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Teen Mothers Get an Education

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

By Rachel ScheierSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 23, 1994

New York

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.

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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.

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.