Teen Pregnancies Spike Drop Out Rate

February 20, 2009

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Shawana Harland and her baby Arianna (WBEZ/Natalie Moore)
At Robeson High School in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood, there are lots of reasons kids quit school. Pregnancy is definitely one of them. This year so far there are some 80 teen parents at the school. It's a district-wide issue. Yet Chicago Public Schools has nothing in place to address the problem. No prevention, no counseling once teens become parents. Instead it's up to struggling neighborhood high schools like Robeson to figure out what to do.

Related: More from our series, 50-50: The Odds of Graduating  Related: Students discuss teen pregnancy

Shawana Harland recently birthed a baby girl named Arianna. The baby stays in Shawana's bedroom. Posters of teen idols Rhianna and Lil Wayne hang on the wood-paneled walls – a simple yet tender reminder that Shawana is 14 years old, a freshman at Robeson.

She lives in a two-flat apartment with her parents. Grandma lives downstairs.
SHAWANA: They used to always talk to me about pregnancy and how young girls around the neighborhood carrying babies and stuff. And they was dropping out of school and stuff. And my mama would say, see, don't make that mistake. I made the mistake.

Shawana has had the same boyfriend since she was 12 years old. The same boyfriend she lost her virginity to…he's now her baby's father. She knew about condoms but …

SHAWANA: I don't know. It's like a boy changed my emotions and I took in to a boy too much.

Shawana is one of at least 17 pregnant freshmen at Robeson. Overall, there are about 80 teen parents at the school. And those are just the ones who tell school officials.

Despite her determination, Shawana's at risk of dropping out.

Teen pregnancy contributes to the high-drop out rate at this neighborhood high school. Robeson says it needs more help handling this and other social emotional issues that come in the doors with the kids.

MORROW: The teen parent just needs more female interaction.

Robeson Principal Gerald Morrow.

MORROW: They need more positive women interaction who can also understand their world. A lot of time us folk who are so-called professionals we forget about that element of dealing with where they are.

Morrow attended the funeral last year of one of his students who died in childbirth – a tragedy that shook the school. Morrow says he's seen how complicated life can be for students with babies.

MORROW: We have real issues as in Mr. Morrow I need to leave my child has to go to the doctor, Mr. Morrow need to leave I have to go to WIC, I don't have a daycare. Or I get Mr. Morrow it was down to buying a bus card or buying milk. And you gonna get some people who think that's not the school's role but you cannot disconnect teaching, learning and social, emotional needs.

The principal would ideally like to partner with a parent-child right next door. It could provide daycare. But Morrow says there's no money in his school's budget for that kind of support. The principal at the parent-child center says she doesn't have the money either.

What Robeson does have is this teen parenting class. David Robinson is talking with a dozen or so student parents during their lunch break. It's part of a federally funded initiative. The program is voluntary but uses incentives such as gift cards, diapers and sometimes a pizza party to get students to participate.

IVELISHA: When I did get pregnant I was like oh, I can do it, I can do it. He'll help. But at the end, he tricked me.

Student Ivelisha Woods is in the meeting. Ivelisha is 16 years old with a nine-month-old baby. Ivelisha says her father wasn't there for her. She trusted her boyfriend instead.

STUDENT: If my daddy was there I probably would never have got pregnant cause I felt that love from a man. ROBINSON: That's really a good point. Give Robin a hand because that's personal, she didn't have to share.

Lanky and laidback, David Robinson relates to the students he's trying to help.

ROBINSON: One of the most important or dominant things I see is the rate at which the father's age over the girl is extreme – it's like from 19 to 34.

And that has a ripple effect.

ROBINSON: With them being vulnerable and as a society having a lack of leadership and a lack of fathers, the first older guy that shows any fatherhood characteristics, they attach on to.

The student pregnancy problem extends beyond the Englewood community. Fourteen percent of babies born in Chicago are from teen moms.

Chicago Public Schools doesn't keep track of student pregnancies. And the district cut its popular Cradle to the Classroom program, where each student had a caseworker. There is one alternative high school for pregnant girls, but the district doesn't fund any pregnancy prevention or other support programs.

Sex education is in the schools focuses more on anatomy than sex and sexuality. If the district wants to improve its graduation rate, it should start rethinking how it can support pregnant teens, says Soo Ji Min at the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health.

SOO: if they want to take their child to the doctor that doesn't count as an excused absence.

The caucus helped teen parents across the city do their own research and present it to policymakers.

SOO: Some of it was very, very common sense. More time to get between classes. What we're finding is there're a lot of punitive policies in place that penalize young people.

Instead students need an extra boost once they become parents. Especially those who are already behind academically in underachieving schools like Robeson.

Jackie Chester is with the Chicago Child Care Society. It runs the Teen Parenting Initiative Program that's at several Chicago public high schools, including Robeson.

CHESTER: A lot of teen moms are coming from fragmented families, where suffer from substance abuse, poverty, incarceration, mental health issues. They're coming from a family where their parents weren't as able to be involved as parents because they were going through their own socioeconomic problems.

Shawana's been back in class at Robeson for about a week now and is catching up with her school work. Her daughter Arianna was born in the beginning of January.

MOORE: How was your first day back?
SHAWANA: It was okay?
MOORE: Did you miss the baby? Was it hard?
SHAWANA: A little bit. I was worried about her…'cause she was here with my daddy. You know how that is.

Shawana gets As and Bs, and a few Cs, and wants to go to college. Her teachers say she's one of the brightest in her classes.

SHAWANA: I feel like dropping out of school is the mistake. That's another mistake on top of a mistake. Why would you drop out of school because school is how you gonna take care of child.

Even as a teen mom, if Shawana succeeds in passing into 10th grade next year, she'll be ahead of many of her peers. Most of the freshmen class at Robeson will never make it to senior year.