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TC Professor Lisa Miller Talks to Boston Globe About Educating Pregnant Teens

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Lisa Miller

Lisa Miller

The Miracle of Polly McCabe

The tiny New Haven school educates just one kind of student: pregnant teens. And it's giving would-be dropouts the tools they need to turn their academic lives around. In the age of mainstreaming, though, it's a wonder the place even exists.

By Jake Halpern
February 27, 2011


Nancy is a quiet Mexican-American girl who lives in New Haven. She has shoulder-length black hair, sleepy brown eyes, and, for a time, wore a silver stud pierced just beneath her bottom lip. In late 2009, when Nancy was 14 years old, she discovered she was pregnant.

Shortly before, Nancy and her 16-year-old sister, Diana, had gone to stay with their aunt in New York City. Nancy’s mother, Sandra, was an illegal immigrant who had recently returned to Mexico to visit an ailing family member. It was unclear when or how she would get back to the United States.

The arrangement at the aunt’s house worked out fine for a while, up until Nancy got pregnant. “My aunt didn’t want me having the baby – she said, ‘If you want the baby, you can’t live here,’ ” Nancy recalled. (This story uses just the first or middle names to protect minors’ identities.) Her aunt thought having a baby would ruin Nancy’s life, that she couldn’t possibly be pregnant and stay in school. So she told Nancy she needed to pick a date to get an abortion.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Nancy told me. “I didn’t have any money, I didn’t know anybody, and my mom wasn’t there.” In a panic, she stuffed her things into a backpack, borrowed money from an uncle, and took a bus back to New Haven.

Nancy hid out at a friend’s house and stopped attending school. A few weeks later, she heard from her estranged father. He invited Nancy and Diana to move into his New Haven apartment. Nancy hadn’t spoken to her father in three years, but she needed a place to stay. Plus, he lived just a few blocks away from John, the 15-year-old father of her baby.

For a time, Nancy’s life felt relatively stable. She was living with her father, and her sister had joined them from New York. But she still had no idea when she would be able to return to school.

One evening still early in her pregnancy, she was shopping for maternity clothing at Walmart when she began to have heavy vaginal bleeding. She remembers thinking she was about to lose the baby. She rushed to Yale-New Haven Hospital, where the doctors assured her that both she and the baby were OK.

Afterward, a nurse asked Nancy about her plans for the future – would she return to school? Nancy wasn’t sure how she could. The nurse handed her a piece of paper with a phone number for a nearby alternative school named Polly McCabe. Nancy called, and a week later she was a student again.

The Polly T. McCabe Center is a public school that enrolls only one type of student: pregnant girls like Nancy. Some of the teens appear old beyond their years, with faded flowery tattoos winding up their arms; others are self-conscious, fretting over stretch marks more than pimples. The staff at McCabe, led by principal Bernadette Strode, strives to keep students in school and simultaneously teach them to be good mothers. The girls get door-to-door bus service, on-site child care, classes on child rearing, in-school visits from prenatal experts, intensive support from case workers, and even home visits from teachers if they go on bed rest.

The idea behind McCabe is not just to help teen mothers, but also to fight poverty. According to the latest national figures from Child Trends, a nonpartisan research center, 43 percent of girls who have babies before age 18 don’t earn high school diplomas or GEDs by the time they’re 22. This, of course, severely limits their prospects for economic advancement.

Nationally, pregnancy is the leading cause of teen girls dropping out of high school. According to the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, more than 2,000 new mothers and fathers in this state leave school each year. Local officials say they want to cut that dropout rate in half by 2014, but Boston has only one school devoted entirely to pregnant teens – St. Mary’s Alternative School in Dorchester – and it has the capacity for only 20 students (less than half as many as the McCabe Center). That’s not many spots, given the fact that Boston has more than 500 new teen mothers each year.

A few decades ago, there were almost 300 “pregnancy schools” like St. Mary’s and McCabe across the country. But starting in the late 1970s, the federal government began to slash funding for them, and many have closed. New York City, for instance, shut down its four schools in 2007. To some, the idea of separate schools for distinct groups – especially disadvantaged ones – seemed a little too much like segregation. “The students who got shipped off to these schools were poor students of color who already had gaps in their education,” says Benita Miller, executive director of the nonprofit Brooklyn Young Mothers’ Collective. When Miller visited one now-shuttered school in Brooklyn, she was surprised to see students not studying, but taking naps and knitting baby blankets.
Many educators instead embraced the virtues of “mainstreaming,” where all students, no matter their circumstances, shared one experience.

But Lisa Miller, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, thinks the mainstreaming movement has gone too far. She says she studied students at New York’s onetime pregnancy schools and witnessed a kind of education that defies normal academic benchmarks. During one group therapy session Miller attended, a student confessed that she couldn’t afford diapers – much less anything else her baby would need. The baby’s father was in a gang, though, and other gang members’ girlfriends had offered to throw her a lavish baby shower, but only if she swore her newborn into the gang. “The girls in the therapy session confronted her and got through to her in a way that couldn’t be matched by any therapist,” Miller says. The girl ended up forging a relationship with her boyfriend’s mother, who bought her what she needed. In the mainstream model, Miller says, “I can’t envision a space where pregnant girls could redirect their lives like this.”

 “I didn’t know what to do,” Nancy told me. “I didn’t have any money, I didn’t know anybody, and my mom wasn’t there.” In a panic, she stuffed her things into a backpack, borrowed money from an uncle, and took a bus back to New Haven.

Nancy hid out at a friend’s house and stopped attending school. A few weeks later, she heard from her estranged father. He invited Nancy and Diana to move into his New Haven apartment. Nancy hadn’t spoken to her father in three years, but she needed a place to stay. Plus, he lived just a few blocks away from John, the 15-year-old father of her baby.

For a time, Nancy’s life felt relatively stable. She was living with her father, and her sister had joined them from New York. But she still had no idea when she would be able to return to school.

One evening still early in her pregnancy, she was shopping for maternity clothing at Walmart when she began to have heavy vaginal bleeding. She remembers thinking she was about to lose the baby. She rushed to Yale-New Haven Hospital, where the doctors assured her that both she and the baby were OK.

Afterward, a nurse asked Nancy about her plans for the future – would she return to school? Nancy wasn’t sure how she could. The nurse handed her a piece of paper with a phone number for a nearby alternative school named Polly McCabe. Nancy called, and a week later she was a student again.

Some educators have recently begun re-entertaining the notion that there may be distinct benefits to niche schools. Several states, for instance, educate former drug and alcohol abusers at so-called “sober schools.” In Illinois, there are three Urban Prep Academies – all-male, mostly African-American charter high schools. Last spring, the Urban Prep program graduated its first class – all 107 students were headed to college.

These schools appear to work, in large part, because the staff maintains an intense sense of purpose and because students with similar life circumstances band together. “A school is only 50 percent a curricular space – it is every bit as much a psychological space,” Miller concludes. “Some students have very specific needs that can only be met through the psychological space of the school, and, for these students, mainstreaming can work against them.”

Nancy arrived at McCabe on a bleak December morning in 2009, when she was nearly five months pregnant. Initially, she came across as polite but guarded. “I have seen people beaten down mentally – without hope – but I didn’t see that with her,” says Strode, the school’s principal. “I remember saying to Nancy’s case manager, ‘There is something here that is hidden.’ ”

One member of the McCabe staff told me that the key to motivating students is “gentle nagging” – asking them every day whether they’ve done their homework or perhaps obtained a car seat for their baby. Yet, according to Strode, the key is for students themselves to believe both that they belong there and that the school can really help them.

McCabe devotes much of its resources to two areas: providing in-school child care for the new mothers and keeping class sizes very small. A student named Bernice told me that she could never make sense of the periodic table in chemistry class at her previous school: “When I came here, the periodic table just seemed to make sense and fly by with no problem at all. The teacher could stop and break it down. I am now in a class of six or four, as opposed to being in a class of 27. I can say, ‘Excuse me, I need help understanding this,’ and they can stop and explain, which they couldn’t do at my old school.”

Nancy also seemed to benefit from the personal attention at McCabe. Her homeroom teacher, Elizabeth Bradshaw, told me that one day Nancy confided that she had never learned how to read a newspaper. Bradshaw showed her how the stories from the front page were continued in other sections. “After that, every day she read the whole paper, cover to cover, everything from the cartoons to the Op-Eds,” Bradshaw said. Nancy’s art teacher, Brigitte London, praised her artwork and encouraged her to submit it to several shows and competitions.

There is, however, more than just anecdotal evidence to suggest that McCabe is effective. Two researchers at Yale University, Victoria Seitz and Nancy Apfel, studied a group of students who attended McCabe in the early 1980s and tracked their progress for 18 years. They found that the longer nearly failing students stayed at McCabe, the more academically successfully they became. For the students who spent one academic quarter there, 17 percent had either graduated or were on track to do so two years later. For those who stayed four quarters, that number jumped to 80 percent.

The school’s track record remains impressive today. At the national level, only 38 percent of young mothers graduate from high school by age 22, and even fewer go to college. But last year, 80 percent of McCabe students graduated, and 50 percent were looking forward to filling out their college applications.

What makes McCabe work? What’s at the core of its success? It could be the small class sizes or the staff’s “gentle nagging,” but it could also be the school’s esprit de corps – the sense of common purpose and belonging that its students feel. Donna Ford of Vanderbilt University, who studies student underachievement, describes this phenomenon as a “cohort effect.” She explains: “When you take a cohort of kids with similar needs and issues and put them in a safe haven – without any distractions – it makes all the difference in the world.”

Nancy made this same point to me on several occasions. “The best thing about being [at McCabe] is that nobody judges you – nobody puts you down for being pregnant,” she said. “We all understand each other; we are all going through similar situations.”

What Nancy said really resonated for me during a class field trip. Last May, high school students from around New Haven had been invited to see a matinee of A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen. Nancy and some of her classmates were bused to the theater, and as we pulled into the parking lot, we saw several hundred students milling around. Almost all of them were white, and none appeared pregnant. A few McCabe students stood up as if to leave the bus, then sat back down. Outside, many of the other kids just kept staring.

“Don’t look at our bus!” one of the McCabe students yelled out the window.

Another McCabe student chimed in, “I used to be that skinny!”

“They look at you like, ‘Why’d you do this?’ ”

one girl told me. “Like they would never have done it.”

Eventually, the McCabe girls exited the bus, entered the theater, and headed en masse to the bathroom, where they stayed for a long time before finally taking their seats.

The play was a success. When the McCabe students were back on the bus, a lively discussion broke out about the protagonist, Nora, who abandons her patronizing husband and their children. “She left the kids – I don’t think that was right at all,” said a girl named Nicole. “If you are a mother, you have to take care of the kids.”

 “I like the fact that she left the husband,” Nancy said. “She saw that she had to be independent and that no girl needs to be tied up to a man, but I don’t like the fact that she left her kids behind. If you abandon your kid, that is just like giving up on life.”

In the spring of 2010, Nancy heard from her mother, who was planning to illegally cross the border back into the United States in time for Nancy’s June due date. Nancy was elated. But a few weeks later, she heard that her mother had been diagnosed with pelvic cancer and wouldn’t be making the trip after all.

I found myself wondering what kind of support Nancy would have for the baby, especially once she had to leave McCabe. And so one afternoon I rode the school bus home with Nancy and joined her and her boyfriend, John, at a local pizzeria. John was slim and handsome, with gelled hair, a boyish face, and a trace of a mustache. They held hands nervously as Nancy recalled how they had met: “It was love at first sight. Everyone knew I liked him, except him.”

Nancy said that her biggest source of frustration with John was how much time he spent playing video games like Call of Duty. “When he stops playing video games, he will pay more attention to me,” she told me with a smile. She paused for a moment. “How old are guys when they stop playing video games?”

After finishing our pizza, we set off to meet Nancy’s father, who lives in a small duplex overlooking a highway. The walls of the apartment were bare, as if the family had just moved in or perhaps was ready to move out at any time.

Nancy’s father, a landscaper, looked exhausted. He told me that the prospect of supporting Nancy and Diana as well as his wife and their three children so troubled him that he sometimes couldn’t sleep at night. “I worry, what if something happens and I die tomorrow?” he said, glancing at Nancy. “Who will help her?”

(Reprint from Boston Globe)

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