Teen Mothers Get an Education

New York City program targets 'babies having babies,' and tries to keep them in school

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Angela Rivera looks like a typical 15-year-old. She likes to talk on the phone. She complains that her mother is sometimes too hard on her. She follows the current adolescent sartorial code: sneakers, baggy sweatshirt and jeans, big golden earrings. Someday she hopes to work as a teacher at a day-care center and have a nice apartment.

To look at her, one would never guess that almost a year ago, this shy teenager became a mother.

Angela's situation is not unusual in New York or around the country.

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Since September she has been attending a special middle school for pregnant and parenting teens. Her school, housed in a city primary school, is geared toward girls aged 11 to 15 in Grades 6 through 9. Called PREP (Preparation Through Responsibility, Empowerment, and Purpose), the school was opened in response to the growing number of unmarried pre-high-school-age girls giving birth. ''These are the babies who are having babies,'' says Director Cynthia Gonzalez.

And the mothers are getting younger. In New York City, birth rates for teens under age 15 rose by more than 50 percent between 1980 and 1989.

Temporary alternatives

Angela's school is part of the network within New York City's public schools that addresses the needs of some 14,000 adolescent girls who have children here each year. Administered by the Board of Education, the Program for Pregnant and Parenting Teens includes five high schools designed as a temporary alternative for girls who become pregnant while still in school. The program also operates the PREP school. All the schools are located in areas with high teen-pregnancy rates.

These schools have smaller classes than regular city high schools and offer special classes in such subjects as parenting and health. They work in conjunction with the program's other services, such as providing school-based day care, primary pregnancy prevention education, and outreach programs to get young mothers who have dropped out of school back into the system.

The schools are a window on urban teenage pregnancy. At PREP, students talk about why they decided to have children so young.

Erica Morales says she got pregnant because she wanted something that was her own, that nobody could take away. She is sitting in the ''living room'' of the PREP School, a converted classroom pleasantly decorated with secondhand rugs and other odd bits of furniture. The room's soothing ambiance contrasts with the frenetic activity of the streets.

Today Erica fits her small frame, made larger by her eight-month-old pregnancy, into a large wicker chair and talks of her decision to become a mother at age 14. When she was 13, she ran away from her mother's home in Brooklyn because she did not get along with her mother's boyfriend. She moved in with her own boyfriend and stopped going to school regularly, attending seventh grade for only three months. During that time she decided to have a child.

''I always wanted to hold my own baby,'' she says. ''I just wanted it so badly.'' Erica lives with her boyfriend's family, who subsist on his mother's welfare checks. She says her own mother is happy about Erica's pregnancy because she is unable to have more children herself.

'I wanted someone to love me'

Cherlene Stewart, 18, attends the School for Pregnant and Parenting Teens in the East New York section of Brooklyn. She also planned her pregnancy. Before she had her daughter two months ago, she and her mother did not speak to each other, and Cherlene often stayed away from home. Her boyfriend, a high school dropout who drinks and uses drugs, beat her during her pregnancy, she says.

''I wanted somebody to love me, somebody to look up to me and not put me down. I want me and my daughter to be real close,'' Cherlene says, glancing affectionately at her daughter sleeping in a nearby stroller. They are sitting in the school's lunch room, which today is a flurry of mothers and babies. Most days the girls are not allowed to bring their children with them to class, but today is ''picture day'' for the babies, and the new mothers are taking full advantage of the opportunity.

Many of the staff say they are grateful for any incentive that will get these young mothers to school. The goal of the program, says citywide principal Marie Torchia, is to make them effective learners.

Staying in school, Angela admits, has become more difficult with a child. She always wanted to be in her 20s when she had her first child, but when she learned at 14 that she was pregnant, she decided to keep the baby. Now that her son is here, she says she talks on the phone a lot less than she used to.

On weekdays Angela gets up early to take her son from her mother's apartment in a high-rise housing project on Manhattan's lower East Side to a babysitter, where he stays while she is at school. It's difficult at times to keep up with classwork and be a mom, she says. When she was pregnant, she missed nearly a year of school. But now, she says, she makes time for it. ''I want to get an education for him,'' she says, referring her son.

She says she would rather come to school here than to her old one. ''If you need help, they help you here,'' she says. ''It's like a little family.''

Boredom with school was a common theme among all the girls interviewed.

''Before, I thought school was boring; I couldn't understand it,'' says 15-year-old Elvia Arbona, who is eight months pregnant. ''They wouldn't sit with you and explain things like they do here.''

Seventeen-year-old Odessa Watson has a history of truancy, too. She hated her high school, she says, because there were too many gangs and too many fights. So in the ninth grade, she stopped going. While she was playing hooky, Odessa got pregnant. Now she is struggling to earn her diploma. ''School's not hard because of my baby,'' she says, ''it's hard because I missed so much school.''

Ann Cook, co-chair of a citywide task force on teen pregnancy in New York, says that truancy and early childbearing are often the result rather than the cause of school failure. She attributes this failure to crowded classrooms, lack of attention to students, and the generally poor quality of public education, as well as the difficult circumstances of many girls in the inner city. ''These kids don't see education as a door that leads them anywhere,'' she says.

Getting youths back in school

Ms. Cook estimates that about half of all pregnant or parenting teens in New York City are not in school.

But ''with the right support systems in place, these kids can be brought back to school,'' says Ms. Gonzalez, the PREP school director.

The Program for Pregnant and Parenting Teens attempts to accomplish this by making it easier for young mothers to attend classes. Cook calls it ''a pragmatic approach'' that might be a model for school-based programs elsewhere.

The alternative schools, the program's core, were begun in 1967 by a teacher, Martha Neilson, who felt that something should be done about the large number of girls in New York who were then being thrown out of school because they were pregnant. In the late 1980s, then-Chancellor Richard Greene convened a task force and issued a subsequent recommendation calling for more programs to encourage pregnant and parenting teens to finish school. Most of the other support programs began at that time and joined the alternative high schools under a single umbrella.

Today, Ms. Torchia says, the alternative schools serve about 1,800 students, and about 700 babies receive school-based day care. An outreach program called Babygram targets between 2,500 and 3,000 new teen mothers a year while they are still in the hospital and tries to keep them in or return them to school.

Although today New York City schools are forbidden by law to discriminate against pregnant students, many staff and students say there is still a need for the alternative setting.

''Without this school, I wouldn't be here,'' says 18-year-old Shannon Gonzalez, ''I would be home watching TV or sleeping.'' Like many of the students here, Shannon says her old school was too crowded, too violent, and students ridiculed her because she was pregnant.

She is sitting in one of the well-worn, overheated classrooms at the School for Pregnant and Parenting Teens in the Bronx, the oldest of the five high schools. Above her is a small blue sign that reads, ''It's OK to make mistakes. That's the way we learn.''

On weekdays Shannon carts her two young sons -- one 10 months old, the other three years -- through the dilapidated South Bronx to bring them to the day-care site at school, while she goes to class.

Torchia says that teen-pregnancy rates are on the rise in some of the wealthier, northern Bronx communities, but parents are often reluctant to send their children to school in the southern part of the borough because of its notoriously high crime rate. She would like to open another school, but money is not available.

Lack of funds is a problem for the entire program. Torchia says most services are operating on minimal funding. For example, while there is a long waiting list for school-based day care, five completed day-care sites cannot open because there is no money to staff them.

Programs are expensive

Bob Terte, a spokesman for the Board of Education, says that with the recent cuts in the New York public-school budget, there is no more money available. ''These programs are expensive,'' he says. ''We realize they are also important, given the population, but when there is not enough money, everything gets cut.''

Lack of resources is also the principal reason the program has not conducted a comprehensive follow-up study to gauge the program's effectiveness. Torchia says. Similar programs in other schools around the country, however, have been evaluated. A study conducted for an Arizona program in 1993 found that pregnant and parenting teens who attended the comprehensive school-based program were significantly more likely to continue in school than were those who did not.

Program staff members often gauge their success another way: ''Sometimes I hear from old students who are really succeeding,'' says Emily Sevino, a staffer who has worked with pregnant and parenting teens for 10 years. ''Some are nurses now, some are teachers -- when I feel down, the most I need is one call.''

Cook, the city task force director, adds that any solution to teen pregnancy in New York will not be brought about by the Board of Education or any other single agency, but will come about only through a cooperative effort between agencies and communities. This observation is echoed by many staff members and by the program's unofficial motto, an African proverb: ''It takes an entire village to raise a child.''

As for the girls themselves, many of them say that only increased opportunities and a brighter perception of the future will stop young girls in the inner city from having babies too soon.

Latricia White, an 18-year-old mother who plans to attend college next year, says she is tired of the dirty, crowded streets of her neighborhood, and of idlers who smoke crack cocaine on the steps of her Harlem apartment house.

''There's nothing here,'' she says simply, gesturing to the city outside. ''I feel like a butterfly in a jar.''

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