Testimony Of Lee Che Leong On Behalf Of The New York Civil Liberties Union Before The New York City Council Committee on Education Regarding the Restructuring of the DOE’s Alternative High School Programs

Good Morning, my name is Lee Che Leong. I am the director of the Teen Health Initiative of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). The NYCLU is the New York State affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union and has approximately 50,000 members in New York State. For three decades, the NYCLU, through its Reproductive Rights Project and the Teen Health Initiative, has been in the forefront of advocating and litigating for women’s rights to access comprehensive reproductive health care in New York. The Teen Health Initiative works with thousands of school and community based social workers, teachers, medical providers and other professionals who work with young people, as well as students themselves every year.

I would like to thank the City Council’s Committee on Education for providing us with the opportunity to discuss the problems confronting the restructuring of the DOE’s alternative high school programs. I wish to focus my comments today on the issues facing pregnant and parenting teens in NYC public schools.

The Department of Education has a legal obligation to ensure that pregnant and parenting students are provided with full and equal access to both the educational opportunities and the support services that they need to succeed. We have strong reasons to believe that this obligation is not currently being met—and that the restructuring that is currently taking place runs the risk of leaving this vulnerable population of students even further behind.

Statement of the Problem
In 2004, more than 23,000 teenagers aged 19 or younger gave birth in New York City (1) . All are entitled under New York law to complete their high school education – but most are at enormous risk of educational failure. Faced with the demands of school work on top of the challenges of raising a child, and lacking adequate support services, pregnant and parenting students too often have little choice but to drop out of school.

New York education law requires that all students up to the age of 21 be afforded the opportunity to obtain a free, public education.(2) State and federal laws, including Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, prohibit sex discrimination in schools receiving public funds, including discrimination on the basis of pregnancy or parenting status. (3) Title IX regulations explicitly state that schools “shall not discriminate against any student, or exclude any student from its education program or activity, including any class or extracurricular activity, on the basis of such student's pregnancy, childbirth, false pregnancy, termination of pregnancy or recovery therefrom.” (4)

DOE regulations and materials also recognize that pregnant and parenting students have the right to equal educational opportunities. Chancellor's Regulation A-740 states:
 

Pregnant students and student parents have the right to remain in their current school program during and after their pregnancy. …If a student wishes to transfer to another school, it is the responsibility of the designated faculty member to ensure that the student and her parent/guardian are aware of the educational options.. (5)
 

The unfortunate reality, however, is that the educational promise offered to pregnant and parenting students is not being fulfilled. The combination of social stigma, lack of adequate training for administrators, insufficient support services and intensified high-stakes testing create an environment that pushes many pregnant and parenting teens out of New York City public schools. According to a report by the New York City Comptroller’s Office, as many as 70 percent of teens who become mothers drop out of school. (6) That report also noted that while there are roughly 20,000 school-aged mothers, only 1,940 are receiving services from the Department of Education. (7)

Problems in addressing the needs of pregnant and parenting students are hardly a new phenomenon. As late as the mid-1960s, female students were forced to drop out of New York City public schools once it became apparent they were pregnant. This practice changed, at least officially, in September 1968, when the New York City Board of Education formally reversed its policy of excluding pregnant students. (8)

The City also implemented several programs aimed specifically at pregnant and parenting students. Between 1967 and 1970, the New York City Board of Education established six schools for pregnant and parenting students, also known as “P-Schools.” These schools were separate from mainstream schools and designed to augment the secondary school curriculum with parenting classes, vocational education, counseling, prenatal care, and assistance with public benefits. (9) In addition, the Department of Education established 40 day care facilities for the non-school age children of teenage parents who are still attending school or who want to continue their education, through a program known as Living for the Young Family through Education (“LYFE”). (10)

But services for pregnant and parenting teens have never been sufficient. It has been widely acknowledged among educators and advocates who worked with young people that the P-schools provided inferior academic coursework and inadequate social services. LYFE programs have been underfunded, underutilized, and unavailable to many teens. LYFE centers are not located in every school, and some young people are unable logistically to transport their children to other locations. (11) DOE has yet to issue training or guidance regarding the requirements for LYFE, leading to confusion and deterring teens from seeking placements for their children. In addition, there is little public education or outreach to alert young people of the availability of these programs. Only a brief, two line description of LYFE exists on the web with no information at all on how to apply. (12)

Meanwhile, push-out problems have persisted. As recently as 2000, Advocates for Children found in a survey of teenagers in foster care that “22 percent of the pregnant and parenting teens . . . had been forced to change schools as a result of their pregnancy,” and 40 percent had dropped out during their pregnancies. (13) Our own study, conducted in 2000, found that the promise that regular high schools would accept pregnant students to be illusory, at best. For example, three out of 28 high schools called would not permit pregnant students to enroll. One high school indicated that a pregnant student could enroll, but that she would be asked to transfer to a P-School “when it gets bad” (i.e. when she became eight months pregnant). (14)

At the beginning of this school year, the P-schools were permanently closed as a part of an overhaul of DOE’s alternative high schools. The NYCLU was hopeful that the decision to close the “pregnancy schools” would include a detailed plan for students transitioning from P-schools, and comprehensive strategy to change the culture hostile to pregnant and parenting students in the school system as a whole. In response to our concerns, DOE promised that it would take steps to ensure that all students who wished to continue their education would be supported, both during their pregnancies and after they have children.

Unfortunately, the NYCLU has continued to receive complaints from school and community based social workers, families and high school students themselves since the closing of the P-schools. Students continue to face obstacles when they try to access services. Moreover, despite repeated requests from NYCLU, we have yet to receive documentation that a comprehensive transition plan is in place—or even in process.

The following examples illustrate the recent experiences of pregnant and parenting students and their advocates assisted by NYCLU.

  • A woman from the Bronx called on behalf of her sister because her guidance counselor told her she would need to transfer to a different middle school “because the school could not be held liable for what happened to her” now that she is pregnant.
  • Three students called because the Department of Education has yet to open the LYFE program they were told could serve them at the YABC program at Livingston Street in Brooklyn. They were finally contacted on October 15 and told that daycare would start on October 22, however the DOE failed to open this LYFE center for more than six weeks after the start of school.
  • A social worker reported that many of her clients continue to be told that they will have to find new schools when they disclose that they are pregnant.
  • Advocates report that students are told that they must provide documentation that they are pursuing child support from the father of their child if they want a LYFE placement.

These incidents suggest that despite recent changes, DOE is still failing to provide pregnant and parenting students with the educational and social support services they need to enable them to complete their education. Due to lack of training for school administrators, guidance counselors and teachers, pregnant and parenting students continue to be pushed out of school. And while DOE has been responsive to individual cases when the NYCLU has brought them to the attention of District 79 staff, the department has clearly failed to implement in a timely manner a comprehensive program to address these problems in the school system as a whole. In closing the P-schools without establishing meaningful alternatives for support services, DOE has left many pregnant and parenting students with nowhere to turn.

As New York City restructures the alternative high school system, we cannot leave pregnant and parenting students behind. The City Council should demand that DOE to take immediate steps to ensure that pregnant and parenting students are offered the services they need to continue their education, and that school administrators are provided with meaningful training on the needs of pregnant and parenting students. Otherwise, these students will continue to be forced into inferior educational options, or to drop out of the public education system altogether.

Specifically, we recommend that this Council work with the Department of Education to implement the following changes in both mainstream and alternative schools as soon as possible:

  1. Improve reporting of numbers of pregnant and parenting students in each of the New York City middle, intermediate and high schools, and data collection on educational outcomes.
  2. Determine the number of school-based day care slots available at each public high school in relation to existing demand, and improve availability and accessibility of those programs.
  3. Increase other programs and services offered to parenting students, both in the alternative schools and in regular schools, including enhanced tutoring options, flexible hours and leave time and social work services.
  4. Improve public education, outreach and enrollment support to help students access programs and services available for pregnant and parenting students.
  5. Implement meaningful and comprehensive training for school administrators, guidance counselors, social workers and other education professionals on the legal rights of pregnant and parenting students to equal educational opportunities, and on facilitating enrollment in programs and services to meet their special needs, including LYFE placements.
  6. Implement a system to prevent discrimination, harassment or “push-outs” due to pregnancy, and to respond swiftly to such incidents when they do occur.

We know that the City Council shares the goal of promoting equal access to educational opportunities that will enable teen parents and the next generation to become healthy, self-supporting, and productive members of society. We appreciate the opportunity to share our recommendations with this Committee, and look forward to working with you to address these important issues in the future.

 

 

 

Footnotes

1 N.Y. Dep’t of Health, Total Pregnancies and Teenage Pregnancies by Type and Resident County, Vital Statistics of New York State 2004, tbl. 30 (2006), http://www.health.state.ny.us/nysdoh/vital_statistics/2004/table30.htm.

2 N.Y. Const. art. XI, § 1 ( McKinney 2006).

3 N.Y. Ed. L § 3201-a (McKinney 2006); 20 U.S.C. § 1681 et. seq. 34 C.F.R. §§ 106.1, 106.34.

4 34 C.F.R. § 106.40.

5 Id.

6 New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson, Undercounted and Underserved: New York City’s 20,000 School-Aged Young Mothers, June 19, 2003 at 1-2.

7 Id. at 7.

8 See Tamara S. Ling, Lifting Voices: Towards Equal Education for Pregnant and Parenting Students in New York City, 29 Fordham Urb. L. J. 2387, 2396-98 (2002).

9 Id. at 2396-97.

10 See New York City Department of Education, Alternative Academies and Programs, http://a040-web-print.nyc.gov/OurSchools/District79/SpecialPrograms/defa....

11 See Thompson, Undercounted, supra note 6, at 9.

12 See New York City Department of Education, Alternative Academies and Programs, http://a040-web-print.nyc.gov/OurSchools/District79/SpecialPrograms/defa....

13 See Advocates for Children, “Educational Neglect: The Delivery of Educational Services to Children in New York City’s Foster Care System, at 38, 42 (New York, 2000), http://www.advocatesforchildren.org/pubs/2005/fostercare.pdf.

14 See NYCLU Survey of New York City High School Admissions Practices Regarding Pregnant and Parenting Teens, http://www.nyclu.org/node/433.

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