Teaching for Two: Public Education and Pregnant Teens

By Eliza Scruton and Emily Patton

Executive Summary

Given the well-documented negative psychosocial and economic effects on the outcomes of teenage parents (Kiselica & Pfaller, 1993; Coren et al., 2003; Freudenberg & Ruglis, 2007; National Conference of State Legislatures, 2013; Einhorn, 2015), we believe it is vital that school systems offer some means of providing the resources they need to mitigate these effects. While many school districts offer no special support to teenage parents, those that do generally follow one (or sometimes both) of two models: creating a standalone school for pregnant and parenting teenagers, or providing wraparound services through mainstream schools. Currently, districts seem to be trending toward the latter model, with many alternative “pregnancy schools” across the country having closed within the past few years (Einhorn, 2015; Swaby, 2016). This trend is in part due to declining rates of teen pregnancy (Center for Disease Control, 2016) and in part due to a changing social landscape (Swaby, 2016). This essay draws on both empirical and anecdotal data to evaluate the potential impacts of this transition, and concludes that the location at which support services are provided to pregnant teens is less important than the quality and accessibility of the services themselves.



This policy report concerns the ways that public schools can provide support and resources to pregnant and parenting teenagers. In it, we highlight the advantages and drawbacks to two general models. The first of these is a model in which pregnant and parenting teens attend a separate school from their non-parenting peers, and receive the aforementioned services in the context of that school.  The second is the “wraparound services” model, wherein teenage parents receive services (such as medical care, counseling, and coordination with social workers (Swaby, 2016)) within the schools they already attend, provided by an external source.

Statistically, standalone schools for pregnant and parenting teenagers boast much higher graduation rates than the national average for this demographic; however, it remains unclear whether this type of success depends upon the standalone school model as opposed to a wraparound services model. Alternative schools provide a number of advantages, in that they provide teen mothers with a social network of their peers (Bowens, 2016) and a non-judgmental social environment (Halpern, 2011). Furthermore, their comparatively high staff-to-student ratio allows every student to receive a high level of individual attention (Halpern, 2011; Bowens, 2016). However, in many cases, pregnant teenagers opt to remain in their own schools (Orson, 2016); moreover, some have critiqued the practice of setting up alternative schools as a means to cloister teenage mothers out of sight (Einhorn, 2015), harkening back to an outdated understanding of teenage pregnancy as a social contagion (Swaby, 2016).

In order to to explore the impact of transitioning from standalone schools to wraparound services, we focus primarily on the case of the Polly T. McCabe Center in New Haven, Connecticut. McCabe, until recently, operated a brick-and-mortar school for pregnant teens, but has transitioned in the last year to offering wraparound services through other public high schools (Halpern, 2011; Swaby, 2016). Based on evidence from this school and others like it, we argue that the closing of a standalone school may be more beneficial to students provided that they continue to receive the same amount of services and resources through the wraparound program.


Teenage pregnancy in the United States today is at record lows. The CDC reports that in 2014, the birth rate for women aged 15-19 years was 24.2 per 1000 women, a 9% decrease from the previous year. This decline is consistent with overall trends since the early 1990’s, depicted in Figure 1 below, as reported by the CDC. The underlying causes of declining teenage pregnancy rates are not entirely understood, though some studies suggest that increased contraceptive use is more responsible than delayed sexual activity (Lindberg et al., 2016).

Figure 1: Trends in live births among women aged 15-19 years

Still, though, teenage pregnancy remains an important public health issue: the US has the highest rate of teen pregnancy among Western industrialized nations (CDC), and pregnancy is the leading cause of high school dropout among girls (Freudenberg & Ruglis, 2007). Reports of the precise graduation rate of pregnant and parenting teenagers vary somewhat: according to a 2013 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures, only about 40% of teenage mothers complete high school; some report the rate slightly higher, at 50% (Einhorn, 2015). Either of these figures, though, is far lower than the national average high school graduation rate, which for public school students was 82% as of 2013 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016). Because of their increased dropout rate, as well as societal stigma surrounding them and a number of other factors, teenage parents and their children are at risk of experiencing worse psychosocial and socioeconomic outcomes than their peers (Kiselica & Pfaller, 1993; Coren et al., 2003). To some extent, teenage pregnancy can be seen as a symptom of socioeconomic hardship rather than a source (Charles, 2014; Manlove, 1998): teenage pregnancy tends to follow school disengagement, as well as precede it, and rates of teenage pregnancy are far higher in areas with higher crime and poverty rates (Crane, 1991). Even after adjusting for risk factors for teen pregnancy (such as growing up in poverty or being raised by a single parent), though, the negative effects on academic performance persist (CDC). The goal of support programs for pregnant and parenting teenagers, put simply, is to buck these trends: generally speaking, programs that provide support for teenage parents seek to reduce their dropout rates, including through the prevention of further unplanned pregnancies (teenage parents of more than one child are even more likely to drop out than those with only one).

Institutional support systems for pregnant and parenting teenagers, in general, are few and far between. In the wake of declining teen pregnancy rates nationwide, many programs intended to provide support to parenting youth have been shut down (Einhorn, 2015). Nevertheless, pregnant and parenting teenagers continue to be disadvantaged in society,  and given the decline in outcomes for teenage parents, it is vital that those adolescents who do become parents receive adequate support, and are not simply swept under the rug by school districts. Many schools provide programs that focus on preventing teen pregnancy in the first place. These programs have been at least somewhat effective in increasing teen contraceptive use (Bennett & Assefi, 2005), particularly when they follow an “abstinence-plus” (as opposed to an abstinence-only) model, wherein information on contraception is included in the curriculum. Programs that provide resources to students who have already become pregnant or had children, though, are much less common: a 2012 study by the National Women’s Law Center found that only 26 states provide institutional support for pregnant and parenting teens, and only 18 explicitly disallow discrimination against teenage mothers. According to the NWLC’s study, pregnant and parenting teenagers in many schools are expelled, barred from school activities, and penalized for pregnancy-related absences.

One option for districts seeking to provide such support is to open a school designed to serve only pregnant and parenting students. In addition to services like medical care, daytime childcare, and counselling, these schools provide parenting students with a social network of other adolescent parents. In many cases, these alternative schools were founded with the intention of eventually reintegrating students into their original high schools (Orson, 2016). Some of these programs also operate through charter schools. Some of these schools, such as Pathways Academy in Detroit, provide education to their students through online courses rather than through a more traditional classroom setting (Einhorn, 2015). Students at many of these programs have cited them as a sole or significant factor in the successful completion of their high school diplomas (Konz, 2015; Skinner, 2014; Einhorn, 2015; Halpern, 2011). At the same time, though, there is some debate about the social benefits of these alternative schools. While they do provide teen mothers with a social network of their peers, some argue that cloistering teen mothers in a separate school away from their non-parenting counterparts perpetuates social stigma surrounding them (Einhorn, 2015) Programs such as these, in the context of public school districts, are not terribly common, but do exist in small number around the country.

These alternative schools are, however, dwindling in number. Several of these programs, including Detroit’s Catherine Ferguson Academy and Baltimore’s Lawrence Paquin Middle/High School, have been shut down in recent years (Einhorn, 2015). The Jefferson County Public School (JCPS) district in Kentucky is considering consolidating the Georgia Chaffee Teenage Parent Program (TAPP), which currently operates two schools, into one building in the coming years (Ross, 2015). In New Haven, the Polly T. McCabe Center recently made the transition from existing as a separate school for teen mothers to an organization that provides wraparound services through more traditional schools (Swaby, 2016). Many districts that have shut down alternative schools for pregnant students have cited budgetary concerns among their reasons for doing so (Ross, 2015; Swaby, 2016). Given the historically low rates of teen pregnancy today, it is unclear whether the benefits of running alternative schools for pregnant students are worth the added expenditures. However, monetary concerns and declining rates of teenage pregnancy are not the only reasons for the closing of many of these programs: changing societal norms also affect the demand for alternative schools for pregnant students. For example, in the case of Polly McCabe, both the laws surrounding pregnant students and the popular understanding of teenage pregnancy have changed drastically since its founding in 1966 (Swaby, 2016). At that time, pregnant students in New Haven were not allowed to attend mainstream high schools; under Title IX, this is no longer the case (Orson, 2016). Furthermore, teen pregnancy is not seen as “contagious” in the way that it once was.

Outside of alternative programs specifically for teenage parents, there are other ways for districts and states to provide resources to teenage parents, either through financial support or through subsidized services. The Connecticut Department of Education, for example, provides a program known as the Support for Pregnant and Parenting Teenagers (SPPT) grant, which operates in the five districts statewide with the highest rates of teenage pregnancy. This program more closely resembles the “wraparound services” model that New Haven’s Polly T. McCabe Center has recently transitioned to. The SPPT grant provides resources to teenage parents within existing comprehensive high schools. These services include family support, referrals to prenatal care services, child care, and parenting education. One feature of the SPPT grant, which is not generally present in programs like Pathways Academy in Detroit, JCPS’s TAPP schools, or even the Polly T. McCabe Center, is a particular focus on providing resources for teenage fathers (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2015), with the goal of increasing father involvement in their children’s lives.

Wraparound services are generally provided by state or local governments, rather than by the federal government. As such, the precise nature of these wraparound services varies significantly between programs. In the case of Polly McCabe, their six-person staff includes two outreach workers and one social worker, though the center has requested funds to hire an additional outreach worker and social worker for the upcoming school year (Swaby, 2016). These staffers provide services to pregnant and parenting mothers throughout the district. Middle school students who become pregnant also have the option of receiving schooling through New Haven’s “homebound” program, wherein students who are unable to attend school (generally due to illness or expulsion) can receive up to two hours of instruction per day in their own homes (Bailey, 2014; Swaby, 2016). One issue that still remains to be fully dealt with is that of how to provide affordable childcare to parenting teenagers during the school day: in New Haven, the only mainstream school with an operating daycare facility is Wilbur Cross High School. However, the Board of Education is considering opening another facility, possibly at Hillhouse High School or the Reginald Mayo Early Childhood School. Polly McCabe also partners with the LULAC Head Start Daycare Center, which continues to operate at the site of McCabe’s standalone school. Students receiving McCabe’s wraparound services are not required to pay for the childcare their children receive through LULAC (Bowens, 2016). In addition to the resources provided to mothers, McCabe also provides outreach to teenage fathers to connect them to jobs and other services.

Analysis: Evaluating the models

There is a wealth of empirical evidence–both qualitative and quantitative–that supports the claim that alternative schools for pregnant teens can have a positive impact on not only the educational outcomes of  teen parents, but also the health outcomes of both parents and children. A study of New Haven’s Polly T. McCabe Center for Pregnant Adolescents found reduced incidence of repeat childbearing among women who enrolled at the center (Advocates for Youth, 2009). Within six years postpartum, those who did not have another child not only had higher educational attainment, but were also less likely to rely solely on public assistance to support their families (Advocates for Youth, 2009). At the Laurence Paquin School for pregnant and/or parenting teens in Baltimore City, participating students were found to have higher educational aspiration, better reproductive health outcomes, higher contraceptive use, and more breast-feeding practice and intention than those of their non-participating counterparts (Amin et al, 2006). Detroit’s Catherine Ferguson Academy, which was in operation from 1986 through 2014, once boasted a graduation rate of 90%–a significant increase from the estimated national average of 50% (Einhorn, 2015). Other similar models have have shown students to have similar improvements in graduation and health rates (Alford, 2009, Einhorn, 2015; Halpern, 2011).

Whether these outcomes are unique to these alternative schools–or whether they could be replicated through other programs–still remains to be seen. After all, in most alternative schools, the main difference lies not in the type of facility used or even the pace or content of curriculum, but in the range of auxiliary resources and services that the school can provide, as well as the level of individual attention that each student receives from the school’s teachers and staff. This is particularly salient given the fact that the majority of the resources that alternative schools are able to provide are social services, especially when it comes to counseling. In fact, one the biggest advantages cited by both students and administrators in successful alternative schools was the degree to which the teachers and administrators could be involved in their students’ lives, both inside and outside the classroom. This high level of engagement serves to not only encourage academic achievement, but also help students overcome external barriers that might discourage them from completing their education. In an article from 2015, the principal of  the Detroit’s Pathways school described spending evenings and weekends visiting absent and prospective students (Einhorn, 2015). At other schools like Polly T. McCabe, staff members are involved in anything from helping students search for jobs to resolving interpersonal conflicts; one principal even drove a student to the hospital to give birth when her boyfriend refused to help (Halpern, 2011). This depth of involvement is enabled by the fact that alternative schools for pregnant women have a much higher staff to student ratio than other public schools. In this sense, one could argue that the key to ensuring the success of pregnant teens isn’t so much dependent on their segregation from a regular student body as it is the school’s ability to provide them with a network of support that is sufficient enough to allow them to focus on school, rather than having to navigate the difficulties of pregnancy alone.

Another way in which alternative schools alleviate pressure from their students lives is through financial support, to the extent that these schools are providing students with services and resources that they would otherwise have to pay for themselves, they offer a form of financial support. This is especially true of schools that offer child care, which can often be so prohibitively expensive that it is cheaper for young mothers to stay home rather than get a job. Other schools, like the Early Beginners Program, provide access to tangible goods including used books, maternity clothes, toys, and even weekly free diapers (Skinner, 2014). Much like counseling, these resources need not be exclusively available through a separate school facility, and could be incorporated into a wraparound services program.

The idea that students will succeed better in school when they receive more resources and attention is not exclusively applicable to pregnant women. As one journalist commented, reflecting on the success of a former McCabe student: “Perhaps she is an example of what good can come when schools don’t mainstream students with special needs; but her success may also simply indicate that any time a school system can afford to lavish attention on students who might otherwise be neglected, great things can happen.” (Halpern, 2011). It is possible that the reason why alternative schools are successful are because they are often geared towards exactly these kinds of students. Analyses of data from the National Survey of Family Growth have shown a significant correlation between socioeconomic status and teen pregnancy, with those of lower socioeconomic status being more likely to get pregnant as a teen (Hunter, 2012). Another study comparing teen mothers to their closest peers such as childless sisters or pregnant teens who had miscarried) found that the negative impact of having a child itself was marginal compared to the impact of a disadvantaged background (Halpern, 2011). In this sense, one of the most important roles of alternative schools for pregnant teens may not be mitigating the difficulties of pregnancy, but rather mitigating the obstacles of poverty.

One aspect of alternative schools that is less easily replicable in a public school setting is the community of peers that the space inherently provides. This community can serve not only as a source of positive support, but also as a shield from negative outside influences. As one McCabe student summarized: “The best thing about being [at McCabe] is that nobody judges you – nobody puts you down for being pregnant. We all understand each other; we are all going through similar situations” (Halpern, 2011). 

There is less comprehensive research and discussion on the efficacy of wraparound services compared to separate brick-and-mortar schools. The debate between the two options is centered largely on the issue of funding, with the former costing far less than the latter. In the case of Polly T. McCabe, the decision to close the school building was primarily an issue of budgetary concerns. According to New Haven’s district director of instruction, shutting down the center would mean a cost reduction of $135,306 for the principal’s salary (Swaby, 2016). The amount that the state spends annually on services for the program’s enrollees, by comparison, is $175,000 (Swaby, 2016). This money will presumably be channeled into the wraparound services which would replace the school’s official programming. In addition to cutting costs, wraparound services can also provide students with the opportunity to stay integrated in their school community, where the academic rigor and variety of course offerings may be better than their usual alternative school. This issue has come up in the debate over Polly T. McCabe, as well as other debates around the country (Konz, 2015).


For many teens around the country, teenage pregnancy can present a significant obstacle when it comes to the completion of their education. However, if these obstacles can be mitigated through public services, the odds of teenage mothers succeeding in graduation can be raised significantly. In our evaluation of these two programs, we have concluded that while schools for pregnant teens may provide teen mothers with a safe and inclusive environment in which they can navigate the difficulties of their pregnancy and impending motherhood, the success of these schools is perhaps less dependent on the fact that they are separate than it is the fact that they are well resourced. With that in mind, we do not reject the idea of wraparound services, but rather embrace them, provided that the depth and quality of these services remains the same as they would be at an original school.


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