Bearing the Burden 

The school system braces for a new round of teen mothers

The school system braces for a new round of teen mothers

Just a few decades ago, pregnancy didn’t exist in Nashville’s public school system—at least not that anyone could see. Unwed teachers who got pregnant were fired. Even married teachers who got pregnant had to take a leave of absence by the end of their fifth month.

And pregnant students were sent to Murphy School—a special school for expecting students located near Baptist Hospital.

Times have changed.

Last year, a survey at Stratford High School revealed that 104 girls—about one in five—were either pregnant or already had kids. “It’s a problem that requires a lot of attention on our part,” says Nancy Dill, Stratford’s principal. “We are called upon to help the girls through the process, to put them in prenatal care, and to help them get their babies on Tenn- Care. Sometimes, we even have to help them tell their parents.”

Pregnancy is generally acknowledged to be a contributor to the school system’s dropout rate. Last year, the Metro school system reported that 16.3 percent of the high school graduating class had dropped out during the previous four years. That number compares favorably to the 21.1 percent dropout rate that Nashville reported in the 1993-94 school year, but it is higher than the statewide dropout rate of 14.4 percent.

Stratford conducted the pregnancy survey on its own initiative, and there is no evidence that its students are more likely to get pregnant than students at other high schools. “It’s a citywide problem,” says Clay Myers, the executive principal at Hillwood High School. Myers says he doesn’t know how many students at his school are pregnant or already have children. He suspects that the number of Hillwood students who have babies is lower than the number at Stratford. “But I also suspect that kids in this part of town are more likely to have abortions than they are in poorer areas,” he says.

Teen mothers are so numerous in the Metro school system that two high schools—Maplewood and Pearl-Cohn—actually have state-funded day care centers for students (leading many teen mothers to transfer to those schools). “The students realize that this is a real-life situation that has to be dealt with,” says Brenda King, executive principal at Pearl-Cohn. “Our big goal is to encourage them to stay in school. Taking care of these kids may cost us some money in social services now. But if we don’t work with them and help them graduate, it will cost a lot more money in social services down the line.”

Despite such anecdotal information, teen pregnancy is actually less common locally and nationally than it was 10 years ago. In 1999, 559 girls between the ages of 10 and 17 got pregnant in Davidson County, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. A decade earlier, the number was 717. Statewide, the pregnancy rate fell from 25.1 per 1,000 teenage girls in 1989 to 17.5 per 1,000 in 1999.

Dill and many other high school principals, such as Julie Williams of Hunters Lane, believe teen pregnancy is down because schools and social agencies are now more willing to confront the problem. “It’s better to expose the students to the realities of pregnancy than to shield them from it,” she says.

Shockingly enough, Williams says one reason it can be difficult to fight teen pregnancy is that many high school students believe having children will help them emotionally. “Some students who have low self-esteem believe a baby will give them the unconditional love that they are not receiving from parents, grandparents, or friends,” she says.

A nonprofit organization called Crittenden Services used to be Nashville’s primary teen pregnancy prevention and services agency. But last year, Crittenden closed because of fund-raising problems. An organization called Taking Charge, based in the basement of East Magnet School, has filled the void.

The organization’s coordinator, Lynn Stuart, says that the best way to fight teen pregnancy is with a hefty dose of reality. “Kids need to know more than just the physical facts on how easy it is to get pregnant,” he says. “They need to know how hard it is to raise a child, how much diapers and formula cost, all that.”

Despite the efforts of educators and social workers, Stuart says the pressure for young people to have sex is in some ways greater than ever. “If you don’t believe that kids are surrounded with images of sex, then watch music videos one day,” he says. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be 15 or 16 and have to deal with those kinds of images.”

Taking Charge encourages girls to take part in extracurricular activities, such as athletics. “Sports require a lot of time and make kids feel good about themselves,” says Teresa Johnson, a Taking Charge educator. “If kids have goals, they are less likely to let something get between them and those goals.”


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