Benita Miller

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Two weeks after school opened for the fall term, 17-year-old Adria Richard has a newborn and wonders about where she will finish the school year.

Last February, Richard transferred from Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn’s Coney Island to one of New York City’s four "P-schools" for pregnant and parenting young women.

After the daily contact with metal detectors in her former school, what struck Richard most about the new school were the quiet and the refuge from judging eyes, crowded hallways and lunchroom fights.

"It’s not very safe for anyone to be pregnant in the (general population) schools," Richard told Women’s eNews. "P-schools were quieter, smaller, and you could talk to anyone about your pregnancy. And when you’re pregnant, you shouldn’t be going through metal detectors."

But in May the city’s Department of Education sounded the recess bell for good on her school and three others like it, sending Richard and over 300 students–the vast majority young women of color–back into general population schools. They join an estimated 7,000 pregnant and parenting female students already attending regular schools.

As she waited out the final months of her pregnancy, Richard was unsure which school would open its doors to her. By the time her daughter was born Sept. 11, she was registered back at Abraham Lincoln and taking maternity leave but was still caught in an enrollment shuffle. "It’s stressful," Richard said, adding that she felt abandoned by her guidance counselor.

Richard is now confronted with staying at Abraham Lincoln–with a 90-minute commute and no on-site child care–or trying for a coveted spot at the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology, which has a higher graduation rate for students, and offers one of the system’s 40 on-site child care centers. But to go there she will have to abbreviate her maternity leave.

"I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get in," Richard said. "If not, I don’t have day care for my daughter."

Keeping Mothers in School

As the school year starts up Benita Miller, founder of the Brooklyn Childcare Collective, a group that tracked the transition of 20 students from the P-school closures, hopes that the same stresses Richard is under won’t make other young mothers drop out altogether.

"These students are very vulnerable," said Miller.

The Department of Education declined an interview, but provided a written statement: "The vast majority of former P-school students have successfully transitioned to new academic settings, but there are a handful of cases where students are seeking to change their placements. In a system as large as New York City there are always some enrollment issues at the outset of the school year, but our academic intervention specialists are personally shepherding former P-school students through this process and we expect any outstanding cases to be resolved quickly."

While Miller said that most of the students her organization tracked had been placed in other schools, the problem, as with Richard, was that many didn’t have good options. "A lot of them were just told to return to their old schools. That can’t be the best option because some of them didn’t want to go to that school in the first place."

Created in the 1960s, the P-schools offered specialized support to pregnant teens while allowing them to finish their educations. Students attend the P-schools for an average of 18 months.

But the P-schools had developed a bad academic reputation and their closures were hailed in some quarters as a positive step. The schools had long been criticized as a segregated dumping ground for female teens where fewer than 10 percent of students passed New York state standardized tests and attendance was below 50 percent.

Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein vowed to replace the schools with "options proven to help students to succeed in school and beyond."

Schools for Specialized Support

The Department of Education has recently created 200 new smaller schools to replace larger, failing schools. The new schools are geared toward "over-age and under credited" students, meaning they are academically behind, a category that includes 75 percent of P-school students.

Miller initially favored the P-school closings, thinking it meant the school system was finally getting serious about pregnant students’ education.

"In the beginning we were very hopeful that this would force the local schools to be accountable to all young women and not use the P-schools to push out and punish young women who they deemed a failure," Miller said.

But she and other advocates are now skeptical.

"The closing of the P-schools was supposed to bring in a system that better serves these young women," said Lee Che Leong, teen health initiative director for the New York Civil Liberties Union. "We really aren’t seeing evidence of this right now."

Pregnant Students Not a Priority

A 2003 report by the Office of the Comptroller found an estimated 20,000 mothers under the age of 21 had not graduated in the city.

The report criticized the Department of Education, finding that, in the mainstream schools, referrals to prenatal care and support for the return to school after the postpartum period was unreliable. The comptroller also said that the child-care centers are only available in 18 percent of the city’s high schools.

"The system isn’t designed to educate or support these young women," Miller said.

Although the numbers suggest the P-schools were unsuccessful, some students say they were still better for them than general population schools.

Sixteen-year-old Tatiana Nickle, who has a 9-month-old, said she may have dropped out if not for the P-school. She worries about girls in similar situations.

"I really believe that (some girls) wouldn’t go to school," Nickle said. "Who wants to go to school and endure people staring at you and talking about you? Who wants to be in a school with crowded hallways and people fighting? That’s not a place for people to be pregnant."

Miller said a host of changes can be made from the academic to the cultural level to support pregnant teens and to intervene in their lives before they become pregnant.

"Unless we give kids good information about sexuality and reproductive health, some of them might become pregnant and some of them might opt to become parents," Miller said. "And if that is what happens as a result of what we did or didn’t do, we need to be there to support them. In our culture, we need to allow young people, particularly young poor people and children of color, to dream big and not discount the notion that they can achieve. We need to provide them not only the dreams, but the avenues to achieve it, and that’s not happening."

Megan Tady is a national political reporter for In These Times, and a freelance journalist.

For more information:

Advocates for Children of New York:

New York Civil Liberties Union:

Brooklyn Childcare Collective:

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