Program for Pregnant Teens Could Be Cut

By DARRIN BURGESS

Shaniqua Gaylord is a budding novelist, a poet and a high school senior. At age 19, she is also the mother of a 13-month-old son. And the only way she can balance it all is because her high school, one of six public schools in Manhattan’s Julia Richman Education Complex, provides free child care from the start of class at 9 o’clock in the morning to the days’ end 6 hours later.

Otherwise, “I have no idea what I’d do,” she said, as she watched 18-month-old Brandon playing with a stuffed toy under the watchful gaze of a certified day care provider.

Shaniqua is one of about 7,000 girls under the age of 21 who give birth each year in New York City. School educators and service providers say that around 70 percent of these young women drop out of high school because they lack family support or cannot afford health care.

But Shaniqua is among the 500 young parents in the city who have had help beating these odds because of a 28-year-old program, Living for the Young Family through Education (LYFE), funded jointly by the city’s Department of Education and its child protection agency. It oversees nurseries in 38 of the city’s high schools.

Recently, however, the city agency, the Administration for Children Services, announced that it can no longer afford its contribution, which amounts to about 20 percent of the total cost of $15 million each year. Those who work with LYFE say they do not know how the program will survive without it.

Since four high schools designed specifically for pregnant girls were closed two years ago, LYFE has become the city’s only child care service of its kind, they said.

“It’s an expensive program,” said Joan Davis, retired former director of LYFE. Annually, it comes to about $30,000 to service each child.

But it pays off in benefits down the road, she said. High quality day care for infants born to unwed teens will, in effect, offer an invaluable head start to disadvantaged children as they begin their long, and potentially expensive, career as public school students.

“This is not just for these mothers,” Davis said, “This is a two-generation program.”

Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, agreed up to a point: getting those benefits, he said, requires that a day care facility provide key features, including an intellectually stimulating environment and a safe, emotionally warm atmosphere. And while $30,000 per child is on the upper end of the required cost, he said, LYFE nurseries do provide amenities that ensure a maximum return on investment.

Located on the first floor of the Upper East Side education complex, the nursery is a long space fashioned from two adjacent classrooms. Daylight streams through large windows. Toys and books are neatly stacked along floors and low-lying shelves. On one end are two sleeping rooms with wooden cribs; along the room’s side is a full kitchenette, where children are fed.

With only four infants present, the February morning was unusually slow, said Jacki Range, the nursery’s director.

She sat on a colorful rug near the sleeping rooms, bouncing an infant on her lap. “Sometimes,” she began, pausing to consider her words, “The population we have is not motivated to come everyday.”

Most of the young mothers come from economically depressed households. They commute an hour or more by train. In nearly every case, the child’s father is absent and family help is uneven at best.

The number of care providers needed to care for the 12 children enrolled this year, none of whom can be older than 24 months, include Range, along with two assistant teachers, a teacher in training and a student volunteer. In addition, Julia Richman’s staff offers month-long parenting classes for the babies’ parents. Other nurseries funded by LYFE have staff social workers.

Range is quick to point out that the nursery is not just a babysitting program. Staff are required to have a Master’s degree in elementary education. Range also earned a Master’s in infant education at St. Joseph’s College in New York.

“We’re conscientious of where they are developmentally,” she said of the infants under her care. “We want to make sure they reach their milestones.”

Benefits like these are difficult to quantify, she acknowledged, which has made it hard for people to overcome strong misgivings about the program – namely that many schools are simply uncomfortable with babies in their midst.

Of the six nurseries she has worked in during her 15-year tenure with the program, a few were hardly an accepted part of the school. One school principal, uncomfortable with students’ infants in plain view of other students, restricted the hours when Range could take the small children through hallways for required outdoor time. Range was also barred from using an elevator to travel from the nursery located on the high school’s third floor.

Davis, LYFE’s former director, said the fact that teenage mothers are often already troubled students, with low attendance and low test scores, ensures that schools are hardly eager to attract them with special amenities.

In nearly three decades, LYFE has managed to acquire space for only 638 infants and toddlers. And because these facilities are scattered throughout the city, scattered what appears to be at random—many spaces go unused. Young parents are either unaware of them or unable to commute.

The neglect of these spaces and their salaried day care providers essentially drives up the per-child cost of the entire program. It also leaves the program open to attacks from likely supporters.

“The services never adequately addressed the issue in the first place,” said Benita Miller, executive director of Brooklyn Young Mothers Collective, a non-profit organization that supports pregnant teens.

“To zero-in on these 600 seats” without addressing the other 7,000 young parents “doesn’t create success,” she said.

But arriving at a solution is nearly impossible, Miller said, because New York’s Department of Education has never assembled any demographic data on pregnant teenagers, and so a full understanding of teen pregnancy is impossible.

In fact, the estimated 7,000 pregnancies to under-aged mothers are determined each year only by looking at the Department of Health’s birth records.

Tammy Anderson, superintendent of school district 79, who administers LYFE for the Department of Education, did not return calls in time for comment, but a spokeswoman for New York Civil Liberties Union agreed that no demographic tracking for pregnant minors exists.

And since LYFE itself never tracked the students who use its services, no quantifiable data exists to show that the program leads to higher graduation rates or pulls young women up from low-income backgrounds. However, a 2001 study sponsored by the Guttmacher Institute, which studies issues concerning reproductive health, did find that teenage pregnancy reduces the likelihood that girls will graduate from high school, or if they do, go on to college afterwards.

Davis agreed that these are fundamental flaws. “My biggest frustration with this whole thing is that there is so much focus on data and numbers,” she said, adding that she was never given enough money to assemble that information.

Nevertheless, she said she has witnessed thousands of women graduate from school because of the program, and that one crucial fact suggests it helps infants as well: The family histories that LYFE nurseries collect from each young parent show that “only a tiny number say they were LYFE babies,” Davis said. The program has virtually no recidivism.

And Miller, the director of Brooklyn Young Mothers Collective, does concede that if the Department of Education were to construct some kind of comprehensive program to address the full spectrum of issues in a young parent’s life, Jacki Range’s program at Julia Richman would be the model.

With the non-traditional school schedules of Julia Richman’s progressive high schools, the complex can afford its young parents the opportunity to arrange flexible schedules.

And because the complex includes an elementary school, the children of high school students can move on to full-time education while remaining in the building their parents attend. To span the gap between the nursery and school, Range created New York’s only nursery program for three-year-olds.

Resigned to the program’s historic inability to expand, Range said she hopes budget cuts will eliminate underused LYFE nurseries rather than force active nurseries to cut back on services that have earned the trust of student parents.

Shaniqua, for instance, managed to provide for her son for a year before trusting his care to Range.

Even now, “Shaniqua is still feeling me out,” Range said.

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