Schools Must Ease the Impact of Teen-Age Pregnancy and Parenthood

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Pregnant teen-agers and pre-teens are students in our elementary and secondary schools--that is, until they drop out, as so many do. Forty-one percent of all female students who leave before completing high school do so because of pregnancy and/or marriage, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. These pregnant and parenting teen-agers often begin a cycle of poverty that, unless people and institutions intervene, continues from generation to generation.

Regardless of the preferences of schools in dealing, or often not dealing, with pregnant and parenting students, the problem is not going to go away--the Alan Guttmacher Institute reported in 1979 that 96 percent of teen-age mothers keep their babies. Moreover, in this country, there are more than a million teen-age women with 1.3 million children. Inevitably, schools will be involved, for better or worse, in the lives of these young women, their children, and often the children's fathers. Therefore, educators not only can be but must be instrumental in limiting the negative consequences of too-early parenthood.

Of course, educators and their institutions cannot, by themselves, solve all of the problems associated with teen-age pregnancy and parenthood or provide all of the health and social services that teen-age parents and their children need. But because they have ready access to teen-agers and because education is critical to long-term economic independence, schools are in a unique position to provide much-needed leadership.

Historically, school involvement in issues of teen-age pregnancy and parenting has been passive or punitive. Pregnant teen-agers have been relegated to separate classes and programs if, indeed, they were allowed to stay in school at all. This segregation grew out of a medical model of care, in which the pregnant student (the "patient") is removed from the regular classroom setting and placed in a special program until her baby is born. According to a 1981 study by Gail Zellman of the Rand Corporation, some school administrators regard visibly pregnant students as "morally inferior as well as intellectually and socially disadvantaged."

Considerations of intent aside, however, the medical model stops at exactly the point at which services are needed most--after childbirth, when the teen-ager is faced with new and demanding responsibilities.

The feminization of poverty has become one of the most important and difficult issues in the struggle for sex equity. Women of all ages and children constitute 80 percent of all citizens touched by poverty, according to the League of Women Voters. Teen-age pregnancy and parenting are important predictors of long-term poverty; families headed by young mothers are seven times more likely to be poor than other families, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute. And the younger the mother was when she had her first child, the lower her annual income. All of these factors add up to a bleak future for teen-age mothers.

Teen-age pregnancy and parenting are not the special problems of any single socioeconomic, geographic, or ethnic group. In fact, close to two-thirds (63 percent) of the more than 200,000 young women under age 18 who gave birth in 1979 were white, according to an Urban Institute study. At the same time, the problems of teen-age pregnancy and parenting disproportionately affect low-income, minority students. More than one in four black babies (compared with one in seven white babies) were born to teen-age mothers in 1979, according to the Children's Defense Fund. Researchers Kristin A. Moore and Martha R. Burt of the Urban Institute have speculated that "one reason for socioeconomic and racial differences in sexual activity and the probability of pregnancy is the differential opportunity structure faced by low-income and minority teen-agers."

It has become increasingly evident that high rates of teen-age pregnancy go hand-in-hand with low educational levels and low job and career expectations. Although the research in this area is limited, it appears that young women who are highly motivated to go on with their schooling and get jobs are likely to delay sex and pregnancy. Moreover, research by the Urban Institute and others shows that the incidence of pregnancy goes up as the level of education falls, and it goes down as educational levels and employment rates rise. It follows, then, that school actions that encourage low expectations among female students can, in fact, unintentionally encourage early pregnancy.

A teacher who did not allow a pregnant student to make up work missed because of a clinic appointment, a school rule that barred parenting students from school honors (such as the National Honor Society), or a policy of considering pregnancy- or child-related absences as unexcused all could nudge a pregnant or parenting student out of the classroom--and ultimately encourage both rapid repeat pregnancies and long-term economic dependence for young mothers.

The different socialization of girls and boys in our society often subtly encourages teen-age pregnancy and childbirth. Girls are generally taught to place more value on physical attractiveness, marriage, family, and homemaking than on careers and economic independence, even though almost all of them will be in the labor force for most of their lives. If the aspirations, opportunities, and employability of girls can be enhanced, then schools will be providing powerful incentives to prevent teen-age pregnancy and premature parenting. Sex-education courses alone are not sufficient.

High-quality education opens new options for all students. All of us in education need to work to eliminate barriers that channel girls out of the high-quality courses and vocational training that lead to high-paying jobs. We need to help girls get beyond societal stereotypes and make choices based on their abilities, not their sex. This may be the most effective way to prevent teen-age pregnancy in the first place.

Projects aimed at preventing teen-age pregnancy are beginning to incorporate these sex-equity issues. The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Population Options is setting up pilot life-planning projects designed to help girls and boys understand the effects of early parenthood on their educational and vocational options. The Girls' Club of America has published Choices, an excellent self-help workbook, to help teen-age girls set goals and anticipate the consequences of the choices they make. The book addresses the whole range of issues facing teen-agers--from sexual activity and pregnancy to career planning.

Adolescent pregnancy and parenting are often viewed as a single issue. However, young parents face unique problems, and policymakers are beginning to acknowledge that the most severe educational consequences for pregnant adolescents are those that develop with parenthood.

While family-life, child-care, and child-development courses are useful, young parents most need academic and/or vocational courses in order to become independent, educated, and productive adults. They also need services and accommodations such as flexible school schedules, day-care services, and career counseling in order to pursue their education without neglecting their children.

While many programs for pregnant teens have been school-based, almost none have been school-led. The 1981 Rand study found that there was an educational "leadership vacuum at the federal, state, and local levels" in this area, and that "schools neither seek nor want an active role in student pregnancy and parenthood." Fortunately, the ostrich-like approach of educators to these important and difficult issues is starting to change. Increasingly, schools are identifying ways that they, either alone or with health and social-services agencies, can address the concerns of pregnant and parenting teen-agers. A number of multi-state and state and local conferences over the past year have discussed issues such as improving access to educational and vocational training for pregnant and parenting youths and increasing interagency cooperation to provide better services. In response, for example, Maryland has formed an inter-departmental Committee on Teen-Age Pregnancy, Parenting, and Prevention, which is composed of representatives of the state Departments of Education, Health and Mental Hygiene, Human Resources, and Employment and Training.

We can expect to see more cooperative efforts by educators as they address their dual interest and responsibility--not only the young parents but also their children who will soon enter school. Because the children often come from low-income households, they enter elementary school with educational disadvantages. In addition, many children of teen-age mothers start life as low-birthweight babies, a condition that sets the stage for a variety of disabling conditions that may require schools to provide special educational services.

While pregnant and parenting students may have personal responsibilities different from those of other students, they have the same educational rights and perhaps even greater educational needs. The needs of more than two million young mothers and their children are pressing. The cycle of poverty that often accompanies teen-age pregnancy is severe and far reaching. The challenge to all of us in education is clear.

Vol. 04, Issue 08, Page 24, 18

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