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Pregnant Teen-Agers: New View of Old Solution

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Until fairly recently, I thought the best way to deal with the increasing social problems of teenage pregnancy and teen-age mothers was to set up programs for these students within the framework of regular high schools. The Victorian era, when pregnant adolescents were shunted off to homes for unwed mothers, was, thankfully, past history.

My position was reinforced by an Education Research Group survey taken last year. It showed an overwhelming majority of school administrators--more than 80 percent--believed in mainstreaming pregnant teen-agers and teen-age parents. But most recently, in the course of examining the various ways public schools actually deal with the difficulties that pregnant teen-age students face, I am having second thoughts.

Case studies of several model programs have led me to believe that mainstreaming pregnant teen-agers and adolescent mothers is not necessarily the best or most sympathetic approach. In fact, the most comprehensive and effective programs that I studied were established separately from regular schools. I also discovered that mainstreaming was often less practical, more expensive, and more divisive within communities than had previously been thought.

Some school administrators have expressed their antipathy to providing special services for pregnant and parenting teen-agers by saying that they are educators, not providers of social services. But if you believe, as I do, that teen-agers who become pregnant are often acting out of a host of other problems, then they most certainly do need more special attention and services than regular schools can give.

Even in mainstream schools that have provided some special services, the physical aspects of being pregnant may compound any emotional problems these teen-agers already have--especially for those suffering from low esteem.

As Anne Rogers, project manager for the Teenage Alternative Pregnancy Program in Eatontown, N.J., observed, "When you're eight months pregnant, and you can't fit into your desk, and everyone laughs at you, it takes a tough little kid just to survive.''

Aside from the isolation and embarrassment that pregnant adolescents feel in a mainstream school, there are also numerous other problems that have to be confronted. At a basic level, it means addressing such issues as how to provide for the unique nutritional requirements of a pregnant or nursing teen-ager. More significantly, it means rethinking our approach to the educational needs of these children.

Programs like TAPP, which operate on a separate campus from the regular high schools, gear instruction to the individual needs and learning abilities of their students. TAPP mixes academic courses with instruction in prenatal and postnatal care, home economics, consumer education, money management, and employable skills. The program also offers individual and group counseling, and classes designed to prepare students for childbirth and parenting.

Such a comprehensive program is just not possible in most high schools. By bringing students from throughout the district to a central location, TAPP can concentrate financial and staff resources so they are more effective in coping with the specific needs of the pregnant adolescent.

With proper leadership, most communities understand that spending money on programs for pregnant and parenting teen-agers is ultimately cost-effective. They recognize that programs that teach teen-agers to be good parents and self-sufficient adults are good investments. It is better to establish programs that try to break the cycle of poverty and indifference during the teen-age years than to support both mother and child on welfare for an indefinite period. Currently, according to the National Research Council, a teen-ager who has her first child at age 15, will cost taxpayers $18,130 per year, over the following 20 years.

Special schools have also shown success in solving what has been referred to as the "conundrum'' of school failure, which both contributes to and results from teen-age pregnancy. Some 89 percent of the teen-agers in TAPP's program between 1981 and 1986 returned to regular high schools to complete their education. Another program outside the mainstream, the New Futures School, run by the Albuquerque, N.M., public-school system, boasts a 92 percent graduation rate for pregnant adolescents and teen-age mothers.

The specialized attention offered by separate schools also tends to reduce repeat pregnancies and low-weight babies. The N.F.S., for example, has a one-year repeat-pregnancy rate of 6 percent to 8 percent, compared with a national rate of 18 percent to 25 percent. It has also reduced the expected number of low-weight births by 50 percent. The school succeeds because it puts all the pieces of the pregnancy puzzle--from prenatal health care to job counseling to day care--under one roof.

Advocates of mainstreaming have effectively argued that the special attention and services separate schools give pregnant and parenting teen-agers are generally counteracted by the inferior education they provide. And it is true that separate schools are rarely able to provide more than basic instruction: Science laboratories or college-bound courses are beyond their financially tight budgets. But we must be realistic. For most pregnant and parenting teen-agers, a solid basic education and practical courses geared to their specific needs are the best they can hope for.

As a student in Minneapolis' Pregnant Adolescent Continuing Education program said, "I'm going to be out on my own from now on. I'm learning about checking accounts and where there is reduced-cost day care. That's important because I'll be a single parent.'' For her, PACE provided the practical education she needed to be a successful parent.

One unexpected advantage of considering separate schools for pregnant and parenting teen-agers is that such programs rarely run into the heated controversies school-based clinics do. In Fort Worth, Tex., for example, sex-education programs have have been bitterly opposed. But the New Lives program for pregnant and parenting teen-agers, which offers day care, medical care, and social services, in addition to conventional education courses, has had little public opposition. And in Minneapolis, one associate superintendent predicted in 1968 that a school for parenting teen-agers would be viewed by the community as "a Communist plot.'' But in the nearly 20 years since the school was founded, opposition has never materialized.

In addition to all these practical reasons for separate schools, some of the old arguments against mainstreaming still have value. Integrating pregnant teen-agers and teen-age mothers into regular schools has, in some cases, created an atmosphere of normalcy or indifference to the problem. Among adolescents who are extremely influenced by peer pressure, getting pregnant can be truly "contagious.'' During my research, I have found several teachers and administrators who believe the presence of pregnant teen-agers and young mothers has contributed to an increase in teen-age pregnancies in their schools.

While punishing pregnant adolescents for "yielding to temptation'' no longer seems appropriate, there is still something to be said for showing adolescents that some actions do have unforeseen consequences. If teen-agers get pregnant, it is reasonable to assume they will have to give up some of their social activities as they assume responsibility for themselves and their child. And it is no doubt easier to create this atmosphere of responsibility in a separate school than in a regular school where most of their friends are enjoying a full social life.

I'm not opposed to mainstreaming pregnant adolescents and teen-age parents per se. A few schools do indeed better serve the needs of these teen-agers. But mainstreaming has to be combined with courses offering much that special schools routinely provide. At a minimum, school-based programs must offer essential courses in prenatal care and child development if the cycle of children bearing children is to be broken.

A national policy advocating either school-based or separate school programs is probably not desirable. Local school districts are best able to determine which type would best suit their community needs. But school administrators should not jump wholeheartedly on the bandwagon of mainstreaming pregnant teen-agers and adolescent parents without seriously considering the option of separate schools. Refining an old Victorian idea--schools for unmarried mothers--may actually be more effective.

Vol. 6, Issue 28, Page 32

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