Amid the chorus of voices now discussing adolescent pregnancy -- its patterns, its causes, its costs -- one D.C. high school is dealing directly with its most tangible results.
Those results -- babies and toddlers -- are much in evidence at the Cardozo Infant Care Center, the city's only licensed day care facility at a public high school. There, a frenetic woman named Lucille Green is busy teaching 18 teen-age mothers how to take care of their babies properly and still finish high school. Since it opened in 1981, the infant center has attacked head-on the dilemma that underlies current discussions of welfare and "incentive": How do you ease the consequences of a behavior, such as teen pregnancy, for some kids and still deter other kids from doing it?
The girls in Green's program are the lucky ones, those who got in off a long waiting list. What Green demands of them sounds straightforward: Finish school, and don't get pregnant again. It is, indeed, a second chance and a way out. But it is no picnic.
Over 90 percent of these girls do finish school, giving the five-year-old program a far lower dropout rate than the high school population in general. But they don't graduate because Lucille Green has stepped in, parent-like, and taken the consequences of their pregnancy off their hands. On the contrary, she forces them to confront every day the chores and the reality of raising a baby.
The result is somewhat akin to the much-discussed challenge of the "Superwoman" -- balancing full-time job with full-time family. And unlike teen mothers who drop out of school and out of their classmates' consciousness, these kids are in full sight -- grappling with strollers and Pampers along with bookbags, giving up choir and cheerleading practice and most social life because it will take every last smidgen of effort just to graduate.
They are, Green admits, a self-selected bunch, determined to support their babies with a good job after graduation. Quite a few transferred to Cardozo when pregnancy forced them to drop out of the elite academic program at Banneker. A few hold down night jobs, and one is making up her last few high school credits at night school so she can graduate before her son gets too old (3) for Cardozo's program.
They start arriving at 8 a.m., mothers in plastic barrettes and hightop sneakers, mothers with their own baby fat or still of pre-teen skinniness, folding strollers and hanging snowsuits in cubbyholes with the zombie expression common to high school students on winter mornings. Francine (the school asked that real names not be used) looks younger than her 16 years in gray jeans and an argyle sweater. The books in her shoulder bag are for eleventh grade. On the other thin shoulder is Anthea, who just turned 1.
Francine, since she arrived first, goes to the cafeteria for the babies' breakfast trays, and the others start trying to coax food into the kids' mouths before the 9 a.m. bell. One pair is late. "You know you have to be here by 8:30 if you're going to give her breakfast," Rae Houston, the program assistant, scolds.
Her tone is strict; so is the regimen. Mothers have to take the Home Ec department's daily class in child care; bring in diapers and changes of clothing every morning; keep health, feeding and development records; and see a social worker. They stop in every free period to feed, diaper or amuse their children. And they come by at all hours to talk with Green or Houston, whose operation resembles a combination clinic, confessional, tutoring program and job placement office.
The crucial element is the one its participants mostly lacked in the first place -- a sense of family-like support and community, someone to keep them on track in the ongoing struggle to "say no." In weekly group meetings and in the daily routine, the girls monitor each other; they compare birth control problems and discuss current boyfriends. The meetings Green insists on act as a kind of echo chamber for her most important message -- whatever you do, don't do it again.
The necessarily small scope of the center is the main obstacle to expanding it to other schools, as Green would like. But such a program won't break the poverty cycle at all unless it offers two things. The first is genuinely good day care, of which Green's center is a model despite a shoestring $38,000 budget -- the rooms are spacious and well-equipped, with six paid staff and a flock of student workers, volunteers and Foster Grandparents. The second is intensity -- the resources and ongoing support systems to drive home to teen-age girls the discipline of motherhood.
The process is slow. Some girls still come in for break and wake up their sleeping babies to play with them. Others are learning. Francine, on this day, takes nearly three quarters of an hour to feed a cranky Anthea, who will prove later in the day to be running a temperature. At nine, the loudspeaker begins sputtering announcements about assembly and homeroom. Francine gets up to go, then, as Anthea squalls, stops. At the door with coat and knapsack, she looks back.
"It's 9:02," says the loudspeaker. "All seniors should be reporting to the auditorium." Two Foster Grandmothers take Anthea's hands and get her moving, still crying, in the opposite direction. Francine bites her lip; when Anthea twists around to look for her, she hurriedly shuts the door and stands one more moment looking through the glass pane. Her face still looks younger than 16, but her expression is that of a mother. And motherhood, it says, isn't turning out to be at all like what she had in mind.