Education of the Pregnant Teen
Via Katie Allison Granju, I learned that girls in the Denver public school system are advocating for maternity leave for teen mothers during which they would be expected to keep up with their classwork, and would not begin accruing the unexcused absences (which presumably can lead to suspensions and expulsion) they currently receive if they don’t return to school they day after they are discharged from the hospital following birth. Predictably, the girls are meeting resistance from those who worry that accommodations will encourage more teen pregnancies, or simply don’t understand birth or are prejudiced against these young mothers. One advocate for the change was told, “You can’t have maternity leave. If you have your baby on Wednesday, you better be back on Thursday.” This obviously allows the young mothers no time to bond with their newborns, physically recover, establish breastfeeding, or adjust to their new status as parents.
Katie responds with an excellent essay, “In Defense of the Pregnant Prom Queen,” in which she argues:
“The answers to these important issues are to not condemn and stigmatize mothers who are teens, but instead to work toward a society where every woman, young and old, has access to health education and health care, as well as the confidence and right to control her own body. And our schools must accommodate the fact that some students are parents, and offer the same flexibility that mothers who work have begun demanding of employers in recent years. Parenthood shouldn’t automatically signal an end to educational opportunities for young women.”
This seems to me to be a not insurmountable goal. In my public high school, girls who became pregnant were placed on homebound studies, with a tutor who brought them their coursework and helped them keep up academically. My state, Tennessee, has actually codified this practice, including in law the provision that “In order to reduce the dropout rate among such students, each LEA (local education agency) shall offer each pregnant student three (3) hours of homebound instruction per week throughout a six-week period of maternity leave.”
My school also provided (quel horror!) onsite childcare during school hours, while requiring the moms to essentially enroll in a childcare course for one of their classes, spending time learning how to care for their and other children (essentially putting some sweat equity into the services provided to them). For those who dismiss teen moms as being irresponsible, lazy, uneducated, bad parents, ad nauseum, this seems like a reasonable solution. You don’t want them on welfare? Help them continue their educations, and learn to be good parents in the process.
One commenter on the RMN story asked, “Do these girls realize that if they were enrolled in college and pregnant, they would not get maternity leave? Do they realize that at most non-professional (and professional) jobs they would not get paid maternity leave?” There a couple of potential problems with these questions as a “real world” objection to leave for high school students. The first is whether it’s appropriate and beneficial to society in general for it to be the case that college students would not get leave and workers cannot get paid maternity leave. I can certainly see a woman needing to take a semester off from college, given the intensive discussion-based or lab-based nature of many college classes, and the speed at which crucial information is provided. I don’t think, however, that that is truly the case in many public high school classrooms. Given my own public high school experience, I believe I could have easily kept up for a semester, even in my advanced classes, with an appropriate homebound service. Many people also advocate for paid maternity leave akin to what other nations provide, so the absence of such does not mean that it is not a goal worth working toward. Additionally, if these teens don’t complete high school – if they become discouraged about completing their educations, if they are ostracized instead of supported – they may never make it to the college or workplace situation about which the commenter worries.
Ultimately, we generally prefer teen girls not to become pregnant so they can go on to complete their educations and earn meaningful incomes, becoming independently functioning adults. And yet, we know that, every single year, many girls *will* become pregnant. The CDC recently reported that in 2002, teenagers 15-19 years old gave birth to 425,000 babies. They also reported 6,722 births to girls under 15 in 2005. It’s a fine goal to want to decrease teen pregnancy, but we also have to deal appropriately with those teens who become mothers, right now, and discouraging them from completing their educations is unlikely to be a good solution for the girls, their children, or society in general.