Tis’ the season for back to school.
Most kids will be accompanied by their adult parents, who will watch those little ones board the school bus or line up with their classmates in the schoolyard.
Another group of younger children will be accompanied by their teenage parents to a babysitter or childcare center before they board the school bus to their own schools. Unfortunately, not many teen parents will be sitting in the classroom themselves.
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy cites parenthood as a leading cause of school dropout among teen girls.
Pregnant teens and teen parents, especially girls, are more likely to experience disruptions in education than their non-childbearing counterparts.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2010, nearly 368,000 infants were born to females aged 15- to 19-years-old. Only half of teen mothers earn a high school diploma by age 22 compared to 90 percent of women who have not given birth as a teenager.
While teen pregnancy and birth rates has reached an all-time low in forty years, the school drop out rate for teen parents remains high. The biggest drop in teen births occurred among African-American and Hispanic females, yet they still continue to have the highest rate of pregnancy and birth, and thus, are at the highest risk for not earning a high school diploma.
Approximately 30 percent of teen girls will drop out of school because of pregnancy. Even fewer will go on to college. And, over their lifetime, most will earn lower incomes than their non-childbearing counterparts.
A pregnant teen has special needs that may not be available in or tolerated by schools. Prenatal care may cause pregnant teens to miss school, especially in the later stages of pregnancy, during complications, when doctor’s visits are more frequent or if they require hospitalization.
Pregnancy can also be uncomfortable and tiresome for the high school student who has to endure a seven-hour school day and then complete hours’ of homework. Teens who have given birth also miss school because they need to recover from delivery, tend to a colicky newborn or care for a sick child.
Although very dedicated teens may be able to overcome the physical challenges of pregnancy or parenthood, many will not. The physical condition of pregnancy may contribute to interruptions in school, but discrimination against pregnant teens and teen parents is also a factor in the school dropout rate.
Federal law (Title IX) prohibits discrimination against pregnant women. Despite the law, childbearing teens face discrimination and judgment at the hands of classmates, teachers, and administrators. Even the most motivated students may be deterred from going to school because of bullying, denied medical absences, not being allowed to make up missed schoolwork or tests, and even withholding well-deserved academic awards.
By law, pregnant teens cannot be dismissed from school on the basis of pregnancy. These acts to push pregnant students to drop out are often illegal, but occur, nonetheless.
To promote academic achievement among childbearing teens, two trends have emerged. Some schools have designated programs specifically for teen moms apart from their general student body. Alternative schools for childbearing teens have also emerged to accommodate the needs of these students, including child care.
Because the mission of these programs is to help teen parents complete a high school education, students are able to escape many of the discriminatory behaviors that they might otherwise face. The downside is that alternative schools are often not federally funded and require either tuition or scholarships to attend.
Although teen mothers are directly impacted by pregnancy, teen fathers are often secondary in the discussion of teen childbearing. The CDC estimates that 25 percent of African-American males and 19 percent of Hispanic males became fathers before age 20. Only 11 percent of Caucasian teen males became fathers. While they do not experience pregnancy, teen fathers can also bear consequences of early parenthood.
A study at Yale University School of Public Health, found that early fatherhood reduced the chances of earning a high school diploma and increased the likelihood of early marriage or living with a partner. The study also found that teen fathers were more likely than non-parent male high school dropouts to earn a GED, find full-time employment, and enter the military after the birth of their children.
While the education of teen parents is affected by early parenthood, the consequences suffered by their children are most disturbing. Children of teen parents are less likely to achieve academic success, are more likely to experience teen parenthood, and have higher rates of incarceration. Advocacy groups propose that at least one way to reduce school dropout rates and their consequences is by reducing teen parenthood through public outreach and policy efforts, including school sexual education programs, availability of contraception through health reform, and abortion laws.
If teen pregnancy and birth rates continue to fall as they have in the last few years, the expectation is an increase in high school graduation rates. Perhaps, now, a new trend is on the horizon.
Dr. Renée Volny is an obstetrician-gynecologist, associate director of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute Health Policy Leadership Fellowship at the Morehouse School of Medicine, and a contributing writer for Policy Prescriptions, an online forum for evidence-based health policy.