By Patrick Anderson
None of the Gloucester High School students who got pregnant or had children during the school year have dropped out, and Principal Joseph Sullivan credits the in-school day-care program and health clinic with keeping them in school.
But this year's spike in teen pregnancies at the school — 18, as compared to three or four in an average year — will pose a huge challenge for the day-care center in September. Only three young mothers were enrolled in the program for the academic year that just ended. For 2008-2009, eight have applied for the seven available slots in the free program, and there's already a waiting list.
Across the country, studies have linked teen pregnancy to high dropout rates and since 1996 Gloucester High School officials have utilized child-care and parent services provided by local nonprofit Pathways for Children to keep student-mothers in school.
But for the upcoming school year, "It is a concern that we may not be able to provide services for everyone who needs it," Lisa Sorrento, program coordinator at Pathways, said yesterday. "At this point, we don't know if all the mothers will stay on the list."
Sorrento said she did not know what any mothers will do if they cannot get a spot in the day-care program, called the Young Families Initiative.
As discussions among school, city and medical officials about responses to the spike in teen pregnancies, now placed at 18 (an increase from previous reports) by a member of the health clinic staff, some have raised questions about whether having day care in the school might be encouraging students to have babies and contributing to the problem.
The issue burst into the national spotlight yesterday, when Time magazine posted a story on its Web site about the Gloucester pregnancies. The story appears in the print edition that will be on newsstands today, and refers to some of the girls as having formed a "pact" to get pregnant and raise the children together.
Gloucester Daily Times stories from March and last month had also noted that a number of the girls had apparently chosen to become pregnant, and that some who were tested at the school-based clinic were disappointed when their tests were negative. The Time magazine coverage led to the Gloucester High School issue receiving exposure on national network newscasts and cable news talk shows last night.
Schools Superintendent Christopher Farmer, a supporter of the day-care program, said yesterday that when city leaders and the School Committee begin debating a comprehensive policy regarding teen pregnancy — which is expected to include a recommendation on whether to provide confidential contraception services — he expects providing day care will be one of the questions on the table.
"Some people have said that because the facility is there, it encourages pregnancy," Farmer said. "I think that is hard to believe. Clearly if we can keep them in school, it gives them a better chance in the future."
Principal Sullivan suggested that some guidance counselors from other school districts in the region had recommended to students who are or want to become pregnant, to transfer to Gloucester through the state's School Choice program so they could take advantage of the day-care facilities.
Farmer said he didn't think that was likely and that the overwhelming majority of the 29 students transferring to Gloucester High School through School Choice this past year were doing it for the school's academic and athletic programs.
Manchester Essex Regional High School Assistant Principal Paul Murphy has said he does not know of any students who have become pregnant this year. Rockport Principal Charles Symonds said earlier in the month that he did not know how many students at his school were pregnant, but thought it was not a large number.
The identities of the men responsible for impregnating the 18 girls at the school have remained largely unknown, but officials have said they think a majority are not students. As reported by many national media outlets this week, Sullivan said one of the fathers was a 24-year-old homeless man.
To take advantage of the free day care, Gloucester High School students must be enrolled full-time, spend at least eight hours a month in parent support classes, and help out taking care of the kids at the center.
The day-care center is located in a converted classroom where around half of the space is dedicated to child care and the other half is stocked with chairs and desks. The Young Families Initiative runs a single-period, five-day-a-week parenting class at the day-care center.
Susan Todd, CEO of Pathways, said yesterday that the primary goal of the Young Families Initiative was to have the girls who become pregnant finish high school. In the 2006-07 school year, all four girls enrolled in the program not only graduated, but went on to attend college, Todd said.
Todd said in addition to keeping the mothers in school, Young Families tries to keep babies inside the day-care room. Rumors and media reports that the halls of the high school are filled with baby strollers, Todd said, are not accurate.
"The primary objective is to make sure that when girls get pregnant they graduate high school," Todd said. "The other is to change the circumstances that led to the pregnancy. It is providing a critical support for a very young parent. We are the safety net."
Todd said all research into the impact of day-care services in high schools indicated that the presence of child-care services does not cause higher teen pregnancy rates.
"On no level can I believe that a child care center at a high school plays into a girls impulsiveness to have a baby," Todd said. "Once this happens they are happy we are there and the data supports this."
The School Committee is expected to vote on a comprehensive policy for limiting teen pregnancy sometime before the beginning of the next school year in September.
A series of meetings intended to educate the committee on the subject, ordered by Mayor Carolyn Kirk and being led by Director of Public Health Jack Vondras has been planned for the summer but not yet scheduled.
Patrick Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.