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By Lara S. Kaufmann, Senior Counsel,National Women's Law Center
Cross-posted from NWLC's blog, Womenstake

On Sunday, the Boston Globe Magazine published an article called “The Miracle of Polly McCabe.” Polly McCabe is an alternative public school for pregnant and parenting teens in New Haven. It has approximately 26 students at any given time, and is able to offer them special services like “door-to-door bus service, on-site child care, classes on child rearing, in-school visits from prenatal experts, intensive support from case workers, and even home visits from teachers if they go on bed rest.”

As the article’s title suggests, it extols the virtues of Polly McCabe while glossing over potential drawbacks to educating pregnant and parenting students separately from the rest of the student population. Of course I appreciate the tremendous value of New Haven’s efforts to keep pregnant and parenting students in school and help them succeed. Teen pregnancy rates in the U.S. are distressingly high, far higher than in most other developed countries, and teen mothers and fathers who leave high school without graduating face daunting economic consequences, which are likely to land them and their children in poverty, forced to rely on public support programs. Most schools do not provide pregnant and parenting students with targeted support, and far too many pregnant and parenting students are discriminated against and pushed out of school because of their pregnancies, in violation of Title IX. I have spent countless hours advocating for the support pregnant and parenting students need to stay in school. But segregating pregnant and parenting students from their peers and mainstream educational programming is not the only answer.

Separate schools for pregnant and parenting students can create a number of challenges. For example, it is very difficult for a smaller, alternative school to offer the same range of educational options that would be available to the student in her traditional high school. This was certainly true in the case of New York’s P-schools, which were shut down in June of 2007. They were dead-end schools where girls were not exposed to rigorous courses, did not earn sufficient credits to keep them on track for graduation, and did not get any job skills. All too often girls are forced or steered into such alternative schools, rather than given a true, informed choice as Title IX requires. And even the girls given a choice may not have a meaningful choice if attending the alternative school is the only way for them to access affordable child care. Segregating pregnant and parenting students into a separate school also cuts them off from their social circles can send the message – to their peers, to school staff, and to the girls themselves – that they should be at the separate school or not in school at all.

While Polly McCabe may be serving its students well, that begs the question, what about the many other pregnant and parenting teens in New Haven? I wish the article had explored that question. Surely there are far more than 26 girls who get pregnant and give birth each year in New Haven. And they all deserve to continue their education, not just the lucky 26. Far more could do so in mainstream high schools if that was a meaningful option.

In exploring the factors behind McCabe’s success, the article credits its small class sizes and the individualized attention teachers can give their students. It also talks about the sense of common purpose and belonging that the students at Polly McCabe feel. All of these are smart educational policy goals that could be achieved – especially for pregnant and parenting students – in a traditional school setting, avoiding the stigmatization factor that a separate school entails. We know of at least one school that has had success with the mainstreaming approach while still offering pregnant and parenting students the flexibility, counseling attention, peer support, and access to health services, child care, and transportation that they need in order to stay in school and succeed.

As the reporter notes at the end of the article, Polly McCabe’s “success may also simply indicate that any time a school system can afford to lavish attention on students who might otherwise be neglected, great things can happen.” Amen! Every student could benefit from the attributes of a school like McCabe. But with the separate alternative school model, so few are able to benefit and others get pushed out. Can’t we figure out a way to do better?

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