By Chris Kieffer
When the Pascagoula School District began its “Destination Graduation” dropout prevention campaign in 2008, it included one group of students the district knew it must reach.
“We realized we weren’t addressing teen moms, and that was hurting our graduation rate,” said Debbie Anglin, director of communications for the 7,100-student school district.
Connie Jo Williams, the school district’s Early Beginnings director, now meets every other week with pregnant students and student mothers at the district’s two high schools, Pascagoula and Gautier. They meet for an hour-and-a-half and focus on such topics as budgeting, eligibility for Medicaid, safe sleeping policies and good study habits.
“It is a parenting class, but it also is just a support group for teen mothers,” Williams said. “You can walk in with the greatest lesson plans, but sometimes students will start talking and will talk for an hour-and-half. They have to have someone to talk to.
“We’ll talk to them and calm them down and quell their fears and work with them.”
The program has graduated 100 percent of its seniors each year, Williams said, noting that usually includes between 25 and 35 seniors annually.
Mississippi has a higher percentage of births to teenage mothers than all but one other state.
In 2011, Mississippi saw 50.2 births per every 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19. That ranked 49th nationally, barely ahead of Arkansas’ 50.7.
The high number presents a challenge to schools to find ways to support pregnant students and student mothers. With the extra responsibility of a child to care for, those students are statistically more likely to drop out of school. That only perpetuates the cycle of poverty, making it more difficult for the mother to get a job and earn an income to support her children.
Former State Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham said a number of Mississippi schools are beginning to provide child care and taking deliberate steps to educate those mothers. He specifically cited Pascagoula’s program and the district’s superintendent, Wayne Rodolfich.
“The most important thing is that we keep them in school so we can break that cycle of poverty,” Anglin said.
Each of the student mothers is given Williams’ cell phone number and can call her at any time.
“You have to teach them about being a mother, and you have to do that graciously,” Williams said.
The McComb School District provides childcare for children of its teenage mothers at its Kennedy Early Childhood Center, which also serves parents of staff members, children with severe disabilities and – when space is available – those from the general community. The center also houses the district’s kindergarten classes.
The program uses early-learning academic guidelines from the state and from the Common Core State Standards. Student mothers can enroll their children in it once they are six weeks old. To use the program, however, those mothers must remain in school, said Katrina Hines, principal of the center.
The student mothers also must enroll in a family nurturing class as part of their course work. They visit the childcare center for training on how to care for their babies and about engaging activities they can do at home.
“Typically, when you have your teen parents, you consider some of their children to be at risk,” said Hines, noting that the teen mothers may not yet understand necessary parenting skills. “We feel like it is a better investment if we get them at birth and we start on their education so they can be well prepared as they transition through school.”
The center has been open for about 12 years, Hines said, and is funded by district funds and some special education money, although it has received grants in the past.
The Tupelo Public School District had a special School Age Mothers program between 2010 and 2012. It grouped pregnant students and student mothers at the Link Centre so that they would be together with peers and not as embarrassed to continue to come to school.
The program also offered parenting lessons, and it included computer courses so students could make up credits if they had fallen behind.
It did not provide child care.
Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden said the district discontinued it last December because enrollment had declined, and the program was not producing graduates at the expected level.
Instead, the district decided it was more cost-effective to bring those students back to the high school campus. He said the school’s switch to a block schedule in 2012 allows students to earn eight credits in a year instead of seven, which helps students who have fallen behind to get back on track.
The district also will look at having some parenting seminars to help student mothers and fathers during its T-period, a 25-minute block of time every morning. The period is often used for tutoring and other enrichment activities.
“We can have speakers come in and work with them while they’re pregnant, and also have seminars and lessons on parenting,” Loden said.
The Lee County School District provides homebound services to its student mothers during the six weeks while they are recovering from their delivery, said Debbie Pickens, director of student services for the district. That includes bringing school work to the student’s home so they don’t fall as far behind, and having a certified teacher work with them for up to two hours each week.
Superintendent Jimmy Weeks said he wished the district had funds to also provide childcare once the students returned to school.
“It would be great if we could provide a daycare service, so those kids could get a diploma and not worry about daycare,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’re not able to do that.”
Jamie Bardwell, director of programs for The Women’s Fund of Mississippi, said schools need to be sensitive to the special needs of such students, noting that they may have to miss class time for doctors appointments, for instance.
Interim State Superintendent of Education Lynn House called on schools to be creative so student mothers can finish their education and provide a better future for themselves and their children.
“Just because you are a teenage girl who is pregnant, it doesn’t mean your life has to be over,” House said, “but what can we do to help students and young people who are in that situation to ensure they have a brighter future?”