Teen Pregnancy: Fighting for the 'Throwaway Girls'

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While teenage pregnancy is slowing declining state and nationwide, Cumberland County rated highest in the state, coming in at a staggering 37.3 percent.

“When considering the 15-19 year age group, rates in each county were basically double their rates for 10-19 year olds. Cumberland had the highest rate per 1,000 females aged 15-17 years. Morris, Sussex, and Bergen counties had the lowest birth rates per 1,000 females aged 18-19 and Cumberland and Salem counties had the highest. In every teen age group (10-19, 15-19, 15-17, and 18-19), Cumberland County’s birth rate was more than three times higher than the rate for New Jersey as a whole.” (According to the Center for Health Statistics, http://www.state.nj.us/health/chs/stats04/natality.shtml).

Prevention is obviously the main concern, but what about the teens who have already given birth and are trying to not only raise a child, but themselves as well?

One school in Detroit, Michigan is trying and succeeding to help teen moms change what would typically be a crippling decision. The school provides a place to not only gain education and career skills, but also allows for a place for the infants to enjoy the day with mom nearby.

Incubating eggs is part of the curriculum at Catherine Ferguson. DAVID S. HOLLOWAY/CNN
Incubating eggs is part of the curriculum at Catherine Ferguson.

Most teenage mothers aren’t given an opportunity such as this. Any time a woman becomes a mother, it’s life-changing, but life becomes increasingly difficult for a teen mother. Not fully-matured herself, she has to take on the role of caring for another, all while finishing school and providing for her child. This is a trying job for any adult and even more so for a teen.

This article describes the amazing opportunity afforded to some young women and shows what a difference providing an opportunity like this can make.

Fighting for the ‘Throwaway Girls’

From state to state, school district to school district and even inside the walls of Catherine Ferguson, there’s no agreement on how best to educate teens who are pregnant and parenting.

Only 40% of teen moms finish high school; less than 2% finish college by age 30, according to national figures.

Teen birth rates have declined most years for the last two decades – dropping about 25% just from 2007 to 2011. But such girls still face challenges: punitive absence policies, a lack of child care and transportation options, and teachers and administrators who discourage them from attending school, according to a 2012 report by the National Women’s Law Center.

Students weed raised beds and plant vegetables and herbs they'll later use to prepare meals. DAVID S. HOLLOWAY/CNN
Students weed raised beds and plant vegetables and herbs they’ll later use to prepare meals.

According to the center, no national database tracks what happens to pregnant teens: Where do they go to school? Do they graduate? What happens once they do?

Few states have laws about how to handle them, and districts might not even realize what their obligations are. This week, a U.S. Senate committee is debating an update to the country’s expansive education law — including, for the first time, a call for better data and school plans that address pregnant and parenting students. The proposal has a long way to go before passage, if that even happens.

There aren’t many schools like Catherine Ferguson in the United States, and several have shut down in recent years because of tight budgets and questionable quality. Some offer academically rigorous standards and services like child care, but others offer “no meaningful educational opportunities,” the National Women’s Law Center report said.

With little data to study, with no experts to guide them, Catherine Ferguson Academy long operated by instinct, Principal Asenath Andrews said. She believes it’s up to schools to work around the poor excuses, tragic reasons and broken systems that keep a young mother from getting an education.

Teach her, yes. Then feed her, heal her, keep her safe. Make her a better mother, but let her be a teen, too. Remind her she’s beautiful. Insist that she own her situation and show her intelligence. Get her out of her neighborhood — her home, her homelessness — even if for just a few hours.

‘We’ve had enemies’

The protest against the new curriculum last month was hardly the first challenge Catherine Ferguson has faced. It took feverish self-promotion and the work of “guardian angels” high up in the Detroit Public Schools just to open the academy nearly 30 years ago.

The academy grew from a Salvation Army hallway to this former elementary school.

It felt like the same fight in 2011 when the Detroit Public Schools shut it down, saying the district lacked the funds to keep it open. District leaders said some pregnant and parenting teens were already attending the city’s other, traditional high schools — why couldn’t these students?

Hundreds protested. Students were arrested during a sit-in at the school library. Almost immediately, the academy was reopened as a charter school — an ending that students and teachers celebrated.

But since then, much of the staff has changed. Enrollment is down. Recruitment is tough; many heard the school closed in 2011, but not as many understood it reopened under new management. When it exited the Detroit Public Schools, it lost its clearest connection to pregnant teens. Now, Catherine Ferguson has turned to handing out goody bags to new mothers in local maternity wards.

“In other countries, we scream at people about throwing away girls, how they kill girl babies. Well, we kill girl babies, too, we just kill them slowly,” Andrews says. “We take away opportunities for them to go to school, we don’t provide opportunities for girls who have babies, and it is a slow death.

“Poverty is a slow, painful death.”

The school’s new curriculum this year changed the structure of students’ days and focused on personalized learning – a shift that confounded some teachers and students. They’re fighting back with marches and a lawsuit, and say the school population is shrinking because of the new learning model.

The disagreements and uncertainty frustrate the students, teachers and Andrews. But then, educating a girl who’s raising a child wasn’t easy when Andrews started 30 years ago, either. In Detroit, Andrews says, the idea has been ignored and insulted, lost entirely in social stigma, political infighting and information voids.

“We’ve had detractors, we’ve had enemies, we’ve had slings and arrows,” Andrews said. “Lots of people think, ‘Forget it, if they don’t finish high school, so what? They’re just throwaways.'”

For girls, Andrews said, “the struggles are the same. The world is a harder place.”

Read more on the Catherine Ferguson School and stories of its students, by accessing the original article: http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/12/living/detroit-school-pregnant-parenting-teens/index.html?hpt=hp_c2

Thoughts, comments, questions? Email me, JennKaysen@gmail.com

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 If you’re interested in learning more about CASA of CGS, email susanna.casaofcgs@gmail.com. Cumberland County ranked last place in Child Welfare in New Jersey. Let’s stand up for our children and do something about it! Visit www.wespeakupforchildren.org for more information and follow us on Facebook for daily updates and information.

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  1. Debrah Hickman

    This is a fantastic program in Detroit. You mention Cumberland County, NJ. Did you know that there is a program for pregnant and parenting moms and dads in Vineland High School in Cumberland County, NJ? Here is a link to the website http://www.inspirahealthnetwork.org/parent-linking-program We are doing amazing things there too! 15 of our students graduated high school this year and many are starting college! Feel free to contact me for more information. Debrah Hickman Program Coordinator IMPACT PLP hickmand@ihn.org (856) 794-6700 x 6654

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