FEATURE

Rock the Cradle

Teen parents find a nurturing environment at school.

Tracey, a 14-year-old freshman, is struggling to put a classmate's baby to sleep in the childcare center at Eureka High School in this old lumber mill town in northern California. (All names of students have been changed.) She is standing above a crib in the center's nursery, rocking the baby back and forth by the belly – a little faster, a little more roughly than an experienced mother might. A minute later, she picks up the baby and takes a seat in a rocker and rocks, a little fast, a little rough, a little nervously. In a shy voice, she explains, "I can never get her to sleep."

So why does this freshman spend one period every day in Eureka High's childcare center, changing diapers, reading books the toddlers thrust in her hands and rocking the baby, Diana?

"I'm six months pregnant," she says, revealing what her baggy clothes conceal.

All things considered, Tracey is also lucky. At most high schools, when a student becomes pregnant, she is corralled into a stand-alone alternative facility that lacks the range and rigor of courses comprehensive high schools offer. Or her grades fall from excessive absences due to morning sickness, doctor visits or childbirth.

But at Eureka High School and a small number of other schools nationwide, teachers, administrators and school boards have taken steps in recent years to try to keep teen mothers like Tracey in school and teach teen fathers, like 18-year-old Bryant, how to best care for their children. They have, for example, set up child care centers on school campuses; required pregnant and parenting teens to take child development classes; offered flexible attendance policies; and, in some cases, provided pre- and post-natal health care, housing assistance and legal aid.

None of the staff members or the teens interviewed for this story take the issue of teen pregnancy lightly. Indeed, all would discourage young people from having a baby too soon. Their goal is to redefine expectations for an enormously challenging situation that may have been brought on by accident, choice or abuse. The teen parents, in short, are trying to graduate, and the school personnel are trying to help them get their new lives off to the best possible start.

 

Fading In

In a cold basement room on a Tuesday morning, Tracey and six teenage moms gather on old tattered couches for Eureka's pregnancy and parenting support group. It is the first time they have come together after having a week's holiday, and a social worker intern invites each to report briefly on their week.

In a shy voice, Jennifer begins, "I got to sleep in."

Karen, the mother of an 18-month-old, is sitting with a big teddy bear between her legs and shoots Jennifer a look that echoes her words: "Enjoy it while you can."

Anna jumps on her chance to talk and announces, "My baby has another tooth."

"Three teeth?" says Theresa, the mother of two, who apparently has lost count since Anna has repeatedly reported on her son's latest tooth during the past few days.

"No, two," Anna clarifies. "And he gets his shots today. He's going to scream, and I'm probably going to cry."

"I have to leave when my baby cries like that," says Theresa.

"I wanted to do that," says Karen. "But my grandmother talked me out of it. She said, Then she'll think you're abandoning her.'"

And so the conversation continues, with seven young women talking about babies until it is time to move on to the next class, where they will not talk at all about being parents. Friends, they say, don't understand or share their concerns. In fact, few classmates or teachers seem to know that they are parents.

"Pretty much, teen parents fade in," says Karen. "We look like every other teenager, just a little more tired."

If these young women are relatively invisible at school, the men who fathered the babies tend to be even more so. Two-thirds of the fathers of babies born to teen mothers are 18 or older, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute. And this presents two thorny obstacles to schools that might want to reach out to them: First, these men are rarely still in school; and, second, they could technically be charged with statutory rape, according to many state laws that prohibit sex between an adult and a minor.

At Eureka, Pam Cahill, founder of the teen pregnancy and parenting program, focuses on the one-third of the fathers who are still in school. She corners them, confidentially, and encourages them to join her program. But peer pressure still discourages most young men from doing so, says 18-year-old Bryant.

"A lot of guys think it is the girl's job to take care of the baby," he says. Then he adds that after living with his girlfriend, Karen, and their daughter, he knows better: "Parenting is more than a one-person job."

 

A Campaign Is Born

Pam Cahill seems an unlikely advocate for teens like Karen and Bryant. A devout Catholic, she has spent the past 30 years at Eureka High teaching home economics, a field not known for its rabble-rousing about gender equality. She also grew up thinking the worst about pregnant and parenting teens. "I thought girls who got pregnant were bad girls," she recalls.

But by the late 1980s, she became disturbed at the number of students she saw pushed out of the comprehensive school into the alternative school, where they subsequently dropped out altogether.

"They were told, 'Honey, you don't want to be here,'" she recalls. "'You're going to get too fat for the desk. People will laugh at you and call you names.'"

Then the parents of two pregnant girls publicly voiced their complaints about the system's reluctance to keep them in the comprehensive school, and Cahill seized the moment. She started a campaign to establish an in-school teen-parenting program that would include a campus childcare center, a weekly support group, a flexible attendance policy, parenting classes, transportation, free and reduced lunches, a nurse, and an advocate to help the teens complete their schooling.

But if she was moved by what she thought was fair, she advanced her cause by the most practical of arguments: "I looked at the statistics: How many babies were being born to teen parents in the hospital? How many were we graduating? And how much money was the district losing in Average Daily Attendance (ADA) reimbursement on the students who were dropping out?" The bottom line? The district appeared to be losing 60 pregnant or parenting girls – and $210,000 in ADA – every year.

"The fear is that this approach is going to encourage the proliferation of adolescent pregnancy and parenting," says Dr. Lois Sadler, an administrator at Yale's School of Nursing and board member of the Elizabeth Celotto Child Care Center in the Wilburg Cross High School in New Haven, Conn. "Anecdotal evidence suggests it has quite the opposite effect, although confidentiality constraints make it difficult to measure pregnancy rates."

In a recent study of 52 teen parents in the New Haven program, Sadler and her colleagues found evidence refuting a number of myths:

  • 100 percent of the students progressed to the next grade or graduated (compared to the average rate of 50 to 59 percent suggested by other studies);
  • 90 percent were up-to-date on immunizations (compared to a national average of 70 to 75 percent);
  • None had repeat pregnancies in the first three years (compared to 20 to 40 percent of other teen parents); and
  • The students' grades improved from an average grade point average of 1.74 prior to enrollment in the program to 2.3 after enrollment.

 

It Works Both Ways

The Boulder Valley Schools Teen Parenting Program was founded in Boulder Valley, Colo., in the early 1980s to stem the dropout rate among pregnant and parenting teens. It was initially housed as a separate, isolated program in a former elementary school building. But as the program grew, the district was unable to find enough teachers to handle the required course load. So the district moved the program to Fairview High School, a school of approximately 2,000 students in South Boulder.

Boulder Valley now buses all the pregnant and parenting teens in the district to Fairview High, which offers pregnant and parenting teens free child care, counseling, transportation on school buses equipped with car seats, and access to a part-time nurse. The school offers classes in prenatal and postnatal care, labor and delivery, health and wellness in children, and life skills for self-sufficiency. Participating students are required to take one parenting class a day and spend one period working in the nursery.

There have been some objections from parents of non-parenting teens over the years, says Margaret Sieger, assistant to the program director. "They've had the attitude that '[t]hese girls aren't as good as my kids, and my kids shouldn't be exposed to them.' But we haven't heard much of that lately."

Still, the Boulder Valley program, which is housed in the school basement, keeps a relatively low profile to avoid controversy. But unlike Eureka, which prohibits teen parents from carrying their children through the school, Boulder Valley requires that students pick up their children and bring them to the cafeteria at lunchtime -- something that, Sieger says, works both ways: It allows the young parents to be with their children and gives other teens a taste of what it takes to be responsible for a child.

 

Looking Forward

After Pam Cahill's committee returned to the Eureka School Board with their proposal for a pregnant and parenting teen program and won approval to try it for two years, Cahill faced her next big challenge: selling it to guidance counselors, teachers and the teens themselves. Everyone's participation would be required to get students into the programs and keep them there. But the students' acceptance proved most elusive.

"The first couple of years were slow," says Lori Gladding, supervisor of children in Eureka's child care center. "We tried to get the kids who already dropped out back into school, and it was hard if they were already used to hanging out at the mall. They'd come for a couple of months and then drop out again."

Since then, Cahill and Gladding switched tactics. They now forge relationships with teens as soon as they find out they are pregnant. The idea is to establish a mentoring relationship that the students will want to return to after they deliver their babies. Now about 50 percent of the teens they work with graduate, compared to only 20 percent of teen parents statewide, according to the program's first five-year study.

In the center, which is housed in one of several portable classrooms on campus, Gladding's approach is a low-key one that blends gentle caretaker, easygoing role model and surrogate mother. She plays with the children, nurtures them and lies down with them at nap time. She coaches the teens in how to respond to a frustrated baby. And she counsels them on everything from keeping up with schoolwork to making a doctor's appointment to learning how to shop for diapers and stick to a budget.

When seniors Bryant and Karen came to Eureka's pregnant and parenting teen program, they were just 15 years old. Neither had planned on having their baby, Kimberly, so young.

"It just happened," says Bryant, in an often-heard refrain. Neither had been a particularly good student, either. But "Lori [Gladding] kept reminding me to go to class, go to the dentist, go get glasses," says Bryant. "And she taught us what to do about teething and temperatures and what foods are good. If Lori never told us that, Kimberly would be eating jelly beans and soda."

Now Karen and Bryant, who work part-time jobs to help support their family, are at school every day and look forward to graduating on time. "If this center wasn't here," says Bryant, "I'd be at work full-time and Karen would be at home. We'd never have been able to graduate."

For Lori Gladding, the nurturing atmosphere at Eureka High is more than an indulgence or a concession to reality. It's a force for change.

"The pregnancy is often the end result of a lot of other things," she says. "Many of these teens have not had positive role models. How can we expect them to nurture others unless we try to break the cycle and help them?"

Lisa Bennett is deputy director for the Human Rights Campaign's new Web site, www.hrc.org/FamilyNet.

"It just happened," says Bryant, in an often-heard refrain. Neither had been a particularly good student, either. But "Lori [Gladding] kept reminding me to go to class, go to the dentist, go get glasses," says Bryant. "And she taught us what to do about teething and temperatures and what foods are good. If Lori never told us that, Kimberly would be eating jelly beans and soda."

Now Karen and Bryant, who work part-time jobs to help support their family, are at school every day and look forward to graduating on time. "If this center wasn't here," says Bryant, "I'd be at work full-time and Karen would be at home. We'd never have been able to graduate."

For Lori Gladding, the nurturing atmosphere at Eureka High is more than an indulgence or a concession to reality. It's a force for change.

"The pregnancy is often the end result of a lot of other things," she says. "Many of these teens have not had positive role models. How can we expect them to nurture others unless we try to break the cycle and help them?"