Soon after getting pregnant, high school sophomore Alicia Mattocks worried that bullies might purposely slam her into a locker and that a teacher's rules wouldn't allow frequent bathroom runs.
But it was the thought of not having to go to school quite so early, when she felt her worst, that pushed her to transfer to the Marian Pritchett School, an alternative public school in Boise for pregnant and parenting students. That decision, she says, saved her from dropping out.
A senior now, she plasters her binders with photos of her son, Ryder. This June, she'll mark another milestone: On her head will be a tasseled square cap.
Pritchett school, however, faces a funding shortfall because state grants that fund it have dried up. Separate schools for pregnant teens have dwindled in recent years because of concern for educational equality, budget constraints, and changing social mores.
But with one-third of all girls who drop out citing motherhood as a reason for leaving, these specialty schools from a bygone era may yet hold some lessons about how to keep kids in school. "The support for these specialized programs is critical in that they provide models of possibility in what can be done in school systems," says Wendy Luttrell, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Such alternative schools have been declining since the early 1990s, she says, as the idea of "mainstreaming" pregnant girls gained hold. Which approach is better depends often on the services available to girls in a particular region. So when New York City closed its last four "P-Schools" for pregnant teens last year, Dr. Luttrell supported the move. The city had high levels of services, and research showed that the P-Schools gave the girls an inferior education. But she opposed a similar move in North Carolina years earlier because of the limited access to services there.
At Pritchett, the funding shortfall means that principal Deborah Hedden-Nicely may lose full-time social worker Rhonda Murray, who handles many of the girls' basic needs – day care, government aid, even relationship advice – so the faculty can focus on quadratic equations, Shakespeare, and standardized tests.
Alicia credits Ms. Murray with getting her food stamps and Medicaid when she had nearly given up. "She actually goes directly down there and hands [the forms] to them. I've had so many applications supposedly lost, or I didn't fill it out right or something. So she's basically there to be my supporter," says Alicia.
The school offers day care and a baby-supply store. Mothers can nurse their babies at the back of classrooms. The school's size – just 45 students – allows the girls to get a lot of attention. Classes start after 9 a.m., and extracurricular activities are focused on skills such as business, parenting, and family law.
Above all, the school drills the value of a diploma. Incoming students are snapped wearing a cap and gown. Their photos hang in the hallway as a visual goal.
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."
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."