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New York City
October 2003

Better Serving Teen Parents
by Comptroller William C. Thompson, Jr.

Beth isn’t the typical student, but her situation is distressingly typical.

While classmates devoted the waning weeks of summer to stocking up on supplies and trying on new outfits for back to school, she had a bigger concern—how she would care for her baby once class begins.

Her concern is valid because educators need to do more to keep pregnant and parenting teens in school. These young students face a constant tug-of-war over balancing schoolwork with the demands of parenting. And often, it is the time devoted to study and good attendance that gets sacrificed.

Many adolescent parents will not return to school this fall. That’s a shame. As I discussed in my recent report on pregnant and parenting teens, “Undercounted and Underserved,” the consequences for them and for New York City are dramatic.

Consider these facts: An estimated 70 percent of adolescent girls who become pregnant before the age of 18 will drop out. Median weekly earnings for female high school dropouts are 39 percent lower than earnings of female high school graduates. Nearly 80 percent of teen mothers must resort to public assistance for support.

In fact, across the United States, adolescent parenting costs taxpayers more than $5 billion annually in lost revenues and related social services expenses.

There are effective programs that reach out to pregnant and parenting teens before they drop out of school.

The New York City public schools have two such programs. There are four borough-wide Family Centers that provide support services during pregnancy and the postpartum period, including infant childcare, to pregnant high school students for an average of about 18 months, after which the students return to their former high schools.

Additionally, the Living For the Young Family Through Education or LYFE program provides child care on site at 42 public high schools to the children of students, and offers support services aimed at teaching parenting skills and helping students juggle their roles as parents, students and developing adults.

These programs are a good start, but they are unable to reach all who need them. My office has determined that these programs serve a combined total of no more than 2,000 pregnant and parenting students each year.

Unfortunately, New York City Department of Health and Mental Health records revealed that, as of the Year 2000, New York City had more than 20,000 mothers under the age of 21 who had yet to complete high school. Of these young mothers, 8,000 were age 17 or younger and are required by law to attend school. Even more alarming is the fact that only an average of 150 student pregnancies are recorded each year by the Department of Education under a policy that requires confidential identification and reporting of pregnant and parenting students by each City school.

The gap between the number of mothers in the City under the age of 21 who have not finished high school—20,000—and the number recognized each year by city educators—150—should serve as a wake-up call.

My report found that the Department of Education currently could not identify who most of these young mothers are and, more importantly, whether or not they are still in school.

As study after study shows, early pregnancy and parenting is a leading cause of dropout for girls across the country. Dropout rates in New York City have been on the rise for the past four years, for girls as well as boys.

Our best hope is to continue our investments in pregnancy prevention programs. However, we also must do a better job of identifying and supporting the young women who are in our schools before they are lost to the system altogether.

Students like Beth should not be forced to choose between caring for a child and getting a diploma. Parenting students need the full support of the school system so they can finish their education and build a foundation for their own and their children’s future.

By better serving teen parents, we will protect the City’s long-term fiscal health, while helping all members of these young families—the girls themselves, their children and, not incidentally, the children’s fathers (who often also are high school students themselves)—achieve their maximum potential.

New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson, Jr. is Chair of the Citywide Task Force on Adolescent Pregnancy, Parenting and Prevention.#

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Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 1588, New York, NY 10159.
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