CPS school for pregnant teens to award first diplomas

Simpson Academy for Young Women has 160 students

January 18, 2011

By Natalie Moore

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(WBEZ/Natalie Moore)
Sana Bell

There’s no firm number of how many Chicago teens moms are in high school, but there’s one stat’s that both suggestive and scary.

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, back in 2008, 13 percent of births in Chicago were by teen mothers.
 
Chicago Public Schools hopes to give girls a better chance to graduate by making changes at Simpson High – the alternative school for teen and expectant mothers.
 
Simpson High School’s walls have purple paint and a butterfly motif.
 
Both signal change and transformation.
 
Simpson students are constantly reminded that they are not mean girls. They strive to be great mothers, scholars and citizens.
 
That attitude comes out in the Simpson creed.
 
Creed recitation: We ask ourselves … Who am I to be brilliant, talented …
 
At this assembly, the assistant principal introduces someone who’s supposed to embody all that’s going on at Simpson: the new student council president.
 
What’s notable here … is that the president is actually on maternity leave …
 
ASSISTANT PRINCIPAL: I want you guys to give her a great round of applause. The one you that elected, Ms. Sana Bell.
 
SANA: As the president of student council, we would like for everybody to start coming out so that we can know what you guys would like to do.
 
Sana is 17 years old. She gave birth to a baby boy last October.
 
Simpson Principal Joi Kidd Stamps says Sana is set to graduate.
STAMPS: Sana is an extraordinary student. She is so focused on her schoolwork. Sana is the student you can count on to always complete her assignments and go to teachers if she needs help.
 
Stamps became principal this academic school year.
She works with 160 girls – some are actually in middle school.
She can point to some big changes at Simpson.
She’s beefed up the curriculum and she brought in a college fair.
But there’re challenges, too.
 
For one, there’s no daycare center. She hopes to get one by September.
Stamps can’t compel teen moms in Chicago Public Schools to come to Simpson.
Instead, she’s got to make it a warm alternative.
 
STAMPS: One of the things about Simpson is we absolutely understand is that young mothers have different needs, different priorities from a regular, typical high school student. So we offer the colloquiums, which are every single week. And they’re around topics that are very pertinent to young girls. So we’ve done colloquiums on how do you fill out childcare applications to how do you teach your child about good touch/bad touch. And then how do you relate to other women.
 
All this attention is meant to improve one thing: graduation.
Previously, if a girl like Sana Bell attended Simpson she’d go back to her regular Chicago high school to graduate … at least in theory.
 
In practice, there was no way to track whether new moms actually graduated or not.
 
Soo Ji Min is executive director of Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health.
She says Simpson’s decision to award its own degrees raises the school from its second-tier status.
 
MIN: It emphasizes the link between education and sexual health and they impact each other. Just because a young person becomes a parent it should not negatively impact their educational outcomes.
 
Sana returned from maternity leave the first week in January.
She takes notes in her favorite class … African-American history.
 
During a break, she sums up her new baby-school routine.
 
SANA: Tiring. ‘Cause the baby waking up, well he doesn’t wake up as much as he used to but now he’ll wake up at 2 and then I have to get up at 4 to get him ready and myself ready. And then sometimes he won’t stop crying because he only wants to be held by me so if I give him to my mom he’ll start fussing.
 
Sana is young, but mature. There’s no single profile for teen pregnancy, but Sana is different from some of her Simpson peers. Her boyfriend is her age, not an older man. She’s got plenty of self-confidence. She likes school.
Sana says she just happened to get pregnant by accident.
 
After school, she goes to her home in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood, makes a sandwich and waits for her mother return home with baby Kevin – he’s cinnamon brown and has a chockfull of hair.
 
Sana tells me, her parents were disappointed when she announced her pregnancy.
 
SANA: They pretty much were set on getting an abortion but I’m not comfortable with those. I don’t mind if other girls choose that it’s their choice and my choice was not to do it.
 
She eventually worked things out with her parents and they’ve given her a lot of support.
Her mom takes care of the baby while Sana’s at Simpson.
Sana recognizes she couldn’t function … and maybe not graduate … without them.
 
SANA: I feel pretty proud of myself because not only am I a teen mom but I have good grades.
 
Sana’s mom, Toni Ellis Bell, is glad Simpson awards its own degrees, but she worries it’s not academically rigorous enough for her daughter.
So, she makes Sana supplement homework with other studies. But she does like the extra attention Simpson gives Sana.
 
BELL: She’s going to be a wonderful mom. She is organized. The challenge of just being a teen mom, I’m not an advocate of that but because of the support she has, it’s going to allow her to continue academically as she already started.
 
Things are on track for Sana Bell.
 
She recently got accepted to Dillard University in New Orleans.
 
She plans to attend with her boyfriend, and study pre-law and philosophy.
 
There’s family housing and on-site daycare.
 
Music Button: Tosca, "Honey", from the CD Suzuki, (G-Stone)