The teen-mom dropout dilemma and removing barriers to child care
If you want teen parents to graduate, the solution is very simple: Help them gain access to child care.
Imagine that you’re 17 years old. You’ve been out of school for over a year after the difficult birth of your first baby. You know that you need an education to build a better life for you and your child, but you can’t afford to pay for child care while you’re in school.
So what do you do? Many teen parents faced with this dilemma simply drop out of school, and some never return.
That’s why in 2013 the Project U-Turn collaborative commissioned Public Citizens for Children & Youth to investigate the barriers that teen parents face relating to child care and to offer recommendations for policy change that could impact the graduation rate among this population of students who are considered at high risk of dropping out.
One of PCCY’s findings, which were released in May 2014, is that the state offers subsidized child care for parents who attend school, but outdated processes and rules often mean that teens can’t go back to school with the assurance that their infant is in good care.
The trouble often starts right when the new mother fills out the child-care subsidy application. Many teens fill out their application on the day they return to school, but processing may take several weeks. That means that even if there is no waiting list, the new parent may miss weeks of school before she’s approved and can enroll her child in a child-care center. Unfortunately, each school day missed causes the teen to get further behind and more discouraged.
Even after the state subsidy for child care is in place, some teens have trouble keeping up with paperwork requirements, miss deadlines, and have subsidy benefits cut off suddenly midyear. The state’s six-month review policy puts many teens at risk of losing care.
Students who have access to the ELECT program, which provides an array of support services for parenting teens, report having an easier time with paperwork and the transition back to school. Unfortunately, not all schools offer ELECT, which is state-funded but operated through the District. Only 73 percent of District high schools, 56 percent of Multiple Pathways Programs, and 13 percent of charter high schools offer ELECT. And with city schools under-resourced and understaffed, many students don’t even have a counselor or trusted adult to turn to when problems with child care arise.
Meanwhile, some teens, despite being low-income and in school full-time, are not permitted to get a child-care subsidy at all. The state rules preclude certain teen mothers who are living at home with their parents or guardians to tap the subsidy if one of the adults in their home isn’t working. Some teen parents said this policy worked just fine. But PCCY found that many teens felt that their mother, father, or grandmother — who might be elderly, disabled, or simply unemployed — could not provide adequate care. This disconnect between policy and reality left some teens too concerned about the welfare of their newborn to return to school.
PCCY’s research revealed startling differences in school attendance between teen parents who leave their child in more informal relative or neighbor care settings and those who enroll their child in a child-care center. Teen mothers who receive subsidies can choose the type of care they pay for, but some choices are better than others when it comes to ensuring school attendance. Of the 35 students surveyed, those who left their child with a relative or a neighbor were three times more likely to miss school very or somewhat often than parents whose children attended a child-care center.
As a result of these findings, PCCY issued a series of recommendations to guide improvements to the child-care system for teen parents, and the state and School District are moving to implement some of them. The state significantly reduced its paperwork requirements and is in the process of replacing the six-month review with an annual review. Perhaps more important, the state policy that required some teen parents to rely on an available relative at home rather than get a subsidy has since been modified to allow exceptions for those in educational programs.
One of the biggest surprises of this research was that the District does not collect data on the parenting status of its students. In other words, schools may know which students are parents but don’t have a systematic way of recording that information, which makes it difficult to compare student outcomes or enact evidence-based policy change. The good news is that the District has now agreed to include parenthood in its reporting on attendance, retention, and graduation. We hope that in the future we can use that data to evaluate outcomes and explore the expansion of promising practices like the ELECT program.
In the long term, however, solving the child-care problem for teens and all working parents also means investing more in high-quality early education programs. That’s why PCCY will continue to advocate for increased funding for subsidies and to make high-quality pre-K available for every 3- and 4-year-old in Pennsylvania.
As a founding member of the Pre-K for PA Campaign, PCCY is organizing parents, teachers, and business leaders to speak directly to their elected officials about the impact of quality child care and pre-K, and about the ripple effects for our workforce and economy.