Pregnant Pause

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Jasmin Lopez is a popular, feisty redhead, half-Cuban, half Puerto Rican. She likes her jeans extra snug, wears her hair up in a tight rabbit-tail bun and doesn’t care if she is late to class. At her old high school, Park West in Manhattan, she would go to classes one day, cut he next. Her sophomore year, she failed most of her classes. She also became pregnant. By the time she realized what was happening, it was summer vacation. School was closed. Her boyfriend was history. And Jasmin was 16 years old.

With the advice of her foster mother, who is also a social worker, Jasmin opted for a change. She learned about a special school for pregnant girls, and two years ago this September–seven months pregnant–she began commuting to P911 in East Harlem, one of five New York City pubic schools under the Alternative Program for Pregnant and Parenting Teens.

Also known as a “P-school,” P911 is indeed a different place. Girls between the ages of 14 and 21 carry diaper bags to class and talk about their “baby-daddy-mamas” (the baby’s father’s mother). At breakfast, which is free, Jasmin asks a very round-stomached girl, “Are you dilated yet?” The schools boasts small classes and its counselors and social worker can be watchful to the point of nagging, giving impromptu hallway or cafeteria pep talks on the importance of nutrition, exercise, patience and attendance. At P911, Jasmin says she has found camaraderie and attention and is happy that she wasn’t the “only one pregnant.”

But Jasmin’s progress toward a high school diploma has been minimal. Jasmin, now 18, still has at least eight classes to go before she can graduate. She failed the math Regents test this year and has failed the English Regents exams three times. And Jasmin is not alone. Only 24 percent of ninth graders at P911 passed the English Regents exams last January. Less than 5 percent passed the math tests. And an English teacher there estimates most students are reading at a third- or fourth-grade level.

Today, 36 years into the only high school program that the Board of Education offers to address the needs of pregnant and parenting teens, school officials are wondering if something has gone terribly wrong. “I would say that we have concerns at this point about the level of success that’s being achieved,” says Alan Werner, a deputy superintendent of Alternative Schools, whose office oversees the P-schools.

Classrooms either lie empty or echo with the voices of a half-dozen students, who often spend class time filling out worksheets or writing in journals. Jasmin’s eighth period math class played Scrabble for a week straight because the teacher was on jury duty and the school had not hired a substitute.

After a recent assessment of the P-schools, the Board of Ed plans to restructure the program. At least one of the five schools, Teen Aid High School in Brooklyn Heights, will not reopen this fall. The remaining four schools will change who and what they teach. According to Joan Davis, the manager for the Board of Ed’s high school day care programs, the schools will share more classes with neighboring high schools and will allow non-pregnant junior high school girls as young as 12 to start attending the program. The schools’ curriculum will also be revamped to better reflect the statewide Regents tests, which are now required for graduation.

The superintendent’s office would not discuss details of the changes or the reasons behind them. What is clear, though, is that school officials are acknowledging that the experiment of giving pregnant students a place of their own has faltered. At the same time, no one is yet sure of a better way to ensure these girls’ success.

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The P-schools were born at a time when teen pregnancy had reached epidemic levels. Board of d officials and a group of concerned teachers created the Alternative Program for Pregnant and Parenting Teenagers in 1966, when one out of every 10 teenage girls in New York City was pregnant. Designed to provide safe havens for high school students dealing with the stresses of parenthood, the program took pregnant students out of a coed environment and away from heavier workloads and gave them a temporary place–for no more than two school years–to start raising their babies. Assigned small classes, teachers were expected to offer students advice on everything from standard high school curriculum to how to breastfeed, read to their babies and cope with the demands of motherhood at a young age.

The schools never fully realized that potential, however. Attendance has always been low. On a good day, about 40 percent of the students at P911 show up, many kept away by doctors’ appointments, others by day care troubles. (P911’s day care center has only 40 slots, despite enrollment of more than 100 students.) Attempts to cater to all the students’ needs slowly fell victim to mismanagement and neglect. The budget for bilingual and remedial classes was slashed. After-school programs on art and African dance were cut last year. But teachers say the kids’ needs for extra help, particularly in literacy, are stronger than ever. “P-schools are not meeting these new demands,” says one Bronx P-school teacher who has been with the program for more than 20 years and spoke on condition of anonymity.

But at one time they did handle students’ needs more effectively, say other educators who have long been involved with the program. “They did a better job with the kids in the early days because they understood the focus better,” says the principal of a Bronx high school who, in 982, was part of the Citywide Taskforce on Pregnant and Parenting Teens that ushered day care into city high schools. (Fearing repercussions from the Board of Ed, she requested that her name not be used.) More serious literacy problems, she adds, have surfaced in recent years.

While that task force has historically focused more on its broader mission of reducing adolescent pregnancies, the group of 100 social welfare agencies, educators, policymakers and advocates has begun brainstorming for solutions to he P-schools’ problems. Earlier this year, about 20 members of the group met to identify services pregnant teens need most at the P-schools, honing in on literacy intervention and emotional support. “We’re concerned with the lack of services these kids are provided with,” says Marilyn Mosley, the task force’s director. Since 1987, Board of Ed regulations have required mainstream high schools to designate a staff liaison for every pregnant girl. This has never happened, Mosley says: “There’s nothing in place by the Board of Education that picks up the pieces after a child leaves school because they are pregnant.” Her group plans to present recommendations to the Bloomberg administration this fall.

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The New York Civil Liberties Union is glad to see more people stepping into the debate. For the last decade, the civil rights group has vocally opposed the existence of P-schools, fighting to keep pregnant teens in their regular high schools, one case at a time. “We want equality in their education and their Regents testing and getting their high school diploma,” says Rebekah Diller, director of the NYCLU’s Reproductive Rights Project. “Our problem with the P-schools,” she says, is that “they’ve become a dumping ground and an excuse for shunting aside academics.”

In a 2000 survey of 28 high school admissions offices, the NYCLU found a pervasive lack of understanding of state and federal equal educational opportunities laws. By law, any alternative program is voluntary–a pregnant student has the right to stay in the school of her choice. “Too many times, P-schools are offered as the only choice once a girl becomes pregnant,” says Diller.

And with the rise of high stakes testing and more rigorous high school graduation requirements in New York City over the last few years, Diller says the situation has worsened as some principals try to rid their schools of students who might bring down their schools’ overall performance. Danyel Thomas, for one, was by no means at the top of her class at her old high school in northern Manhattan, but she says she was making decent grades. When she became pregnant as a junior, Danyel says her guidance counselors told her the school didn’t have the proper insurance t keep her. They suggested Danyel look into P911 instead. “I didn’t have to go to P911,” says Danyel almost 18 months later. “I could have stayed in my school and I would’ve been out already and I would have probably been in college by now.” Danyel finally got her high school diploma this January, at age 19, while still at P911. She started attending a Manhattan business-training program a few weeks later.

“In the name of accountability and high-stakes testing,” says the principal and former task force member, “we have made it very difficult for these kids to finish high school.”

And many of the students haven’t made it through school. They have left the P-schools, or been asked to leave. Last year, there were 802 students in the program–346 fewer than two years ago. This is partly due to declining rates in teen pregnancy. But many students dropped out or transferred to GED programs for a faster track to graduation. Of the 243 students on P911’s roster two years ago, 33 left for high school equivalency programs. Three attended evening school to earn graduation credits, and 28 students transferred back to a mainstream high school. Citywide, nearly 400 P-school students either dropped out or were kicked out for missing more than two weeks of classes.

The introduction of child care in high schools, though significant, has not been enough. As of last December, 44 of the city’s 213 high schools had day care centers to handle a total of 680 babies. According to the New York State Department of Health, there are about 11,000 teen mothers in the five boroughs.

With the Board of Ed now directly under the jurisdiction of Mayor Bloomberg since July, the NYCLU met with representatives from City Hall. “They were concerned and we’re hopeful they will take proactive steps” says Diller. “Our whole approach is that you have to do things in the regular and P-schools at the same time.”

While eager to place Jasmin in a smaller school where she would get more attention, Alita and Ray Camacho, Jasmin’s foster parents, say the school was not all they had hoped it would be. “I don’t see her in the books,” says Ray. “The book bag stays in the car.” Jasmin plans to leave P911 in September and finish her senior year at West Side High School in Manhattan.

Despite promises of equipping girls with job skills, vocational training is limited at the P-schools. Jasmin’s job training consisted of one class period in the school’s main office faxing, filing, answering phones, sorting the mail and running errands. Until last year, the school brought in professional women working in business, social work and education for a Saturday mentoring program, but a lack of interest and money shut it down.

Board of Ed Administrator Joan Davis argues that flawed as they are, the P-schools remain necessary “For those kids who have already dropped out, those with psychological, emotional problems,” she says, “they need this as a transition.” According to the Child Trends, a research group, 50 percent of girls become pregnant within a few years of dropping out of school. If nothing else, says Davis, the schools can try to catch those who might otherwise have more babies while they’re still teenagers. But Davis also hints at disillusionment. “The five schools are enough,” she says. “There’s no more need for segregated high schools for pregnant girls.” Instead, the need, said Davis, is for more accessible day care in mainstream high schools.

Althea Gibson Treadwell is fighting to keep the P-schools alive and is optimistic she can turn them around. The principal of all five P-schools since last September, Treadwell says the push to be more in line with the state education standards “has made us more accountable for the content of our classes. It has also given us the opportunity to make sure our girls are complying, so when they go back to their regular school, time here isn’t wasted time.” The former assistant principal for special education at Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx, Treadwell hopes to bring back home schooling and vocational programs to the P-schools.

But not everyone shares her rosy view. Instead, they fear a future in which, without an investment of public resources, there will be no alternatives. “I don’t think the P-schools are the answer,” says the Bronx principal who served on the taskforce. “The danger is, if you don’t have the P-schools, you have nothing.”

Charu Gupta is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.