for doing little to improve attendance or achievement scores. And the city is now trying to turn them around. WNYC's Beth Fertig has more.

The Martha Nielsen School in the Bronx opened almost thirty years ago for pregnant teens and young mothers. The school was named after a city educator and has about 150 students. Its goal is to provide childcare, parenting courses and a regular high school curriculum all in one place to make it easier for the students to go to school.

But on a recent visit to a Global Studies class, just nine out of fifteen students were present.

TRUDGEON: We usually have about 12. Ten to twelve.

James Trudgeon has been teaching this course for the past two years.

TRUDGEON: I think a lot of stuff happens. They don't have a history of good attendance and then I think what happens is there's a lot of doctors appointments I mean, for many of these students this is not an excuse but it's a real burden to have attendance.

Sixteen year old Karina Diaz is pretty typical. She had already repeated the ninth grade when she transferred here last fall after getting pregnant. Her attendance is good. But she says it's difficult leaving the house with morning sickness and a growing belly.

DIAZ: Like right now it's cold. You feel like you don't want to get up. But if you think about it, it's better to come here than stay in your house doing nothing.

Average daily attendance at Martha Nielsen during the last school year was just about 40 percent. And test scores reflected that poor turnout. About 40 to 50 students were eligible to take the statewide Regents exams, which are required for graduation. But only one student passed her Global Studies test. And just two passed the English exam. Nadine Santana was enrolled last year and says it wasn't just the kids who didn't come to class.

SANTANA: Well we didn't have math all the time because we didn't have a math teacher. It wasn't even fair because we had to take our Math regents and we weren't prepared, so all the girls at Martha Nielsen failed their math regents.

The school went several months without a math teacher. It also went a month without an English teacher. That's because two teachers left mid year and weren't replaced. Nor was any effort made to send the students to another school - even though Martha Nielsen is housed in the same building as a regular high school.

The City's Education department acknowledges these failures. It considered shutting down the four schools for pregnant and parenting teens. But officials have since decided to improve them. Bernard Gassaway is the new superintendent in charge of the programs.

GASSAWAY: One of the things we've done is increased the level of review in terms of what was going on in the classrooms because I'm sure there were classes that were not observed frankly last year. The other thing we're doing is professional development, and that's something that I'm not quite sure if that took place.

Gassaway says the so called P schools for pregnant and parenting teens will be linked to comprehensive high schools, giving students a wider range of courses. The city's also planning for the first time to track the graduation rates of students who attend these transitional programs and then go back to their regular high schools.

But it's not just the P schools that have been failing pregnant students. The New York Civil Liberties Union claims many regular high schools encourage pregnant students to leave because they're afraid they'll drag down test scores. Patricia Martin, who's an assistant principal for the P schools, says she's aware of this problem.

MARTIN: I get 10, 20 calls a day saying from a guidance counselor saying I really think this girl belongs with you. And I'll say what's her attendance? And she'll say she really hasn't been in school in 3 months. So she ends up being my student because as long as she's pregnant she's mine.

Title nine of the federal education act prohibits schools from steering pregnant students into separate programs. If a girl wants to stay she must be given her choice. But many girls just leave school after getting pregnant.

Sabrina Fontanez is one of many young mothers who didn't want to go to a P-school. She says she applied to a high school that specializes in helping students like herself with learning disabilities. But when the transfer didn't go through, she dropped out in September. The seventeen year old now hangs around her South Bronx neighborhood, caring for her two young children. It's a twist of fate that makes her cry.

FONTANEZ: It's just that life gets messed up right after a while having so many kids. My dream was to get a job and do for my son. But I ended up messing up and making different choice. Now I have to put my life on hold.

Three years ago, a report by the New York City Controller found there could be more than 20 thousand mothers under the age of 21 who have yet to finish high school. But there are just 500 spaces in the four schools for pregnant and parenting teens. Education groups say that's why the regular high schools also need to provide more services. Many of them already offer parenting classes, childcare and healthcare. But they can only serve about a thousand students combined.

Yomara Velez runs a leadership program in the Bronx for young women called Sistas on the Rise. She's been organizing meetings between school officials and young mothers.

VELEZ: As we increase our academic requirements for students on one hand it's really great, on other there's been little funding allocated to really ensure the young women have the support necessary to reach those goals. And then the other part of it is also that you know you're working with young women who are at all types of different levels.

There are young mothers who thrive with extra support services in school. But experts say those tend to be students who were doing well to begin with. As a result, many programs for young mothers are better at offering healthcare or childcare than at boosting academic achievement says Wendy Wolf, chair of the National Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Parenting and Prevention.

WOLF: There is a well known relationship between doing poorly in school and an increased of getting pregnant. And so for that reason it's important to do something about the schooling component, make it more interesting, use alternative instruction methodologies. Make it different from the regular school which has somehow failed them in the first place.

In New York City, counselors are doing more outreach to improve attendance. And there are new after-school programs like a cooking course. Attendance at the Martha Nielsen school has already gone up slightly.

Sixteen year old Karina Diaz says she doesn't want to miss a single day. She believes this program will help her graduate and eventually go to college.

DIAZ: It's better cause the teachers pay more attention to you, like the staff like the principal. They know you're pregnant they take like more care of you.

But that's just the beginning. School officials know the stakes are high. If these young mothers don't succeed, they'll risk failing yet another generation of children. For WNYC I'm Beth Fertig.