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Special schools for pregnant girls?

An Idaho school scrambles for funding, saying it helps more teen moms graduate.

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In the past several years, the school has managed to get 80 to 92 percent of the girls to graduate, and roughly half of them go on to college or junior college. "I have big plans," says Alicia, who is heading to Boise State University in the fall to study culinary arts. "I am going to be head chef of some fancy restaurant."

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With just a few months before graduation, senior Cynthia Carrillo was ready to drop out. She lost her ride to school and felt the overwhelming need to start working to provide for her 2-year-old. She asked her business teacher to help her get a General Education Development certification instead.

The temptation to give up is one reason the principal makes new mothers return to school just 10 days after childbirth. Otherwise, she says, "they evaporate."

"We have the time to pay attention to things like this. If these things are not paid attention to, what we see is students falling through the net and not finishing," says Ms. Hedden-Nicely.

That's a concern shared by the New York Civil Liberties Union in the wake of the city's P-School closures. While the NYCLU agreed the schools could not continue offering substandard education, they didn't want them closed without alternatives. And that's exactly what happened, says NYCLU chief Donna Lieberman.

A spokesperson for the New York City schools says the girls received one-on-one counseling to help them choose a new school, including schools that grant diplomas, which the P-Schools did not. The 343 former P-School students make up only a fraction of the estimated 7,000 pregnant and parenting students in the system. That's only an estimate, however, since the district cannot collect data on these students for privacy reasons.

Lack of data is a nationwide problem. There have been no definitive studies on whether mainstreaming serves pregnant and parenting students better. "One of the biggest advantages of the alternative schools is they understand that the girls are pregnant and needed to have absences," says Pat Paluzzi, president of Healthy Teen Network, a Baltimore-based nonprofit group focused on teen pregnancy. That said, there may be a trade-off: "They might have better graduation rates, [but] I'm not sure their programs have as good academics."

Her group is working on a three-year study to determine if that's indeed the case. The National Women's Law Center, meanwhile, is pushing Congress to amend No Child Left Behind to permit more data collection on these students.

Under the Title IX law, schools must let pregnant and parenting students stay and must make the same accommodations given to students with temporary disabilities. In reality, says Luttrell, services key to these students are often the first to be cut from tight budgets.

As for Hedden-Nicely, she's hoping to form an alumni network to help with funding. More public support is in everyone's interest, she says. "What do we want? We want educated, successful, independent people and families out there who are contributing to communities," she says. "When these programs go away, there's going to be a lot of girls left in the dust."