Many pregnant teenagers in the Central Valley are highly motivated to graduate from high school and continue their education, but some schools make the task more difficult – and violate federal law–- by funneling expectant and parenting students into alternative schools and denying them access to college-track classes, according to a report released Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.
The report takes aim at the stereotype of the pregnant teen who loses interest in school and drops out. Instead, the report said, schools often place barriers in the way of pregnant teenagers by penalizing them for missing classes for pregnancy-related medical reasons, shaming them for being pregnant and failing to provide breast-feeding and other accommodations called for under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
“Pregnant and parenting students have a right to a quality education,” said Angélica Salceda, a lead author of the report. “They want to thrive and they will thrive if they’re provided the support the law requires.”
“We’re actually trying our best to get a good education,” said Elia Garcia, a teen mother and high school student in the Montebello Unified School District.
While teen birth rates have fallen in California, rates in the Central Valley are among the highest in the state. The report examined policies in 22 districts in Fresno, Madera and Tulare counties. Only one-third of the districts had programs to support pregnant and parenting teenagers, the report found.
Because California schools are not required to collect data on pregnant and parenting students, the report acknowledged the difficulty in assessing how well districts are meeting the needs of the students. The authors drew some of their findings by surveying nearly 200 Central Valley teen parents about whether they had received legally required accommodations for doctor’s appointments and assignment make-ups. In addition, teen parents were asked if they had been told they had the right to remain in the same school and attend the same classes and activities as their non-pregnant peers.
Although the report focused on the Central Valley, the authors said that pregnant and parenting students across the state often face the same obstacles at school.
Elia Garcia, a student at Bell Garden High School in the Montebello Unified School District, said that when she became pregnant as a sophomore, she had no idea that the law gave her the right to continue her current academic program. Instead, she said she was informed that she had to leave the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program, created by a San Diego-based nonprofit organization to prepare students for college.
“When I told my counselor I was pregnant, she said ‘You can no longer be in AVID,'” Garcia said. “She said it was going to be a big responsibility for me to be a parent.”
She left that program, but Garcia, who is the mother of a year-old son, Abraham, said she has received academic and social support from the Justice for Young Families Initiative, a program of the Los Angeles-based advocacy group California Latinas for Reproductive Justice. She is on track to attend a community college and plans to transfer to a four-year college.
“A lot of people see us as, oh, well they’re not going to go to college, they’re just going to get welfare,” Garcia said. “We’re actually trying our best to get a good education.”
Art Revueltas, deputy superintendent of Montebello Unified, said the district does not exclude pregnant or parenting students from the Advancement Via Individual Determination program and he had no knowledge of conversations Garcia might have had. “That’s not how we do things,” Revueltas said. Montebello was not one of the districts included in the ACLU report.
School supports for pregnant and parenting students, which often include child care, parenting classes and connections to community agencies, were dealt a blow when the state’s new education finance system ended funding for the California School Age Families Education program, or Cal-SAFE. Introduced in 2000, the program was widely regarded as effective, with more than 73 percent of its students graduating from high school, according to a 2010 report to the Legislature.
But the program’s reach weakened over time because of cuts in the state education budget and a 2009 legislative decision that allowed districts to use program funds for other purposes. Now, under the Local Control Funding Formula launched in 2013, districts are free to make their own spending choices, and many have dropped the program, the report said.
The ACLU report urged school districts to fulfill their obligations to pregnant and parenting students by funding California School Age Families Education programs through their Local Control and Accountability Plans, which are three-year planning documents for boosting student achievement that districts update annually.
Christina Martinez, a Sacramento preschool teacher, former teen parent and founder of an advocacy group called #NoTeenShame, said that for her, as for many other teen parents, finding out she was pregnant 18 years ago motivated her to achieve. “I really knew I had to get things together and the first thing I had to do was to graduate,” she said.
The educational system she faced in high school was often harshly critical of pregnant students, she said, and remains so today.
“There are a lot of people I work with who have distaste and disgust for the entire situation,” Martinez said. “I’m trying to advocate for these parents, because I know the long-term effects should they not complete their education.”