Shocked at the idea of a school show case displaying bibs and pacifiers? Or the school cafeteria hosting baby showers?
(A baby shower is a party in which expectant parents receivegifts for their expected or born child. By convention, a baby shower is intended to help parents get items that they need for their baby, such as baby clothes. It is a popular tradition in the United States, but not in the schools though!)
AdvertisementWell, the Simpson Academy for Young Women, the Chicago school dedicated to pregnant and parenting students, organizes such parties and a lot more.
It says: "The mission of Simpson Academy for Young Women is to educate young women who are currently pregnant or parenting....
We place special emphasis on prenatal education and parenting skills to attain healthy pregnancy outcomes and to train competent young mothers."
When school authorities directly and indirectly pressurized the pregnant girls to drop out, those offering a more supportive environment for pregnant teens sprang up everywhere in the seventies.
But with pregnancy no longer cause for expulsion and shame, "p schools" are vanishing, course. Still the Chicago Simpson is thriving. At the moment it serves 276 girls between the ages of 11 and 18. Attendance and test scores are up; so is satisfaction.
There's even a waiting list for middle school.
Simpson girls make up a small fraction of all Chicago Public Schools students who are pregnant or parenting. Teens can remain at other schools up to their due date, and many schools have adopted their own programs for pregnant students.
But the girls who choose Simpson say that, for all the efforts to remove the stigma of teen pregnancy, they still feel more comfortable at a place where everybody understands what they are experiencing.
From big matters (getting a diploma) to small (frequent bathroom breaks), Simpson is focused on what they need.
"This would be a lot harder if I were back at my old school," said Allegra Kennedy, 14, who would be attending Gage Park. "But here, everyone is really nice, which makes it a lot easier not to drop out."
While teen birth rates are at an all-time low, nearly 10 percent of all babies in Illinois were born to teens, according to state health officials. Without a high school diploma, the chance of providing a safe and stable home for any of them is slim.
Yet, only 64 percent of teen mothers in the state graduate or get a GED, according to the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health.
General Educational Development, or GED Tests, are a battery of five tests which, when passed, certify that the taker has high-school-level academic skills. The advocacy group reported in 2006 that almost a quarter of pregnant and parenting youth in Chicago schools said they were "encouraged" to leave.
At Simpson, girls receive a different message: Now that you're expecting, an education is more crucial than ever.
"We never call the baby a mistake," said Principal Barbara Strong. "Instead, we'll say, 'OK You made an error in judgment. So how are we going to fix it?' "
Keeping students engaged requires staff to perform a daily balancing act, simultaneously nurturing both student and mother-to-be.
Bulletin boards advertising college entrance examinations are juxtaposed with those urging girls to read to their babies. Absences for doctor's appointments are taken in stride, as are chronic fatigue and swollen ankles.
"No one will ever judge you here," said LaShaye Kimbrough, 26, who was a student here a decade ago. Since then, she has graduated from college while raising her daughter, and volunteers at Simpson. "It's all about keeping your goals at the forefront . . . and not giving up."
For students who can hang in long enough, there's a substantial pay-off. Over a lifetime, high school graduates earn almost $520,000 more than dropouts. They also are less likely to have a subsequent pregnancy, according to the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health.
"It's all about helping the baby and stopping the cycle—and it can't be about the baby unless it's about you," said Strong, a 30-year Chicago Public Schools veteran, who took the top job at Simpson last year.
Far from the heated debates over sex education vs. abstinence-only programs, this is a place for pragmatic solutions; for the carrot, not the stick.
Case in point: Every other month, the cafeteria is the site of a baby shower, which recently attracted 75 participants. Students can win car seats, clothing and other baby gear. They also get lessons on prenatal health, nutrition and family planning.
Tierra Coleman juggled 6-month-old Tyshawn on one hip while perusing the gift table. Once a frequent truant, she was now in school on a Saturday. Making good choices, she said, has been easier here, without the distractions of boys, cliques and all the other drama unfolding back at Manley High School, she said.
"I used to be real rough, but this place is helping me change my ways," said Coleman, who, like many here, was also raised by a teen mother. "I want my son to respect women. . . . I want to be a good example."
Another student, Candice Williams, 18, has brought her two daughters, ages 1 and 2, squirming in their strollers.
"I know people will see my situation and just write me off, but I want my girls to have it way better than I did," said Williams, who wants to be a pediatrician.
But the academic challenge is daunting. Simpson's performance on standardized tests has been dismal.
Some do well in assessment tests and attendance one girl was able to get through to a college.
After a recent college fair — a first at Simpson — one student repeatedly thanked her for believing that young mothers might be interested in higher education."You would have thought I had given her a Mercedes," she said.
Samantha Parra, 15, is one who is looking ahead, despite giving birth to her son in 2006, when she was in the 8th grade. An honors student, she believes the climate here is critical to her success. That's why she maintains a punishing schedule in order to stay.
She gets up every morning at 5:30 a.m, quietly dressing before waking her son, Andres . Juggling both backpack and diaper bag, mother and son take two buses just to get to the baby-sitter. Then, she takes two more to reach Simpson, sliding into her seat just in time for the 8 a.m. bell.
"I just don't have that much in common with other girls," said Parra. "They're talking about partying, drinking, ditching. I'm more focused on my grades."
Her performance improved after Andres was born, giving her a motivation and discipline that had eluded her before.
Now, in the evening, she'll recite her lessons aloud, which not only helps her commit them to memory but also benefits her son.