New York’s Schools for Pregnant Girls Will Close

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By Julie Bosman for The New York Times
May 24, 2007

A dozen girls, some perched awkwardly with their pregnant bellies flush against the desks, were struggling over a high school geometry assignment on a recent afternoon.

No pencils, no textbooks, no Pythagorean theorem. Instead, they sewed quilts.

That is what passes for math in one of New York City’s four high schools for pregnant girls, this one in Harlem. “It ties into geometry,” said Patricia Martin, the principal. “They’re cutting shapes.”

Created in the 1960s, when pregnant girls were such pariahs that they were forced to leave school until their babies were born, the city school system’s four pregnancy schools — or P-schools, as they are obliquely referred to — have lived on, their population dwindling to just 323 students from 1,500 in the late 1960s.

They have been marked by abysmal test scores, poor attendance and inadequate facilities, and even some of their own administrators say they suspect that most of their students are pushed there by other schools because they are failing academically. In place of proms and computer labs, they have Mother’s Day parties and day care centers with cribs lining the walls.

Now in recognition of their failure, the city plans to shut them down at the end of the school year as part of a sweeping reorganization to be announced today of the alternative school district, which also includes an array of vocational, technical and dropout programs for students who have struggled in traditional settings.

“It’s a separate but unequal program,” acknowledges Cami Anderson, the superintendent whose district includes the Program for Pregnant Students, as it is formally called. “The girls get pushed out of their original high schools, they don’t come to class and they don’t gain ground in terms of credits.”

The schools’ demise, like their origins, may be a sign of changing times. Pregnancy schools across the country appear to be slowly fading away, partly stemming from the decade-long declining rate of teenage pregnancy and partly because of the idea that the girls should not be segregated from other students. These days, nearly 40 New York City high schools have their own day care centers.

The number of pregnancy schools in Chicago has dwindled to one. In Madison, Wis., enrollment in pregnancy schools has decreased by roughly 15 percent over the last five years, said Ken Syke, a spokesman for the public schools there. And in the Los Angeles public schools, the teaching staff at one pregnancy school has dropped to 16 from 19 in three years, and shut down one of its five sites.

“They have definitely trended down in population from five years ago,” said Ken Easum, the administrative coordinator of Educational Options, the alternative public schools program in Los Angeles.

In New York, the girls in the Program for Pregnant Students make up only a small portion of the 7,000 girls enrolled in the city’s public schools who become pregnant each year, according to city health department estimates.

The decision to close the schools came after a six-month study commissioned by the Education Department essentially concluded that the girls, eager to earn high school diplomas despite their pregnancies, had been relegated to a second-class tier of schools that treat them more like mothers-to-be than curious students.

For years, too, a range of groups had railed against the schools as vestiges of an almost Victorian past, arguing that they were sexist, stigmatizing and demeaning, and that the majority of the students who leave the one-year program were even further behind academically than before their pregnancies.

“It is a place that they send young women during their pregnancies, and I can’t think of any sound academic reason that they exist,” said Benita Miller, the executive director of the Brooklyn Young Mothers’ Collective, a nonprofit group that holds monthly workshops in the schools.

Before the schools were established in the 1960s, pregnant girls were put on “medical suspension” until after their babies were born, then banned from returning to their original high schools afterward. Hundreds of other girls were sent, often under threat of court order, to shelters, where the old Board of Education maintained special schools.

But many of the girls remained unaware of their educational rights. In 1970, the New York Civil Liberties Union published a handbook outlining the rights of New York City public school students. One of those rights, it said, was “to remain in your regular school program as long as physically possible” while pregnant.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 stated that schools were allowed to create separate educational programs for pregnant students, but that they must be of comparable quality to standard high schools.

Ms. Anderson, the superintendent who was installed 10 months ago, said that many students in the pregnancy schools had not been thriving in their regular high schools.

Some school administrators and students say that guidance counselors, eager to push out struggling students in an era in which poor performance can carry sanctions, routinely strong-arm newly pregnant girls to drop out and enroll in a pregnancy school.

Dannette Queen, the assistant principal at the pregnancy school in Harlem, said most students were referred by a guidance counselor. “The pregnancies provide the guidance counselors the perfect opportunity to get rid of them and say, ‘You need to be in a pregnant school,’ ” Ms. Queen said. “Some guidance counselors tell them they won’t have to go to class when they come here.”

Still, some girls currently enrolled in pregnancy schools rhapsodize about their desire to get a high school diploma, go to college and pursue careers. Kyasia Davis, a tall, bubbly 18-year-old who is enrolled in the pregnancy school in the Bronx, says she wants to attend community college after she graduates.

Sitting in a science classroom at the pregnancy school in Harlem, Cassandra Gonzalez, 15, who is expecting a boy in July, says she plans to go to college and become a lawyer. But the constant talk of babies at school, she adds, often distracts from studying.

“Sometimes, you have girls who come in with their babies,” she said. “Then it’s like, forget class!”

Some teachers and administrators who have worked in the schools for years believe in them and say they were designed with students’ safety and well-being in mind. In regular high schools, many girls feel ostracized by other students, they say, and struggle to keep up once they are distracted by the burdens of pregnancy.

“It’s a necessary thing for those students who can’t succeed in a regular high school setting,” said Eleanor McDonagh, the assistant principal at the pregnancy school in Brooklyn.

But teachers say many girls, disillusioned with the pregnancy schools, do not last long there either. In a class meant to teach child-rearing skills at the Bronx school, a room of only a half-dozen girls listlessly sewed pillows for their babies’ cribs. Barbara Haughton, the teacher, said the low attendance was unusual. “Many of them are on maternity leave,” she said. The students are allowed two months of leave after they give birth and cannot bring their babies to the school day care center until they are 2 months old.

Another teacher at the Brooklyn school, Linda Lloyd-Jones, said she had seen girls, juggling classes with impending motherhood, abandon high school out of frustration. “A lot of them leave right after the first semester because they can’t stand it,” Ms. Lloyd-Jones said.

The internal data provided to the Education Department by a private consultant showed what dismal results the pregnancy schools have yielded. In the fall of 2006, the average daily attendance at the pregnancy schools was 47 percent, well below the city average. Fewer than 50 percent of the pregnancy school students successfully made a transition back to high school. And the average student only earned four to five credits each year, fewer than half of the 11 credits possible.

It’s not for lack of spending: the Education Department spent $33,670 on each student this year, a cost of more than $10.8 million — more than double the citywide average of per-pupil spending. Ms. Anderson, the superintendent, said she hoped that starting next year, pregnant girls would remain in their regular high schools or switch to small specialized high schools designed for struggling students. “The most powerful thing we can do for parenting teens is help them get their diplomas,” she said. “Your brain does not die when you become pregnant.”

from The New York Times

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