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You Can't Come to School

The 1950s are over, so why are pregnant high school girls still facing segregation in public education?

By Allie Gottlieb

AT 3:30PM, when school lets out for the day, two ponytailed Broadway High students sit waiting for their ride on the squat wall outside the school. Neither totes a backpack teeming with textbooks, term paper outlines or packets about upcoming SAT tests and college entrance data. But that doesn't mean their loads are light.

For instance, one of the girls is preoccupied with her 7-month-old son, who keeps spitting his blue pacifier onto the ground. "Could you pick that up for me?" she asks. "Sure," I say, and I do. The kid spits it out again.

The girls, both 16, say they get up at 6:30 every morning and catch two buses to get to the San Jose Unified School District's Broadway High School because "we got pregnant." They stop short of adding, "Duh!" But they explain that, on the advice of counselors and parents, the decision to leave their old schools to attend Broadway's Young Mothers/Young Families Program for pregnant and parenting teens, tucked beneath the Almaden Expressway near Blossom Hill, was virtually automatic.

Even though it's illegal, some public schools still pressure--or force--pregnant teens to leave regular high schools for some kind of continuation school. A recent undercover study on high schools in Santa Clara County revealed that 25 percent of the time school officials act out age-old prejudices and policies against teenage sexuality. And the girls lose their legal right not only to an equal education but also to the goodies that go with it: college entrance assistance, advanced-placement classes and the experience of being at a high school with kids who aren't pregnant or being punished for school infractions.

"You can't come to our school" was how a Los Altos Union High School official succinctly put it to one teenage caller, who said she wanted to enroll at Los Altos and was pregnant. "Well, I really just want to go to regular school," the teen pressed. "Is there any way that I can go to a normal school?" The official said no. The caller later wrote: "She said that there was not [a possibility to attend a regular school], using the word 'honey' when she spoke to me."

Freedom of Choice

The answer from the administrator to this teen, as it turns out, was a lie. Alternative schools, such as the ones most pregnant girls are being sent to, are by law voluntary, a fact many girls don't seem to know. And furthermore, Title IX of the federal Education Amendments of 1972 and the California Education Code outlaw all forms of discrimination by public schools on the basis of sex, which can be applied to pregnant teens.

Despite the laws, six high schools in Santa Clara County were caught discriminating against pregnant teens in an undercover study conducted by San Francisco- and San Jose-based lawyers and children and gender-equality advocates who had heard complaints about local schools' treatment of pregnant teens.

The reports had been alarming. They heard, for instance, that one regular (also called comprehensive) school transferred a pregnant student to an alternative (also called continuation) school just days before graduation, ostensibly to spare the school the embarrassment of having a pregnant girl stroll across the stage in cap and gown before hundreds of onlookers. They received another report that a school counselor told the student body president, who was pregnant, that she was a bad role model and should resign her post.

Citing these examples, the Public Interest Law Firm, Legal Advocates for Children & Youth, Equal Rights Advocates and Fenwick & West LLP went to work investigating all Santa Clara County high schools, concluding with the January release of a 28-page document called "A Report on the Denial of Educational Opportunities for Pregnant Teens in Santa Clara County."

Testers posing as pregnant teens intending to move to a new school district phoned 24 high schools in Santa Clara County to check the school officials' reactions to a pregnant student wishing to enroll. The testers read from a basic script, pretending to be three months pregnant and about to move from Oakland to the district they were calling.

The testers were directed to say they want to attend a "normal" school rather than an alternative program or independent study. They were instructed to speak with officials as high up in the hierarchy as they could get and to log the conversations. The results single out Mountain View's Los Altos and Alta Vista high schools, Campbell's Westmont High School, Fremont's Lynbrook High School, Gilroy High School and San Jose High Academy as the offending schools, "which prohibited 'pregnant teen' tester from enrolling or strongly discouraged her."

The tester's call to San Jose High Academy went like this. The caller read the script, telling the school respondent she wanted enrollment information and was pregnant. The respondent told the tester she would give her the number for Broadway's Young Mothers/Young Families Program. The tester said, "I just want to go to a normal school." The respondent "paused and said that she has an embarrassing question to ask me: 'Does your tummy show yet?'" When the tester said no, the school staffer said she could attend San Jose High Academy until she started showing and then should transfer to Broadway.

The January report outlines some of the same concerns that the Broadway students in the beginning of this article raised. The 16-year-old mother of the 7-month-old regrets giving up dance classes, playing the clarinet in band and eating lunch in a cafeteria with her friends, all things that are lacking at Broadway. Overall, schools like Broadway are "inferior to mainstream high schools," the report states. It cites "fewer curriculum options such as electives and advanced classes," fewer athletic programs, shorter days and environments that aren't conducive to learning.

Screwed Twice

Much as districts might like to wish away the situation of pregnant teens--and what to do with them--statistics show that the phenomenon shows no signs of waning. A new public health study on teen births in California, called "No Time for Complacency," predicts that while the rate has been dropping during the past decade, it's going to go up again by 23 percent over the next five years, based on the latest population trends and poverty rates. Santa Clara County moms age 18 and under have been having progressively fewer kids since 1997, when 1,432 were born, compared to 1,312 in 2000, according to the latest figures compiled in the study.

"At this time, the prevention of births to teen mothers is more important than ever," the study reads. It ranks Santa Clara County the 16 highest out of 40 state Senate districts in teenage childbearing and estimates that these pregnancies cost taxpayers $36 million a year. "Investments in this area are productive for their immediate payoff in terms of decreased health and welfare costs as well as their contribution to the stability of the social fabric and to California's economic future."

And while legislators and public health professionals rack their brains trying to figure out how to reduce the costs to society, the issue has found a strange union of support on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Pro-life organizations and anti-abortion counseling organizations have found rare common ground with the politically liberal attorneys who authored the discrimination study. A spokeswoman said that in her opinion pregnant teens should go to regular schools and should also have access to parenting classes and other resources.

"They're going to have a hard enough time anyhow without having an uphill battle with the system," says Diane Hayes, executive director of San Jose's Community Pregnancy Centers, a pro-life clinic and counseling organization.

Hayes says she's concerned that when schools and parents send the message that pregnancy is a bad thing, some girls may resort to abortion, "so they don't embarrass or disappoint their family."

Hayes continues, "I don't think [a pregnant teen] is any more a bad role model than the teen who's sexually active and just not getting pregnant. Getting pregnant doesn't make [someone] any different from anybody else who's having sex." In fact, she adds, "It's a visual reminder that this can happen to you. I think that's a more practical lesson. Students will look at her and say, 'Whoa, she was doing just what we're doing.'"

Broadway High School principal Kathy Wein agrees that many people--both inside and outside the academic setting--act as if teen pregnancy is a disease.

"Sometimes we think we're going to cure something that's been there since the cave days," Wein says. "It used to be girls would have families at 12 or 13. Now we act like it's criminal behavior."

The state Department of Education's own 2001 County Service Coordination Plan outlining its programs for this population points out, "There is a general lack of respect for pregnant and parenting teens within the very institutions that provide the services: schools, health agencies and social services agencies."

According to the two teens from Broadway, the schooling there can feel a little useless. The students tell me that even though the parenting classes are good, they worry they're not learning the right things.

"A lot of the girls are scared about passing the high school exit exam," confides the one who left tony Leland High School in Almaden Valley for Broadway and who now has a 3-month-old daughter.

"I want to graduate to be able to go to college," the other says, explaining that Broadway students took the test earlier that week, and she didn't understand much of what was on it. "[Here] they don't teach you the kind of math they give you on the test. We're not going to pass that."

Broadway, like most continuation schools, doesn't offer advanced-placement classes, which are in these times a mandatory ticket for entrance into UC schools and many private colleges. While Broadway includes optional vocational training, it isn't especially geared toward prepping students for four-year colleges. The school caters to students who haven't done well at other schools--those who have failed too many classes, racked up too many absences or collected too many disciplinary infractions.

On the bright side, Broadway was ranked by the California Continuation Education Association as a model continuation school in 2002, using such criteria as a small student-teacher ratio, attendance rate and creative teaching techniques.

But the same year, only 15 percent of Broadway students passed the math exit exam (compared to twice that districtwide and nearly triple countywide).

Beyond a few stats on the Department of Education's website, it's tough to track students' academic success at alternative schools. They aren't rated on the state's Academic Performance Index, the main statewide accountability system.

Defenders of continuation schools insist that they offer a comparable (just different) way of teaching the same curriculum. But that's not entirely true.

"We cannot do physics or chemistry. [Broadway is] too small ... to offer the array," principal Kathy Wein says. "There are lots of school districts who don't offer all that." She adds that it may take longer to head down a career path via Broadway, but students will get there. "You're not crippled. This is not a dead end to anything that you want."

Not devoid of all things higher ed, Broadway has a counselor on staff who offers vocational as well as personal guidance. But Wein says the college push is pretty much limited to community and junior colleges. And she has no idea what happens to the students after they leave Broadway.

Cycle of Life

Studies repeatedly show, however, that insufficient education helps perpetuate the cycle of poverty and teen pregnancy. In 1998, for example, a teen-parent focus group formed at Foothill High School on San Jose's East Side determined that young parents come with a lot of unmet needs, a revelation that led to funding for the California School Age Families Education (Cal-SAFE) Program for pregnant and parenting teens unveiled in 2000.

The "No Time for Complacency" report, which was released on March 17 by Berkeley's Public Health Institute, holds this to be true five years later. Teen moms "exhibit poorer psychological functioning, lower levels of educational attainment and high school completion, more single parenthood, and less stable employment," it reads.

"Because completing high school is essential to breaking the cycle of teen pregnancy and adult poverty, schools must ensure that pregnant and parenting teens have access to the full range of educational opportunities available to other students," reads a policy brief published by the California Women's Law Center."

Still others see the role of schools like Broadway as a necessary rescue operation for girls who weren't exactly on the college track to begin with. "The majority of students who come here haven't been in school for a while because of child care," says Esmeralda Rosales, who got pregnant at 17 and temporarily left her home school, Leland, for Broadway. Free child care was a big part of her choice to attend Broadway. She continued to use Broadway's child care service even after returning to Leland to graduate with her friends. Rosales, now a 23-year-old office assistant at Broadway, notes that an inability to buy care for kids is a huge barrier for many teens with experiences similar to her own. As a result, she says, "Not everybody who gets pregnant stays in school."

Barbara Rodriguez, who runs Broadway's Young Mothers Program, became a teen mother in the '60s and met with an even less receptive society. "It was scary," she recalls. "As a teenager, you feel it isn't going to happen to you."

She dropped out of school, and it took her 20 years to finish her education. Rodriguez believes that it is significant that the program at Broadway offers teenagers the help that she didn't have. "In some respects it's easier for girls now," she says. "When I was in high school, if a girl got pregnant, she left. ... Now the girls have choices."

Photograph by Joe Niem

Changes Overdue: Despite equal education requirements of Title IX, many guidance counselors still informally counsel pregnant students to leave their high school for alternative schools, without telling them they have the option to stay put.

You Show, You Go

In the current climate of state funding cutbacks, administrators are jumpy about criticism of programs, especially those that could get scrapped. Erin Scott, an attorney who helped create the Santa Clara County report on schooling pregnant teens, is careful to note that she doesn't support eliminating any alternative programs--such as the one at Broadway--in favor of regular schools.

"We would hate to indicate to the school districts that they should take away these programs," she says. "There are a lot of resources that those schools provide that are fantastic. They have day care on campus. They're very supportive. Those things are positive." But she notes that programs targeting pregnant and parenting teens often lack the educational rigor of their mainstream high school counterparts.

The problem has surfaced across the country, owing in part to a national survey published in a 1998 book by the L.A.-based Public Counsel Law Center titled Legal Issues for Pregnant & Parenting Teens in California, which reported that "many guidance counselors informally counsel pregnant and parenting students to attend a separate school without informing them that they have the right to remain in their regular school programs."

The issue garnered national publicity when a Boston Public episode highlighting the now-illegal "you show, you go" pregnancy policy aired, fueling a national debate. Even Dear Abby featured letters on the topic. One unnamed person identified as the head of a California teen-parent support group wrote to the nationally syndicated column to point out that alternative schools may overreach their goals by lumping together students with different needs.

A pregnant high schooler should "look very carefully before agreeing to attend alternative education programs for pregnant teens," the writer warned. "In many of them, she could be placed alongside students who have been kicked out of regular schools because of disciplinary or criminal issues. If that's the case in her community, she should insist on a real education and stay in regular school, big belly and all."

Nancy Solomon, a California Women's Law Center attorney, also wrote to Dear Abby. "It is unfortunate that at a time when they need an education the most, pregnant and parenting students are illegally denied their educational rights," Solomon wrote.

Solomon, who is an expert on the civil rights of pregnant teens, spoke at the National School Boards Association's annual conference on the issue in San Francisco on April 5.

"I think the problem is twofold. There's a lot of prejudice against pregnant teens. Administrators think that they are bad role models and that the students are a burden on the system because the girls do need to be accommodated if they stay in their home school. But the law is very clear--both federal and state--about the school needing to accommodate them.

"This is not about how you feel about teen pregnancy," Solomon continues. "This is about education rights. I don't want people to think about these issues as 'How can a 15-year-old get pregnant?' We're not advocating teen pregnancy. We're advocating pregnant teens' right to an education, and morally, we have an obligation to make sure that they get a proper education."

Janet Knoeppel, a consultant for continuation schools across the state, counters that an effort is being made.

"The rigor of the course work is supposed to be at the same level as that offered in the traditional schools," says Knoeppel. "It is, at many schools." But not all, she concedes.

"What we're finding is that our students don't tend to do well on the STAR testing for several reasons. One is the mobility," Knoeppel says, pointing out that students at continuation schools tend to move around a lot, which disrupts their education. Another complication, she says, is that "students don't see any reason for it."

Knoeppel used to run a continuation school in the Central Valley and has been working on developing a success yardstick for continuation schools that will act as an alternative to the mainstream schools' Academic Performance Index.

"It's a bad rap that we've gotten," Knoeppel says.

Parenting 101

Students in the parenting classes I visited (at Foothill High School and at Broadway) were like those in any regular classroom. A few answered most of the teachers' questions. Some students seemed bored; others, engaged. One girl got kicked out of the room for putting her head down on the desk.

But the similarity stopped there. In both classes, the teachers talked with students about their feelings and home lives. Students talked back--until a teacher asked for a definition of the word, "autonomy." The room fell silent.

Mary Jacobs, who runs Foothill's pregnant and parenting teen program, argues that comprehensive and continuation schools are not comparable, because students' needs are so different. She and other school administrators say that the parenting support these continuation programs offer is indispensable.

"These kids get pregnant at 15; their parents go berserk. They're often poor, sometimes homeless. They're on the verge of collapse before they even get here," she says.

Standing before about 20 students casually arranged around a few short rows of tables during a parenting class, one Broadway teacher tried to reach out. If you ever need to talk with anyone, she told her students, every member of our staff is available to you.

An astute student piped up that she doesn't feel she can use the quasi-social-service benefits at the school.

"Most of those people are mandated reporters," the student countered, explaining that if they heard of a situation, even a borderline case, that indicated any possible degree of substance abuse, domestic violence or child endangerment, they would be required by law to contact authorities.

This girl--and others like her--worried, rightly, that if she confides something which they construe as illegal--say, hypothetically, if a student's mom slaps her child--any staff member would have to report the incident to Child Protective Services. That could mean that, on top of everything else the student is trying to deal with, the student could lose custody of her child. "You get lectures," the student added, "or you get reports."

The teacher paused for a moment to consider the question, one much more emotionally and intellectually complex than the typical high school student usually has to think about.

"Try to give them information without giving too much," the teacher suggested honestly.

"When you're desperate," the student responded, "it's hard. Things slip out."

Grading Schools

While providing emotional support is an ambiguous role to assign schools, educating students in traditional academics is not.

Yet schools aren't equipped to rate themselves on their success at educating young parents. School officials say they're unable to shed any light on how many pregnant girls stay in regular high schools as opposed to alternative schools, what their grades are, whether they graduate, how many go on to accredited universities, how many become doctors or rocket scientists or anything else.

Susan Thompson, a program administrator with the California Department of Education's Youth Education Partnerships Office, says the state doesn't maintain reports specifically on pregnant teen students, in part because of confidentiality rules.

"Our department has asked that Cal-SAFE programs collect some data," Thompson says. "What we desperately really want to see is ... increased achievement, better performance, better attendance, lower dropout [rates], as much support at they could have prenatal, and child care support. ... We believe that kind of information is critical because it will show what works." Thompson says a report on Cal-SAFE programs is expected in 2005.

On another front, consultant Knoeppel says a newly approved Alternative Schools Accountability Model will be ready for use in the next school year to check up on how the schools are doing. But it's unsettling that no one in charge of the schools can provide much in the way of success measurement of continuation programs so far. The Department of Education keeps some data on dropout and college attendance rates, but doesn't provide any comprehensive comparisons between mainstream and continuation schools' performance.

Knoeppel explains this away as an evolutionary thing. Continuation schools were born in 1919 with a mandate requiring alternatives to regular schools. But "the standards movement is still fairly young. We don't have a lot of data" on the academic performance of continuation schools, she says.

Here and Now

Even without the data, San Jose Unified School District doesn't think it has a problem. In response to the report that accuses its school officials of breaking the anti-discrimination laws, district director Michael K. Carr wrote a letter to San Jose's Public Interest Law Firm blaming a temp for violating the rules at San Jose High Academy.

"I have reviewed your letter and packet of information and was dismayed that one of our substitute employees would have responded to a student's request in an inappropriate manner," he wrote. He then went on to say that he's working with the state Department of Education and the Educational Services Department to make sure the district has all the training it needs to avoid discriminating.

Of course, access to all schools is only part of the issue raised in the discrimination report. The other issue is equality between schools.

"I'd like to see the girls having the opportunity, as they do under the law, but in practice, to stay at their home school and have day care at their home school," California Law Center attorney Solomon says. "In conjunction to that, I would like to see pregnant and parenting teen programs be comparable [to mainstream schools]. The law requires them to be comparable. What I see is not comparable."

Attorney and study co-author Scott adds that "in a perfect world," public schools "would be something more like the Cupertino High School model. There is a separate program, but it's right there on campus. The girls can take whatever classes they want. Something more like that is the solution."

In fact, Cupertino is a comprehensive high school complete with advanced-placement classes, parenting classes and child care. "It's not like once you're pregnant, oh my God, you're branded and you have to go to the parenting program," says principal Diane Burbank. As Burbank describes its enrollment process, district residency is the most important entrance criterion.

The 16-year-old mom from Broadway High School who takes two buses every morning to school might like the option of staying in her own district. It sounds like she would consider it.

"I would love to go to a regular high school," she says. "Because at a regular high school, you learn more. And there are more activities like sports and dancing. I used to be in a dancing class. I liked that. But at Broadway, we don't have that opportunity. We have PE, but we wear the same clothes as we wear during the day."

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From the April 10-16, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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