Arlington schools propose end to stand-alone program for teen mothers

For four decades, pregnant teens in Arlington County have turned to a special program in the public schools, where a small team of teachers and counselors help them learn to be good parents and guide them to graduation day.

In a cost-saving move included in Superintendent Pat Murphy’s $520 million budget plan, the stand-alone program would be dissolved next school year, and the young mothers moved to the Arlington Career Center, where they would take classes alongside other students.

Arlington officials say the move reflects a financial crunch in the growing school system but also a cultural shift. In today’s society, it’s no longer assumed that “teenage mothers should be embarrassed by their ‘situation’ and need to be isolated in a special place,” according to Murphy’s proposed budget.

It’s time to bring teen mothers “back home into the mainstream,” the proposal said.

Programs for teen mothers in Prince George’s County and the District are already housed in mainstream high schools. Fairfax County offers a separate program for teen moms in an alternative school.

The new Arlington location, a short bus ride from the Reed School, where the program is currently housed, has many advantages, officials say. There is easier access to a wide range of courses, including career and technical classes, and daily transportation to home high schools where the young mothers could take an art class or sing in a choir.

Day care, already partially at the Career Center, would be available on-site for everyone.

The move also offers efficiencies. The price tag for educating the teen parents is steep. Estimates range between $71,000 and $81,000 per pupil, depending on enrollment. In early March, there were 38 students working with six full-time teachers who often teach multiple subjects, sometimes in the same class period.

The students have access to a nurse, guidance counselor and other support staff. Merging with the other programs at the career center will allow the school system to cut about a dozen teaching and administrative jobs.

Stand-alone programs for teen mothers are shutting down across the country as budgets shrink, said Pat Paluzzi, the president and CEO of the Baltimore-based Healthy Teen Network.

The changes raise questions about how much support vulnerable students need to graduate. Paluzzi said there’s not one right model, but mainstream schools serving pregnant teens need to offer extra training to their staff and extra help if they want teen parents to persevere in school. Pregnancy is one of the top reasons that girls drop out.

When Karla Vasquez got pregnant at 15, she didn’t think she could finish school. But after three years at the teen parenting center, she is looking forward to graduating this spring and planning to enroll in Northern Virginia Community College.

She said the small setting was a comfort, and worried that future teen moms won’t have the same personal relationships with their teachers and “aren’t going to have the same support that we all have.”

At the small school, there’s flexibility for students who need to leave school to give birth or visit the doctor. The curriculum is often adapted in small ways to be relevant to the students, with sample grammar sentences about child rearing, science experiments involving genetics, or Spanish and English book clubs with books about teen moms.

“We are worried about what’s going to happen to our students,” said Betty Gordon, language arts teacher for the past 14 years. She said they were some of Arlington’s neediest and most vulnerable students. All are poor, some come from homes where they’ve experienced domestic violence. Several girls live in a homeless shelter. ”That’s all before the trauma of becoming a mom,” she said.

Gibbon said she didn’t know how the new school would be able to accommodate their varying needs or how the high school programs will handle younger students. The youngest mom at the teen parenting center was in fifth grade.

Gibbon’s proud of the teen parenting center’s academic track record, its 71 percent graduation rate and the fact that 100 percent of the students in 2012 passed the English standardized test last year.

On the same day that the staff at the parenting center received surplus letters, letting them know that their jobs were likely to disappear, a group of educators from Hagerstown, Md. was visiting the parenting center to see if they could use it as an example for their own program.

But Constance Skelton, assistant superintendent for instruction in Arlington County Public Schools, said they hope to maintain the small group feel at the larger school. The women will have meals together and a common room, where they can breast-feed and relax. She said that they will probably still have a counselor and a jobs coach.

Skelton also said there’s room for the teen moms to grow academically. Pass rates for the state math exam in 2012 were very low, and students now have limited access to advanced classes.

“I think the program is a great program. I don't want to take anything away from it,” she said. “But our feeling is that to take and isolate and only offer limited curricular choices to a vulnerable population is not in their best interest....It’s a 1970’s idea.”

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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