School for Teen Mothers Sheds Light on Young Women's Pregnancy Choices

When the Lincoln Park School opened 18 years ago, it was an experimental answer to a district-wide problem: teen mothers would drop out of school, either during their pregnancy, or right after.

Even if they wanted to continue the school year they couldn't, because they would amass too many absences after giving birth.

The school provides flexible schedules and alternatives for making up credit to pregnant girls and new mothers, and staff members succeed in helping more than 100 girls to graduate each year with little recognition.

The school's nurse, Vici McClure says she realizes that the community has mixed feelings about the institution.

"I think we're doing good work here, and they tell us that sometimes, but we don't get much publicity," she said.

Between 225 and 250 girls transition through the school each year. McClure says that this represents about half of the reported pregnancies in the district, and there are likely many more pregnant teens who simply drop out without disclosing this to school administrators.

Walking around the Lincoln Park School can be a strange experience.

Like any high school, the girls are equally young -- each year they have at least one 12-year-old -- but lined up in the cafeteria for lunch, their stomachs all protruding, it's almost like another planet.

Down one hallway, infants wail through the glass partition, while in a neighboring room they sleep and coo peacefully.

"We're having some relaxing time," said a nurse as she gazed at the row of six docile babes. And then, of course, there are no boys in sight.

Though the experience of having children does seem to mature the girls rather rapidly, according to McClure, they're still teenagers.

"A lot of guys want their girlfriends to go here so they can't meet other guys," said the school's principal of seven years, Gabriel Garcia. "And some girls decide not to come here because they want to stay at their schools and make sure their boyfriends aren't with other girls."

Acceptance and Silence

When Garcia retired at the end of January the girls threw him a surprise assembly with a cake and balloons.

Personally, the experience has been fulfilling for Garcia. He says that the girls frequently come and talk to him about their problems and he feels that he's had a positive impact on the lives of not only hundreds of mothers, but hundreds of young children as well.

But although he's been glad to provide a supportive place for pregnant teenagers to complete their education, he says the fact that a school for young mothers is necessary signifies a serious problem in the district.

"Adults are not comfortable talking about sex with kids," Garcia said. "Then it creates a liability in schools when you know that some parents just get so angry about it. Teachers are scared of what you can be accused of in the classroom. It becomes safer for them to say less."

Cindy Davila has been working as a guidance counselor at the school for 17 years. She says she'll never get used to the shock of seeing a pregnant 12-year-old.

"What's she doing raising a child? She is a child," Davila said. "So many families don't expect anything different from them. There are some situations where a family is extremely poor and to bring a healthy baby into a filthy environment with drug use, or just not being able to buy new diapers, it's scary."

Davila agrees that although the school can help the girls, by the time they arrive they've already lost a number of opportunities without necessarily knowing what they've given up.

"We live in a culture that accepts unplanned pregnancy," Davila said. "Their mothers and grandmothers might have been teens too, so where can they learn something different from?"

The Difference

Maria Guerra, who asked that her name be changed for this article, is 20 years old. She's finishing up the last two credits to complete her GED at the Lincoln Park School after giving birth to her second daughter in December.

"The first baby I had was when I was 17 and that was planned," she said. "When I had her I was going to a charter school and my husband had a nice job in construction so I felt ready."

Now, after giving birth to her second daughter, Maria says she wishes she had had a bit more time to finish her education and her teenage years.

"I have two babies, I have to cook for my husband and take care of the house," she said. "There's a point where I feel like I wish I could be by myself. I'm going to be a mother who teaches my daughters to be different."

Terri Lievanos, the director of Brownsville's chapter of Planned Parenthood, says she's glad there is community acceptance of young mothers.

But she also hopes that young people like Maria will begin to see that there is a difference between having a child at 17 and having one once they've completed their education, fallen in love, and established a meaningful career.

"I used to lead a class for new teen parents," Lievanos said. "And I'd ask them the question, 'why be a teen parent at 15?' And they'd answer, 'ma'am, why not? My life isn't gonna be any different at 20 or 25.' If they grow up surrounded by teen pregnancy and violence, they're not going to know that it can be different."

Lievanos says that it's this distinction that keeps her coming to work each day, even when she feels like she's fighting a losing battle.

"I believe in what we do," she said. "I truly believe that men and women have a right to decide when or if they become parents."

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