This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
A new report from the Education Law Center says the School District of Philadelphia and many charters need to alter their policies and practices for pregnant and parenting teens in order to help them persist and succeed in school.
While teen pregnancy rates have declined nationally, Philadelphia’s rate has remained stubbornly high. At 35.2 per 1,000 teens, it is higher than the national rate of 22.3 per 1,000 and nearly twice the Pennsylvania rate of 17.7 per 1,000 15- through 19-year-olds, the report said. It is highest among African American and Latinx teens; higher pregnancy rates are strongly correlated with higher poverty rates.
The report, called “Clearing the Path: Creating School Success for Pregnant and Parenting Students and Their Children,” is based on a survey of students and stakeholders, interviews, and focus groups conducted over the last two years. Young women who were pregnant while in school said they were not accommodated and were often stigmatized, the report found, with consequences that perpetuate multi-generational poverty and squander human potential.
The young women reported that they received inadequate supports from schools while pregnant and that they lacked any connection with school for four to six weeks after giving birth; 88 percent reported that they received no homebound instruction or other academic support during that time. As a result, when they returned to school, they lagged far behind their peers.
ELECT, which stands for Education Leading to Employment and Career Training, is the District’s major program for pregnant and parenting teens, offering case management and supportive services, but not academic support.
Although the ELECT staff members are dedicated, the report found, the adequacy of support varies among schools. “The District lacks a formal reintegration process, consistent levels of support from ELECT programs, and strategic collaboration among teachers, guidance counselors, and ELECT staff to ensure that parenting students returning to school understand their rights, are supported to be successful, access the full range of educational opportunities, and make informed decisions regarding school placement and course selection,” the report said.
Many of these students feel they have “no choice” but to attend alternative or accelerated high school programs, which “often lacked sufficient academic supports to meet their educational needs,” the report said.
“Some students describe these alternative programs as places where ‘they watched a movie every day,’ failed to receive adequate instruction, and felt disengaged from school,” it said. “They also report that the programs were strict about attendance and lateness and students were often dropped from the rolls if late more than twice. Many students also report delays in accessing these programs due to strict rules governing registration and orientation dates and report that they felt they lacked sufficient support to be successful in school.”
In response to the report, District spokeswoman Megan Lello issued a statement saying that the District takes “very seriously” the responsibility to educate pregnant and parenting teens and points out that in spring 2018, the School Reform Commission revised its policy on education for pregnant and parenting students (Policy 234) to beef up supports and outline their rights.
“The policy includes many of the recommendations offered by the study, and in some cases, goes further in providing more support than many other states or districts cited,” the statement said, adding: “While the policy is extensive and we are working diligently to educate and inform District employees and our stakeholders, we know that systematic change will take more time.”
ELC legal director Maura McInerney noted that the issue is about students’ rights: Federal law guarantees pregnant and parenting students equal access to “the full range of educational activities.” The report makes several recommendations “that we believe would significantly improve educational outcomes for pregnant and parenting students,” she said.
The most important is that before going out on maternity leave, “students have a plan in place to ensure they will continue to be engaged in learning … and stay on track to earn credits that enable them to graduate,” she said. This could be through homebound instruction and online courses.
Other recommendations are for making accommodations for these students once they return to school, including “freezing” grades (i.e., not grading down a student for not finishing the semester’s work) and giving them extra time to finish all their assignments. It also calls for help with accessing child care and onsite breastfeeding facilities.
The report acknowledged the 2018 revision of Policy 234 as a “significant step forward” that outlines several required accommodations, including hall passes for bathrooms, rooms for breastfeeding, and access to missed assignments and tests.
It added, however, that the policy still doesn’t guarantee or support all the academic supports that are needed. The policy and its procedures “fail to identify or seek to ensure effective academic support for students who miss school due to pregnancy and childbirth.” Pregnant and parenting students are still not eligible for homebound instruction “unless medical documentation establishes that the student has an acute condition requiring the student to be out of school for over four weeks. The amount of such instruction is not specified.”
McInerney said that the Board of Education, which took control of the District in July 2018, should review the policy again. “The policy does not go far enough and needs further review and revision in light of our recommendations,” she said in an email. “Pregnant and parenting students need a clearly identified right to specific academic supports and services while they are on leave from school or they will continue to fall behind with no hope of catching up.”
Under questioning by City Council member Helen Gym regarding the policy during Council hearings in May, Superintendent William Hite indicated that the policy “could be reviewed again” by the Board of Education’s policy committee.
In its statement, the District indicated that the ELECT program was under new leadership and “is working to expand its reach from the 90 educational programming locations it already serves. We have launched an aggressive policy awareness and education campaign with students, community stakeholders, and District employees so that all involved understand the services provided. We are also continuing to provide graduation and transition planning for students through college and employment preparedness. In an effort to maintain a student’s connection to learning while on maternity leave, our case managers serve as liaisons with teachers, and facilitate the use of innovative tools like Google Classroom so students can keep up with classwork.”
The statement also noted that the program involves both mothers and fathers and includes initiatives such as a safe sleep program, car seat loans, workshops on breastfeeding and perinatal mental health, and donations of diapers, wipes, and formula.
The ELC report includes anecdotes of specific student experiences, including good ones. Two students from a charter school reported that those on leave after childbirth “communicate directly with a teacher on a daily basis,” which, they said, “made them feel connected to school and more likely to return. These students also received homebound instruction while on leave, which supported them to stay on track to graduate.”
McInerney identified the school as Mastery-Gratz. “One of the students went out on leave for medical reasons during her pregnancy in 11th grade but was able to return to begin 12th grade the following fall,” McInerney said in an email. “Both students had their grades frozen while on leave and received academic accommodations upon returning to school such as extra time to take tests and make up work. They also received non-academic accommodations such as cell phone access for emergency calls, passes to use the bathroom, and access to a private room. Both students graduated from 12th grade on time.”
The report also urges the District to rely less on alternative and accelerated placements for pregnant and parenting students and revise absenteeism and truancy policies. Students often have trouble getting necessary paperwork to avoid unexcused absences when they are parenting and a child is sick, for instance.
Gym said in a statement that she planned to work on this issue.
“Philadelphia’s pregnant and parenting teens deserve supports that match their unlimited potential and the potential of their young children,” she said. “I urge the District to expand services for youth to honor their rights. I’ll be working to ensure that we guarantee youth consistent educational instruction, a clear pathway for returning to school, and concrete help navigating health and childcare.”
The ELC report concludes: “We must stop seeing these vibrant and insightful youth as academic failures. … By clearing the path for parenting teens to receive a quality public education and access the full range of educational opportunities that they need to be successful, our schools will not only break a cycle of poverty, but ensure that two generations of learners flourish.”