There’s no doubting that being a teenage mother is difficult, and the statistics are not kind. 81 percent of teen parents remain unmarried. Over half of teenage mothers don’t graduate from high school. Only a very small number of teen parents go on to earn a college degree. And teen mothers are far more likely to live in poverty and depend on welfare. Considering these things, it may seem like the future for pregnant teenagers is bleak — but one high school is doing its best to change that.
Gianna Martin is a student at Nowell Leadership Academy, a Rhode Island charter school. Martin works full-time to provide for her daughter while also working to earn her diploma. Nowell is one of a small number of schools in the country dedicated to helping pregnant and parenting students graduate from high school and prepare for college. The school has flexible schedules and personalized learning tools, and provides transportation and support as well. While this seems like it should be the norm, it sadly isn’t; many pregnant students end up dropping out, as a rigid class schedule and overbearing homework can cripple a young mother trying to earn a high school diploma while also raising a child and, in some cases, work full time to provide. This kind of discrimination is against federal law under Title IX, but it still happens. Pregnant and parenting students are supposed to be given the same opportunities as students on medical leave: the ability to make up missed work, have absences excused, and be given home services. But this often does not happen.
“Choose school or your child”
One senior who is now attending Nowell, Kelsey Barney, had to miss two months of school while she cared for her sick newborn. When she returned, her school told her that she couldn’t graduate. “My guidance counselor looked at me and said, ‘You should either choose school or your child,’ ” she said. “I chose my child.” According to Neena Chaudhry, director of education and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, this is not uncommon. “We hear from women in high school, college, and graduate school about their schools failing to accommodate them,” she said. “They really do end up putting women behind in a way that they don’t receive the support they need or are outright discriminated against.”
When Nowell first opened, they noticed that less than 25 percent of students were attending classes on a regular basis. But rather than punish those students, the school looked to change its model to better meet the students’ needs. New leadership was brought in to offer more support. The school purchased blocks at area daycares so that students had a place to bring their children while they waited to receive state funding. They instituted a personalized learning platform, which lets students make their way through their curriculum at their own speed. And when students stop coming to class, they send educators to their homes. Last year, attendance had skyrocketed — from less than 25 percent to 63 percent.
And the students tend to be much more accepting of each other than they are in other schools. “I feel like other schools, they try to have a blind eye towards it, teen pregnancy,” Martin said. “I want other girls in my situation who can’t come here to feel OK in their school. If they want to finish school, if you see somebody pregnant in school, be happy for them. They’re still in school and they’re pregnant. … It’s really hard.”
“They’re not a lost cause”
Even the teachers who come to Nowell do so because they feel that the traditional school model isn’t serving the students who need help the most. “I feel like a lot of students, or a lot of young girls, if they do get pregnant in high school, that’s the end of the road for them, you know: ‘Oh man, I had a baby young, now I can only do this or have these dreams,’ ” Areema Sweeney, a math teacher at Nowell, said. “It’s refreshing to see a model where they’re not a lost cause, there’s still hope for you and we’re going to get you where you want to be.”
But while Sweeney said she used different techniques to help her students succeed, that doesn’t mean she takes it easy on them, or sacrifices the quality of their education. “My classes will never be easier, I tell them that all the time. I’m a tough teacher and I expect you to learn the material and prove that you know the material,” Sweeney said. “But I will give you the time and support you need. That time difference, that hard-set deadline when everything has to be completed, is a real obstacle for pregnant and parenting teens.”
While Nowell is doing great things for pregnant and parenting teens in the Rhode Island area, students who are pregnant or raising children often are left behind — whether they are in high school, or struggling to finish college. And while it may seem impossible, there are resources to help pregnant and parenting students still achieve their dreams.
Know your rights and resources
First, students must know their rights. Schools cannot discriminate against a student because they are pregnant or parenting. A school administrator telling a student that they should drop out of school, not bother applying to colleges, or otherwise discouraging academic progress, is against the law.
It’s also illegal for a student to be kicked out of school because they are pregnant or raising a child. Students also are legally required to be given medically-excused absences, such as for childbirth and recovery, and for lactation breaks. The United Stated Department of Education outlines all of this in a “Know Your Rights” brochure, as well as gives information on what to do if a school is violating Title IX rights.
Other resources are available for pregnant students. According to the National Women’s Law Center, for example, any school that provides special academic services to students with temporary disabilities is required to also provide those services to pregnant and parenting students, including things like at-home tutoring to help catch up on work missed due to medical absences. Other resources also can be found through Pregnant On Campus, an affiliate of Students for Life, and The Pregnant Scholar.
Going to school and getting a degree is difficult when you’re pregnant or raising a child — there’s no doubting that. But the important thing is that it’s possible. And there are resources to help women do it. Having a baby does not have to mean sentencing teenagers or young adults to a dead-end life. With a little bit of assistance, these students can accomplish anything, and they don’t need abortion to do it.