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December 2011 | Volume 53 | Number 12
Fighting the Female Dropout Phenomenon
In this article, educators serving pregnant and parenting students as well as leaders in youth sex education and policy discuss the elements of successful supports and interventions that can potentially lower female dropout rates.
Despite decades of decline in teen pregnancies, the United States still has the highest teen birthrate in the industrialized world. Pregnancy is also the number one reason girls drop out of school. Research shows that 3 out of 10 girls will be pregnant at least once before they turn 20. And almost half of female dropouts said becoming a parent was a factor in dropping out, according to a survey by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (For more statistics on the social, economic, and emotional costs of teen pregnancies, see the "Million Dollar Babies" infographic on page 3.)
In many cases schools send the message that pregnant and parenting students don't belong, says National Women's Law Center Senior Council Lara Kaufmann. Her organization works with schools to craft policies that comply with Title IX and other legislation supporting pregnant and parenting teens. (For more information about these policies, go to www.nwlc.org/pregnantandparentingstudents.)
Lack of transportation and child care, extended absences and other scheduling conflicts, juggling school work and parenting responsibilities, and discrimination from school faculty create barriers to teen parents' success in school. Although Title IX calls for equal opportunities for pregnant and parenting students in schools, the mandate is enforced to varying degrees depending on local leadership. Kaufmann cites a notorious example of a school (since shut down) where students learned quilting in lieu of geometry.
"It's like a temporary medical condition—students should have access to accommodations like special desks, bathroom breaks, elevator use, and food," Kaufmann says. At the very least, schools should send work home to students who are absent due to pregnancy, but Kaufmann says it's amazing how many schools don't. "Do you want students coming back to school 6–8 weeks behind?" she asks.
The Pregnant and Parenting Students Access to Education Act (H.R. 2617), introduced in July 2010 by U.S. Representatives Jared Polis (D-CO) and Judy Chu (D-CA), would provide state-level grants to better target supports to this vulnerable population. In addition to policies like these, Kaufmann would like to see supports for pregnant and parenting students as part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. "Teen parents have a big motivation to do well in school—being able to provide for their kids," she says. "They just need the support to stick with it."
How can schools be more purposeful in helping students stick with school? Experts say that schools need to be strategic about prevention education and also provide the necessary supports to retain pregnant and parenting students.
Research shows that comprehensive sex education is a proactive defense against teen pregnancy. Sex education may be a controversial topic, but most parents in the United States agree that factually and medically accurate, age-appropriate sex education is valuable.
"Poll after poll show parents support sex education that provides information about both contraception and abstinence," says Debra Hauser, executive vice president at Advocates for Youth.
Despite overwhelming evidence that comprehensive sex education works, there's a vocal minority who want to make this a moral argument, says Elizabeth Schroeder, executive director for ANSWER at Rutgers University. "But what could be more moral than teaching young people the information and skills they need to be healthy and safe now and throughout their lives?" she argues.
To support educators in providing appropriate information, ANSWER and Advocates for Youth have teamed up with the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States to create a set of K–12 national standards for sex education that will debut this month on their websites.
Hauser stresses that "sex education is absolutely essential, but [it alone] is not sufficient." In addition, teens need access to contraception, academic supports, connections, and hope for the future that will motivate them to use the information and services available to them.
Schroeder agrees, saying, "Teens can make healthy and good decisions, but we [as educators] have to teach them how to do that."
Early warning signs that students are at risk for becoming pregnant aren't very different than warning signs for other at-risk behaviors, says Chris Rollison, an educator with the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a nonprofit organization working with communities across the state to educate, train, and advocate about issues of teen pregnancy prevention.
Research shows that teens who became pregnant in school were often already disconnected or doing poorly in academics. "Involvement in the community and especially school is a protective factor for young people," Hauser says.
If teens do become parents, school connections are more essential than ever in helping students feel supported. "These students have some really challenging circumstances, so it's essential that they know we care about what's going on with them," says Principal Larry Jones, whose Bryant Alternative High School in Fairfax, Va., includes the Project Opportunity program that focuses on school-based supports for teen moms. "Once they know you care, then they're ready to learn."
School communities can also show students they care by allowing young people to create programs that speak to their needs. Any program targeting youth, whether it's preventive or responsive, needs to include the students' voice in its design, implementation, and evaluation, Hauser says: "For it to be sustainable, they need to own it."
Engaging students in this sort of meaningful work can further solidify their bonds to the school community. For example, when students from Iroquois Ridge High School in Oakville, Canada, (outside Toronto) realized that their town was the only one in the region without a sexual health clinic, they lobbied the health department to open one.
The clinic has been open for a year, and true to the needs students expressed, it's the busiest clinic in the region. It's also the busiest because "it's the only clinic in our area where kids had a voice in creating it, and so now all the kids from the other seven high schools are using it," says Mary Tabak, a public health nurse assigned to Iroquois Ridge High School through the Halton Region Health Department. Even the name of the clinic—@232 (shorthand for the clinic's address)—came from the students, Tabak adds.
The group of kids who got this project going were not your all-stars, Tabak recalls; they were engaging in some pretty high-risk behaviors. However, they felt empowered to take up this work, and today they're all in college. "I don't know where those girls would've ended up if they didn't have something meaningful to do," Tabak says.
Several schools provide exemplary services for pregnant and parenting students, either as part of a comprehensive high school or as a separate school or program, like New Futures High School in Albuquerque, N.Mex. At New Futures, mothers can bring their babies to school, breastfeed in class, get federal assistance checks on campus, and access an on-site health clinic and child care (both staffed by highly trained and licensed professionals).
"It's not like students come in, drop off their babies, and pick them up at the end of the day," says New Futures Principal Jinx Baskerville. Mothers bring their babies to hands-on labs where they learn about child development and parenting skills, and every morning and noon, they roll out 110 high chairs to eat breakfast and lunch with their babies.
New Futures isn't just about parenting, Baskerville is quick to remind. Academics, especially transitions to post-secondary education, are huge too. She cites her highly rated staff, the fact that they're adding advanced placement courses, and that all 45 of last year's graduating seniors were ready for and enrolled in college on graduation day.
Likewise, student achievement is front and center at Bryant Alternative High School, where teachers are engaged in ongoing professional learning communities about student data. Even though the professional learning communities may look a little different at Bryant Alternative—rolling admissions mean teachers must differentiate instruction and plan to meet the needs of a constantly shifting student population—the focus is still on tracking student results toward high academic standards.
Schools like New Futures and Bryant Alternative show that teachers play a huge part in curtailing the female dropout crisis.
"I've never had a teacher say it's not an issue," Rollison says of teen pregnancy. "It's getting them to understand that they can have a part in solving the problem." And if pregnancy prevention fails for some, schools can still do plenty to prevent pregnant girls from dropping out.
"The negative stigma of 'you made your bed'—that's no longer the case," Baskerville says. "We need to get over that and embrace, support, and respect these students."
Want to hear more strategies for preventing pregnant females from dropping out? Listen to experts from this story address the challenges and benefits of providing age-appropriate and factual sexual health education to young people.
Copyright © 2011 by ASCD
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