"What can you do to stem the tide of teen pregnancy?" Jacquelyn Wideman asks from New York City, where the rate is at least 12 percent higher than the national average.
"Get them engaged," she says, answering her own question.
To do this, she proposes New Directions, a proposed charter school for Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. The idea behind it is to get teenage mothers and fathers dealing with their new responsibilities in "a motivational, supportive environment," Wideman, a nonprofit consultant on the planning team, explains. "The proposed charter high school seeks to give them the environment, the area, the access to continue their education."
New Directions is the dream of a group of New Yorkers, many of whom are associated with the Faith Assemblies of God Church in Brooklyn. According to the school's working mission: it would "provide an environment that is non-judgmental, encourages academic growth and excellence, develops self-confidence and worth and promotes critical thinking skills that will open the door for positive life choices."
How exactly does a school that serves teen parents "stem the tide of teen pregnancy"? For one, it's not accommodating the teenagers. It's challenging and equipping them to meet the difficulties of their new life as parents. "They see this is very hard. That may prevent them from a repeat pregnancy," Wideman explains. The engagement strategy is quite practical: "Keep them busy, so they're not motivated to have a second child."
The school's curriculum would avoid busy work. Wideman stresses excellence, with stringent class requirements and a focus on the graduation rate. Helping at-risk students end up college-bound is not an easy task, but with online schools and other options, New Directions would help these too-young parents map out their options. Wideman tells me that her organization wants "to get students educated, to assist them to in completing their educations, providing employment opportunities, and helping them succeed."
In 2007, the last four public high schools for pregnant teenagers closed in New York City. Wideman believes the reasons they failed were a lack of vigilance in covering core subject areas, failure to prepare students for key state exams, and lack of follow-through when a student didn't show up. Attendance was low. The New Directions planning team wants to make sure that theirs is one place that reaches out and holds enrolled students accountable.
But by pushing teen parents to see opportunities that could be theirs, the New Directions strategy is to not pretend that life has not changed. Further: "We want to discourage them to get pregnant again," Wideman tells me. While creating a "non-judgmental" environment, New Directions would seek to put these kids on a truly new direction: away from more pregnancies before they're ready, and away from dependency. Toward even the possibility of, perhaps, something more than a "minimum-wage-paying job," through a lot of work in this new reality — providing for the family they've created.
A critic of the idea told the New York Post, "I don't think that we should be creating schools that segregate young women or men based on their parenting status." But it's precisely when we treat teen pregnancy as just another lifestyle choice that we've surrendered. And, frankly, there's a little healthy stigma that comes from separation — not to make a new parent feel bad when already they're overwhelmed, but to enforce the idea, to new parents and their teenage colleagues, that family is serious business. Pregnancy does change things: her life became a lot more work; he sure had to grow up fast.
This is all certainly a matter for continuing discussion and study (and New Directions is nowhere near a reality yet; its proposal is being tweaked and resubmitted next January; a similar successful model exists in Detroit): How to make sure too-young parents have the support they need when they find themselves in a difficult situation, without encouraging the behavior that got them into the situation in the first place? In New York, a city with a shockingly high 41-percent abortion rate — higher in Brooklyn and higher among black and Hispanics — it is crucial for young women and girls to know that if they wind up pregnant, they don't have to end their child's life. There is adoption, and there is help. Numerous religious and social organizations, such as Good Counsel Homes and Sisters for Life, offer needed services to struggling young parents.
But a conversation about kids who are having or have had kids cannot be had without talking about abstinence. Successful abstinence education is really character education, and involves making one's life about more than attracting the attention of the opposite sex. It's about giving students more to aim for than what they may see around them; it's knowing that life and love can and should be about mutual and self-respect, dignity and responsibility.
It's about making sure they know that teen pregnancy is not a ticket to a lifelong ride on government assistance. That lies at the heart of the goal of New Directions. And it's not a bad direction at all.