September 21 — 11:00 pm, 2005

Pregnant and parenting youth: do we know how they fare in school?

Want to know how Philadelphia’s pregnant and parenting teens fare in the Philadelphia school system? Unfortunately, nobody is systematically counting or tracking what happens to these thousands of young people and whether they manage to finish school.

Philadelphia counts 3,500 babies born to teenagers every year. An estimated 10,000 to 12,000 teen mothers currently are found in the city. While the School District partners with Communities In Schools of Philadelphia, Inc. which operates an effective program for pregnant and parenting teens, called ELECT/Cradle to Classroom, it serves only about one-tenth of that number.

The challenges faced by these pregnant and parenting teens in finishing school are complex. (This story is based in part on anonymous interviews with teen parents.)

As a pregnant, 18-year-old mother of one explained: “I was 15 and in the ninth grade when I got pregnant for the first time. I left Bartram High because another student assaulted me on school grounds while I was pregnant, and I didn’t feel safe anymore. I stayed out of school for a year and the whole time I was depressed. I messed up my education by dropping out of school.”

Undercounting the population

While District reports show that some of the teens who drop out are pregnant or parenting, that number is very small compared to the number of teen parents in the city. Providing adequate services for these teens is difficult when there are incomplete data on whether or not pregnant or parenting teens are in school. Schools don’t know who these teens are and cannot reach out to them to provide the supports they need to complete school.

School completion matters because studies show that without a high school diploma, young parents have a difficult time finding employment that will sustain their families. Without a diploma, teen parents are far more likely than their graduating peers to go on welfare or to live in poverty.

Based on national data, anywhere from 40 percent to 80 percent of pregnant and parenting teens fail to obtain a high school diploma. The percentage span is so broad because so little tracking is done nationally around the educational attainment of young parents.

But teen parents are not invisible in the city’s health and welfare systems. More than 90 percent of pregnant teenagers in Philadelphia do obtain prenatal care, from a health care system focused on helping young women have healthy pregnancies and positive birth outcomes. The state provides cash assistance for the child, and the child care system often subsidizes a large portion of child care costs.

Yet none of these systems count the young parents who complete school, encourage them to stay in school, or help with school support.

Many of the staff in the health, education, and welfare systems are familiar with the challenges that may lead a young parent to drop out of school. However, these systems generally don’t talk to one another – partly due to confidentiality laws and policies that restrict the type of information that can be shared and partly due to policies and practices that hinder collaboration.

ELECT, a state-funded program for pregnant and parenting students aimed at preventing dropouts, has been administered for the last 12 years by Communities In Schools of Philadelphia, Inc., which partners with the School District ELECT provides case management, parenting and child development education, and home visiting services to pregnant and parenting teens.

The program has served between 1,000 and 1,500 students each year and currently operates at 25 high schools – including all of the School District’s neighborhood high schools. The ELECT program leadership reported a 70-75 percent average daily attendance rate among participants and a 98 percent graduation rate in the 2004-05 school year.

An 18-year-old Philadelphia mother of two from West Philadelphia explained what brought her to the ELECT program: “I dropped out after the birth of my first child three years ago when I was 15, and I finally did come back for my child. What kind of life was I going to have without a diploma? Was I going to flip burgers all my life?”

But state funding has stayed flat for Philadelphia’s ELECT program for the last four years, and so ELECT reaches only a small minority of those potentially in need.

Issues for policymakers

Local advocacy organizations such as the Maternity Care Coalition and Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth are working to try to identify pregnant and parenting youth and make it easier for them to stay in school or get back into school if they’ve dropped out. They have identified a number of other issues that state and local policymakers and service providers can address:

  • The child care system helps with child care but does not capitalize on opportunities to help teen parents with school support.
  • The state provides cash assistance for children but does not keep track of teen parents’ school situation and encourage them to go to school.
  • Because schools don’t offer alternative options to keep up or to make up credits quickly, new parents sometimes have to repeat a whole year because they take three months to be with their new baby.
  • Schools require parents to re-enroll a high school student under 18 who dropped out, making it more difficult for students to re-enroll than to drop out in the first place.

Michelle Hinton of the Family Planning Council added, “Schools and community organizations need to do better in providing counseling and supports to prevent teen pregnancy and then make sure we can assist them in staying in or returning to school.”

Advocates say better data would move things forward.

“What gets counted gets attention,” said Bette Begleiter of the Maternity Care Coalition. “We need to know exactly who these young pregnant and parenting youth are – both the teenage mothers and the fathers – so that we can better understand their needs and what helps or hinders them in staying in school.

“By keeping them invisible, they, their children, and the rest of us lose out,” she said.

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