Graduation season is upon us and teenagers nationwide are celebrating their academic achievements and the start of exciting new chapters in their lives. While applauding their accomplishments, activists across the country are thinking about the needs of an overlooked demographic: teen mothers.
According to a 2012 report (PDF) by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and America’s Promise Alliance, only 40 percent of teenage mothers graduate high school. The reasons for these low rates vary from student to student. A study published in February by the African American Policy Forum found that teen mothers are often pushed out of school by staff that encourage them to drop out, strict attendance policies and zero-tolerance discipline methods.
Last month, Trameka Pope, a teen mother from Chicago, defied those odds to become the valedictorian of her graduating class. Pope was homeless in grade school and became pregnant in the eighth grade. A cheerleader who works two jobs, she has excelled academically throughout high school. Thanks to her hard work and the support she received from her teachers and counselors, she was accepted into 27 universities and has been awarded more than $600,000 in scholarships. Pope is the perfect example of what young mothers can achieve if given the right support and resources.
I understand the kinds of hurdles these young women are facing. I had my daughter when I was 15 years old. When she realized I was pregnant, my guidance counselor, apparently assuming I wouldn’t graduate high school, half-heartedly discussed my college options but otherwise refused to help me with my college applications. Like Pope, I found encouragement from a few of the teachers at my high school. Without my economics teacher telling me he believed in me, the librarian telling me she thought that I was doing a great job balancing motherhood and being a student and my performance arts teachers allowing me to pump breast milk before rehearsals, I don’t think I would have made it to my high school graduation. And six years after graduating high school — on time and with an honors diploma — I graduated from college.
Teen parents can’t do it alone. Too many of them are confronted with insurmountable circumstances. In one instance reported by the American Civil Liberties Union, a school forced female students to take pregnancy tests; pregnant teens were subsequently kicked out of school. One pregnant teen in Illinois was forced to transfer schools — thereby lengthening her commute — because school staff disagreed with her choice to parent and continue her education. According to the 2012 report, less than 2 percent of teen mothers will graduate from college before the age of 30.
It’s time to change the statistics. Activists around the country are working tirelessly to pass legislation that supports pregnant and parenting teens and their families. It’s an uphill, often isolating battle because many policymakers tend to believe the narrative that teenage parents don’t want to complete their education. But such efforts are ensuring groundbreaking legislation is being passed so young women can reach their potential.
California Latinas for Reproductive Justice (CLRJ), for instance, is working on a bill that would improve school conditions for pregnant and parenting teens. The measure, AB 302 Lactation Accommodation, would require schools to allow lactating students to bring their breast pumps to schools and store their breast milk, and provide private and secure rooms to deal with any breast-feeding needs. “Overwhelmingly, the catalyst for young mothers to continue their education rests upon whether they receive the support they need for their parenting decisions, including the decision to breast-feed,” said CLRJ’s policy manager, Myra Duran. Young parents can’t succeed academically unless they are given the proper resources to learn and raise their children.
The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) and several local organizations across the nation are pushing for another critical bill. The Parent and Parenting Students Access to Education Act of 2015 would ensure that all teen parents have the legal right to medically documented and necessary time away from school for any reasons pertaining to pregnancy or parenting without facing education punishment. Currently, pregnant and parenting teens who choose to continue their education face hostile learning environments in which school faculty and staff refuse to accommodate their federal Title IX rights, which ensure that student parents can miss school for medically necessary reasons and upon returning should be given time to complete make-up work they may have missed during their absence. Lara S. Kaufmann, senior counsel and director for education policy for at-risk students at the NWLC, states that, “It is critical that schools stop shaming and pushing out teen parents and start recognizing and investing in their potential.”
If passed, both bills would help improve the public-school learning environments for pregnant and parenting teens who are striving to advance their education but find themselves pushed aside. According to a 2007 study published in the journal Youth & Society, 30 percent of pregnant and parenting teens cite their children as a source of motivation to continue their educational pursuits.
The good news is that some elected officials are beginning to see the need for specific laws that support pregnant and parenting teens. In 2013, after relentless advocacy, support letters and visits to the state legislature, Young Women United of New Mexico and several other grassroots organizers got a groundbreaking law passed in the state legislature. The measure, House Bill 300 School Excused Absences for Pregnancy, mandates that public and charter schools allow 10 additional medically necessary and excused absences per semester for both teen parents. Unlike the Title IX rights of student parents — which in addition to allowing medical absence, mandate that schools provide temporarily disabled accommodations to pregnant teens and make necessary at-home academic instruction possible for students that cannot make it to school for medical reasons — this law includes both the pregnant teen and the child’s second parent.
We have a long way to go to fully support families and ensure that teen parents have equitable and shame-free access to the future they want. Let’s call on local elected officials to support policies that enable teen mothers rather than punish them — because they shouldn’t have to choose between school and parenting.