Home  |   Subscribe  |   Resources  |   Reprints  |   Writers' Guidelines

March/April 2012 Issue

Keeping Teen Moms in School — A School Social Work Challenge
By Jennifer Van Pelt, MA
Social Work Today
Vol. 12 No. 2 P. 24

How are social workers at dedicated school-based programs for teen mothers helping prevent students from dropping out?

While teen birth rates have steadily declined over the last several years, one in 10 new mothers is a teenager, and teen pregnancy rates in the United States are still nine times higher than those in most other developed countries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and the CDC cite pregnancy as the No. 1 reason teen girls drop out of high school.

According to these organizations, only about 50% of teen mothers have a high school diploma compared with 90% of girls who did not have a teen pregnancy. Fewer than four in 10 (38%) teen girls who have a child before they turn 18 earn their high school diploma. Fewer than 2% of teens who have a baby before the age of 18 obtain a college degree by age 30.

Along with the active involvement of school social workers, programs designed to prevent teen mothers from dropping out of school share several other components:

• a small school setting dedicated to serving teen mothers;

• collaboration with outside community organizations;

• on-site healthcare and childcare services;

• on-site individual counseling and mentoring;

• on- and off-site group therapy sessions;

• academic support services and career preparation; and

• case management services.

Successful school-based programs for teen mothers with social work involvement are exemplified by programs in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and the St. Paul, MN, and Chicago public school systems.

Diverse staff at dedicated school programs for teen mothers provide opportunities for these students to engage with positive role models and mentoring opportunities. Generally, staff include not only academic and resource/support teachers but also counselors, social workers, and nurses, all focused on preventing teen mothers from dropping out of school. The school social worker coordinates interactions with the various staff members and services, processes new student intakes, and collaborates on individualized learning plans to address academic, health, emotional, and career goals.

Social Work Today spoke with social workers from these school systems about what programs and strategies work best and the school social worker’s role in helping teen moms stay in school.

Working With Teen Moms
The mission of AGAPE (Adolescent Girls and Parenting Education) High School, part of the public schools in St. Paul, is to provide a holistic education for teen mothers, including personal, emotional, and academic integrity; parental support; and postsecondary preparation. School social worker Christy McCoy, MSW, LICSW, believes a positive, supportive relationship with school staff is one key to dropout prevention. “Our school provides a home away from home and offers a stable, consistent environment that supports [teen moms’] academic, social, emotional, and physical needs,” she says.

In 2000, the California Department of Education created the Cal-SAFE program in 127 locations to provide comprehensive, community-linked, school-based programs for pregnant and parenting teens and their children, with the goals of decreasing the dropout rate for teen mothers, decreasing dependency on welfare, improving parenting skills, and reducing the likelihood of repeat pregnancies to teen mothers.

Elaine Ellis, MSW, PPSC (pupil personnel services credential), works at Hilltop School, a small school that is part of the SFUSD and specifically supports pregnant and parenting teens. She acts as a liaison between the teen mother, case managers, therapists, youth outreach workers, and teachers. “Our collaborative approach is unique and successful in providing a supportive peer group for students and positive relationships with staff. These personal elements are paramount in preventing dropouts,” Ellis says.

Emily Cambry, RN, BSN, CSN, MSW, MEd, a social worker in the Chicago public schools, provides therapeutic services at Simpson Academy for Young Women, the only Chicago public school that serves parenting and pregnant teenage girls. According to Cambry, the most important aspect of social work that keeps teen moms in school is engaging and connecting with these students while maintaining a nonjudgmental attitude. “When students feel the environment is supportive, they are more motivated to attend school, seek out services, and consider the social worker as yet another expert in the building with whom they can connect,” she says.

At Simpson Academy, Cambry focuses on addressing the social and emotional learning needs of students, including identifying their strengths and goals, discussing the importance of completing their secondary school education, and identifying a career path that will maximize their ability to function independently as a young parent. Cambry collaborates with the student and her family, school, and community members to facilitate open communication and ensure the student has an advocate to help her access necessary school and community resources. This may mean, for example, assisting students facing potential homelessness with finding viable options for housing.

“Creating a positive climate in all areas of the school setting is imperative to facilitate their engagement and connectedness with the school, ensure that they feel involved and invested in achieving short- and long-term goals,” Cambry says.

Confidence, Self-Esteem, and Attendance
In addition to relationships with school staff, dedicated teen mother school programs include programmatic activities to build self-confidence and self-esteem and improve decision making. Standard academic subjects and classes such as family consumer sciences and physical education are offered, but teachers develop their curriculum and classroom environment to foster self-esteem, self-advocacy, and life skills development, including career planning, interviewing and communication, and independent living, says McCoy. For example, yoga is offered at AGAPE High School to meet health education requirements and help students deal with the mental and physical stress of pregnancy and parenting.

Teen mothers are often subjected to discrimination and criticism from peers and staff members when attending a regular high school. Even though a dedicated school for teen mothers may be more beneficial, they may feel left out from typical high school activities, Cambry says. To address this issue, Simpson Academy recently added a prom, homecoming, and special senior class activities to provide students with the full high school experience.

Despite being engaged in school programs, teen mothers still must deal with significant issues in their home and community. “Some of the students have family relationship issues that negatively impact their ability to remain motivated to attend school consistently,” Cambry explains.

School social work programs for teen mothers must effectively address attendance issues to prevent dropping out. “Attendance is our most challenging issue at Hilltop,” says Ellis. Even motivated teen mothers will have difficulties maintaining consistent attendance simply due to the medical problems and care related to pregnancy and childcare issues.

To address partial attendance, Hilltop offers partial credit that allows teen mothers to earn credit for time attended when they cannot come to school regularly due to health or childcare issues. Such flexibility demonstrates that the school staff understands the health and emotional needs of teen mothers, Ellis says.

School-based social workers perform a valuable role in determining the reasons for nonmedical absences and improving attendance by addressing outside barriers to school attendance. Once all factors contributing to poor attendance are identified, the social worker can collaborate with relevant staff and outside resources to solve problems the teen mother is facing. For example, absences related to a lack of medical care can be addressed by school health clinics providing prenatal care and classes on the importance of good prenatal healthcare, according to Cambry, Ellis, and McCoy. Simpson Academy recently added an on-site health clinic in partnership with Rush University Medical Center.

Teen mothers facing domestic violence issues or homelessness may be reached via a collaboration with outside organizations. AGAPE partners with various community agencies, including a women’s shelter for domestic violence victims. County public health nurses work with McCoy and the school nurse to provide pregnancy-related health information and follow teen mothers through graduation from high school. Hilltop School collaborates with the Teen Age Pregnancy and Parenting Program through a local nonprofit organization to provide a range of mental health, education, and job readiness services, says Ellis.

Child Care and Parenting Skills Classes
Another critical factor in preventing teen mothers from dropping out of school is access to childcare. AGAPE High School, Hilltop School, and Simpson Academy all support teen mothers after they give birth. “The majority of students come to us while pregnant. We provide prenatal and parenting classes, and students can earn a spot in the on-site childcare or city-provided childcare,” says Ellis.

Hilltop has a fully staffed nursery capable of providing care for about 25 infants. Simpson Academy also has a new on-site childcare center. For teen mothers who require or want childcare outside the school, the social worker can help them find it, Cambry says.

McCoy has observed that students who use school-based childcare or stable childcare in the community experience increased attendance, improved academics, and higher graduation rates. Student attendance is adversely affected if childcare is inconsistent and mothers must miss school to care for their infant. Some students rely on their parents, other family members, or the child’s father for childcare, which can be unreliable depending on the family situation. A 2007 study by Sadler et. al. published in the Journal of School Health found that high-quality school-based support and childcare centers improved teen parenting skills, helped avoid subsequent pregnancies, and helped teen mothers stay engaged with school.

McCoy says teen mothers participate in early childhood education classes to learn about parenting skills and child development and the importance of reliable childcare and infant healthcare. Although her school has an on-site health clinic for teen mothers, it is not staffed to provide pediatric medical care. McCoy and/or the school nurse help teen mothers connect with community pediatricians and apply for medical assistance.

Individual and Group Support
In addition to supporting pregnancy- and parenting-related issues, school social work for teen mothers involves individual and group counseling both in and out of the classroom setting. Cambry, Ellis, and McCoy work with other professionals, including behavioral therapists and psychiatrists, to improve the mental health of teen mothers.

Group therapy sessions can focus on a range of topics, from simply sharing individual experiences to skills training to trauma therapy. According to Cambry, during group sessions, students can share their experiences related to their pregnancy and their relationships with family and others in their home and community settings, which facilitates their ability to engage with their classmates. “It also empowers teens to develop an awareness of their bodies, allows the social worker to discuss important factors regarding relationships, and address potential issues that affect their health and safety, such as dating violence,” she adds.

Groups can also be structured to address the needs of subgroups of teen mothers. For example, at McCoy’s school, one therapy group includes mothers aged 12 to 14 and focuses specifically on the unique developmental issues and learning needs of younger mothers.

Another important function of individual and group therapy is helping teen mothers deal with past and/or present trauma. McCoy estimates that at least one-half to two-thirds of the teen mothers she works with have witnessed or experienced domestic violence or abuse. This trauma is often a substantial barrier to continuing education during and after a teen pregnancy because it affects social and emotional functioning and the ability to succeed academically. McCoy has found that many teen mothers are ready to process their traumatic experiences and need counseling and support to do so.

Other critical issues that school social workers help manage when working with teen mothers involve mental health, substance abuse, poverty, and past academic failure. “Pregnancy hormonal changes combined with mental health symptoms related to depression and anxiety require attention during and after pregnancy,” McCoy explains. “Postpartum depression is common in teen mothers, and school social workers, as mental health professionals, can intervene by helping to manage the postpartum symptoms in the classroom, collaborating with the teen’s healthcare provider as well as community agencies that specialize in postpartum depression, and educating school staff about impact in the classroom.”

Due to the complexity of teen pregnancy and parenting situations, many opportunities exist for school social workers to work with teen mothers, including trauma work with teens who are victims of domestic violence, health and reproductive counseling, and service management (e.g., Medicaid, community outreach). Cambry and McCoy add that school social workers can also help by communicating with school staff and teen family members to help them recognize and respect the diversity of the pregnant teen population. Gaining an understanding and keen awareness about the learning, language, and cultural diversity of the pregnant teen population can help improve school performance.

— Jennifer Van Pelt, MA, is a Reading, PA-based freelance writer.


Proposed Legislative Assistance
The pending Pregnant and Parenting Students Access to Education Act (H.R. 2617) may create more opportunities for school social workers interested in working with teen mothers. This legislation will create a framework and resources to states and school districts to ensure that pregnant and parenting students have equal access to education. It is expected that this legislation will provide schools with professional development and technical assistance to schools, service coordination with relevant state agencies, coordinators, and school district liaisons for educating pregnant and parenting students; assistance for affordable childcare; better access to early childhood education; professional development for school personnel; and the revision of policies to remove educational barriers and encourage pregnant and parenting students to continue their education.

Social work-related services may include provisions for parenting and life skills classes, pregnancy prevention intervention, case management services, family planning, mental health and substance abuse counseling services, housing assistance and legal aid, and student mentoring.

This legislation will also address school climate issues, including illegal discrimination against and the stigmatization of pregnant and parenting students. Data will be collected and analyzed on educational outcomes, and school programs will be evaluated to ensure compliance with Title IX nondiscrimination policy.

— Source: Healthy Teen Network