The XX Factor

Should We Segregate Teen Moms in High School?

From the same Chicago schools system that saw 16-year-old Derrion Albert bludgeoned to death, another troubling story :

It is a Chicago public school full of energy and spirit. It has about 800 girls, and 115 of them have something in common – something you might find disturbing. …

All those young ladies are moms or moms-to-be at Paul Robeson High School. It’s not a school for young mothers, it’s a neighborhood school. And all of the pregnancies have happened, despite prevention talk.

If you want to know why, the people closest to the situation say there’s no simple explanation.

Chicago Public Schools says it does not track the overall number of teen moms in the district. But Robeson Principal Gerald Morrow knows the count at his school in Englewood … To put it in perspective, their school pictures would fill roughly six pages of their high school year book.

Why is it happening at Robeson?

Good bloody question. We’ve all heard about the same thing happening in the white, working-class enclave of Glouscester, Mass. This state of affairs seems a far cry from the infamous Grease scene wherein the drive-in crowd plays telephone with the news that “Rizzo’s got a bun in the oven.” At Robeson, no one seems to care that over a hundred young women are now raising children alone (the write-up barely mentions any male co-conspirators or caretakers). Even the article’s author seems careful to hedge on whether one “might” find the pregnancy epidemic “disturbing.”

The expressed desire to minimize the absurdity of one in seven young women being with child raises the question of whether these minors should be in a high school created specifically for young mothers. Though there is a new teen parent program at the school-a former crack house is being converted to daycare for the dozens of babies with mothers still struggling through PE and prom-the school administrator interviewed didn’t seem to think that differentiating between maidens and mothers is important. “We’re not looking at them like ‘Ooh, you made a mistake,’” he said. “We’re looking at how we can get them to the next phase, how can we still get them thinking about graduation?”

That’s a valid perspective-but is there an advantage to keeping young mothers segregated? The Washington Post printed two stories in the last year on local high schools dealing with young mothers (Ann Hulbert writes relatedly here ). One school provides regular classes, day care, and too-good-to-be-true emotional and logistical support ; the other was an embattled, full-time residential school for mothers . The latter institution was closed in June for abysmal academic performance. But at both, the normalizing of such pregnancies was a constant concern. “I’m amazed-and concerned-by the apparently nonchalant attitude both these girls and their mothers exhibit in front of teachers, administrators and hundreds of students each day,” wrote (male) author Patrick Welsh, about the school where mothers and nonparents were integrated.

Why is kiddie integration so dangerous? At Freakonomics, Janet Currie has the grim statistics .

Teen moms are less likely than other women to attend or complete college, and their marriages are more likely to end in divorce; about 50 percent of women who married younger than age 18 are divorced after 10 years, compared to 20 percent of women who married at age 25 or older. In turn, single mothers have the highest poverty rates of any demographic group, and 60 percent of the U.S.-born children in mother-only families are poor.

In other words, it’s bad to have a baby before becoming an adult. Policymakers, including educators, should take every opportunity, large or small, to emphasize that. You can’t “catch” a baby like, say, H1N1, but integrating parents into high schools sends a message to young people that life before and after pregnancy is pretty much the same-which may wellhave contributed to the Bush-era increase in teen births (the nonsense abstinence thing is hurting, too). Bouncing pregnant teens (send the dads, too!) out of the mainline public school system is a way of countering this narrative-rather like the “uncle’s farm” to which women of the Mad Men era were dispatched.

This may sound retrograde to a culture that’s flippantly agitating for maternity leave for childless women , but what’s more, emphasizing not only the seismic lifestyle changes that parenthood brings but ways to prevent pregnancy and care for kids seems more likely to stick in a learning environment that is specifically targeted to those aims.

So why does it seem taboo to say so?