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Education Law Center: Philadelphia’s pregnant and parenting students are ‘falling through the cracks’

July 23, 2019 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose
The story of a 16-year-old Philadelphia student who dropped out months after giving birth sets the tone for the Education Law Center’s newly-released report.

The student, who is identified as “M.J.,” claims she was treated differently after becoming pregnant and didn’t receive any academic support while on leave. Once she returned, the amount of work she missed, struggling to get to school on time and unexcused absences to take care of her sick son resulted in her dropping out the following school year, the report stated.

Maura McInerney. (Courtesy)

M.J.’s experience as a student-parent is one of several dozen stories the ELC collected for their report, “Clearing the Path: Creating School Success For Pregnant and Parenting Students and Their Children.” The report calls for the School District of Philadelphia and charter schools to make reforms in order to help students, and their children, do well academically. The report states that children born to teenage mothers are less likely to graduate from high school.

“I think that there are answers, that the poor, educational outcomes that we see, shouldn’t be accepted and shouldn’t be seen as just collateral consequences,” said Maura McInerney, ELC legal director and the report’s author.

Students felt ‘onus was on them’ instead of their schools

About 130 youth, parents, school nurses and others participated in interviews, focus groups or surveys for the report starting in the spring of 2017, McInerney wrote in an email.

Paige Joki, Independence Foundation Public Interest Law Fellow at ELC, attended some of the focus groups and talked to students who were pregnant or parenting. Joki said students reported that their schools had difficulty seeing them as both students and parents.

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Students reported that their schools had difficulty seeing them as both students and parents.

For example, some students weren’t aware they could request a bigger uniform or desk while pregnant. “Students described feeling like the onus was on them to figure out what needed to happen rather than on the adults and the systems that were charged with serving them,” Joki said.

It’s absolutely essential for students to be offered options automatically, Joki added.

Joki heard a mix of negative and positive experiences during the focus groups. While one student thought her leave was the end of her education since she felt isolated, another student received homebound instruction each day and, once the student returned, her instructor became a central figure of her education, Joki said.

Report findings and recommendations

The report outlines six barriers pregnant and parenting students face including a lack of homebound instruction while on leave, reintegration process and insufficient support, academically and parent-related, to stay in school during and after pregnancy.

“It is very important that a student feels welcome at school,” Joki said. “And I think a lot of the different barriers that students were describing, were that they didn’t feel welcome at school.”

Background information on teen pregnancy in Philadelphia, like the pregnancy rate of 35.2 births per 1,000 teens ages 15 to 19, is also highlighted in the report. For comparison, Pennsylvania’s teen pregnancy rate is 17.7 and the national rate is 22.3.

McInerney said ELC has received inquiries over the years from pregnant and parenting students about educational barriers they’ve faced.

"We need to ensure that we have provided adequate supports and interventions for these students to be successful."
Maura McInerney

“We need to ensure that we have provided adequate supports and interventions for these students to be successful,” she added. “And what we have seen over the years is, these students, in particular, falling through the cracks because there isn’t a structure in place to support them.”

The report recommends schools work with students to develop a “Pregnant and Parenting Academic Plan,” so they can continue their education while on leave. Another recommendation suggests expanding the Education Leading to Employment and Career Training (ELECT) program that offers case management and supportive services.

McInerney said ELC spent a lot of time looking at other policy models across the country for the report’s recommendations. “We were able to draw from policies that we found in specific school districts as well as legislation that had been adopted in other states,” she added.

Other recommendations address academic supports like homebound instruction and in-school accommodations like private breastfeeding spaces and on-site childcare. Parenting-related accommodations like freezing grades while on leave and revising the attendance and truancy policy are also suggested.

All 11 policy recommendations can be viewed here.

In an email, City Councilmember Helen Gym wrote she agrees with the recommendations in the report, and every student has the right to a high-quality education.

“Philadelphia’s pregnant and parenting teens deserve supports that match their unlimited potential and the potential of their young children,” Gym added. “I urge the District to expand services for youth to honor their rights. I’ll be working to ensure that we guarantee youth consistent educational instruction, a clear pathway for returning to school, and concrete help navigating health and childcare.”

McInerney said she is looking forward to hopefully working with the Philadelphia Board of Education’s Policy Committee in the coming months to present the recommendations for consideration. The School District’s Policy 234 for pregnant, parenting or married students was updated by the School Reform Commission in April 2018 before the Board of Education took over last July.

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