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BROWNSVILLE, Texas — On a chilly morning just before Valentine’s Day 2020, Viviana Longoria, 16, joined the stream of girls getting off the bus at Lincoln Park School, infant bucket seats in tow.
A slim, poised young woman with waist-length hair, Viviana walked past the principal’s office, along the main hallway, and made a left into the building that houses the school library and the daycare. There, Viviana handed her daughter, Bella Rose, a serious one-year-old with big brown eyes, to a child care teacher, who placed her on a rug with other babies.
Before leaving, Viviana turned to wave at her daughter. Bella Rose smiled and clapped her hands.
“My daughter’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Viviana said later. “She motivates me a lot.”
Though Viviana was a sophomore at Lincoln Park the month before the pandemic began, she had already completed enough coursework to merit junior standing. And even with all the disruptions of pandemic life for both students and parents, she graduated this spring, a year ahead of schedule. She attributes her ability to persevere to the supportive community at her unusual public school, which serves students in grades six to 12 and is geared entirely towards pregnant and parenting teenagers.
“We stayed open the entire time,” said Dawn Hall, the principal at Lincoln Park, which offered its students the option to learn online or in-person for most of the past school year. For students who come in person, child care is also available.
Teenage pregnancy in the United States is far less common than it used to be, but the rate — about 19 out of 1,000 girls between 15 and 19 give birth — is still higher than in other Western developed nations. Latina teens in the U.S., about 3 percent of whom give birth every year, are especially likely to become mothers before turning 18. Experts point to a confluence of factors for this, including poverty, culture, trauma and a lack of comprehensive sexual health education.
“My daughter’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. She motivates me a lot.”Viviana Longoria, 16
Programs that help teenage mothers stay in school can make a big difference to the education and life outcomes for both the adolescents and their babies. Only 53 percent of women in their 20s who gave birth in their teens hold a traditional high school diploma, compared to 90 percent of women who didn’t, according to Child Trends, a research organization focused on young people.
The results for Hispanic women — 100 percent of Lincoln Park’s population is Latina — are worse. Only 47 percent of Hispanic women who had children in their teens earn a traditional high school diploma, compared to 85 percent who did not become mothers as teenagers. And pregnancy is more common among Hispanic teens than among teens in any other racial or ethnic group, except American Indian and Alaska Native teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But Lincoln Park is a different kind of school, and it offers its students a different path to build a future. With onsite child care and educators who offer individualized learning plans for each girl, the school provides a strong academic experience on par with other schools in the Brownsville Independent School District, an A-rated Texas district that sits at the state’s southern tip, just a mile from the Mexican city of Matamoros. Lincoln Park is an alternative school; no student is forced to attend, but pregnant or parenting girls can choose to transfer here.
The school is housed in connected low-slung buildings on a quiet street dotted with palm trees and taquerías. Sidewalks between the buildings are lined by tall groves of Texas bluebell and butterfly weed. Signs for the computer lab, daycare, and pregnancy services line the school’s wide hallways.
“The girls know that no matter what, we’ll get them through,” said Hall, who, unlike her students, is white and does not speak Spanish. Hall said she’s particularly proud of the school’s transition from receiving a rating of “needs improvement” from the state to receiving an A in 2019. Tracking the school’s graduation rate is complicated, Hall said, since students don’t graduate from this alternative school; their diplomas come from their original campuses. (The district did not provide high school graduation or college-going rates for Lincoln Park students.)
Not every pregnant teen in the district chooses Lincoln Park, but many of those with the greatest outside needs do. “We get the girls who have problems,” said Hall.
Viviana is no exception. Her mother works as a cashier at a local supermarket and struggles to earn enough for the family; her father is serving a long jail sentence. Before she got pregnant at 14, Viviana said that she was bullied and suffered from crippling anxiety and depression.
She said she knew about contraception but decided to have sex without it. “I went into it, like, knowing that if it happened, it happened,” she said of the prospect of pregnancy.
Exactly how much medical understanding of conception and pregnancy a girl like Viviana attending public school in a state like Texas could be expected to have is difficult.
State policy on sexual health education varies greatly, making it difficult to analyze the effects of any one approach. What is clear is that higher-poverty states with larger at-risk populations and fewer reproductive health care options lead the pack in terms of teen pregnancy rates. When those factors are combined with abstinence-focused education, as they are in Texas, rates remain persistently high.
Thirty-five states, including Texas, require that sexual health classes, when offered, focus on abstinence. Of those, only a handful require instruction on how to use or access contraception, according to data gathered by SIECUS, an organization that promotes comprehensive sexual health education policies. It is difficult to draw a direct line between teen pregnancy rates, which continue to decline nationally, and what children are taught in school about sexuality, because there are so many other factors involved, including poverty, culture and healthcare availability. Still, educators here said the information students get is so haphazard that it’s unclear what students know (and don’t know).
Current Texas law does not require sexual health education to be taught in public schools and stipulates that when it is taught, schools must “emphasize that abstinence from sexual activity, if used consistently and correctly, is the only method that is 100 percent effective in preventing pregnancy.” The specifics of instruction are left to individual school boards, who make their recommendations based on the advice of local school health advisory councils. Teaching about contraception is optional.
Lately, debates about changing health standards have made the news in regards to what teachers should and should not teach about sexuality and gender identity rather than what they should and should not teach about conception. The recent debate in Texas, which lasted a year and concluded in the fall of 2020 was mostly focused on gender identity, sexual orientation and consent, three concepts legislators voted to leave out of the new standards. Starting in 2022, middle school students are supposed to be taught about birth control, but health courses will remain optional in high school.
With many states, including Texas, moving to further restrict access to free reproductive health care, advocates say what is taught in schools about sex and pregnancy matters.
Almost 53 percent of public school students in Texas are Hispanic, and 76 percent of these students grow up in poverty — both groups tend to have higher teen pregnancy rates. The teen pregnancy rate for all demographics in Texas is the seventh highest in the nation, at 28 births per 1,000, or 2.8 percent, among 15- to 19-year-olds — a full percentage point higher than the national average.
Regardless of ideology, Driver said that even when sex education is taught here, or anywhere in the country, it’s often insufficient. “We don’t teach math for six to eight weeks and assume that young people have [mastered] math concepts,” Driver said.
GeorgeAna Wilson, who has taught in Brownsville for 27 years and now serves as Lincoln Park’s science teacher, said what Brownsville students are taught about sexual health education is completely dependent on how their science teachers choose to teach the subject, if they choose to do so at all.
The more recent health science focus at Lincoln Park has been on Covid-19 vaccines, which all teachers now have and which students are encouraged to get, according to Principal Hall. Any time a student or student’s family member got sick this year, school staff reached out and encouraged them to get treatment. She said staff did everything they could to stay in touch with their students, most of whom opted to learn from home, during the school year.
“We provided laptops and tablets as well as ‘hot spots’ to all our girls who needed them,” Hall said. “We made technical assistance available to them and we called each girl each day when they did not sign in.”
Though pandemic conditions challenged educators at Lincoln Park, the staff were already practiced at adapting quickly to their students’ needs.
“At a regular school, there’s so much drama,” Viviana said back in February 2020. “And there are always bad kids that misbehave, and there’s always fighting and there’s drugs and all those bad things. But teachers here, they know when one of their kids is missing … And if you’re tired, they’ll say, like, ‘Oh, put your head down for fifteen minutes.’”
Everyone at Lincoln Park School calls the students “the girls.” Before the babies are born, the girls don’t understand how much their lives are about to change, said Dawn Hall, the school’s principal. (“The girls think they do, but they don’t,” she said.) The girls come into Hall’s office crying when their boyfriends find different girlfriends. The girls always ask if the boys will come back, Hall said. (“No, sweetie,” she tells them. “They’ve moved on.”)
And, Hall said, many of the girls are kicked out by their parents, who say what they’ve done is “pecado,” the Spanish word for sin. And then many girls go to live at their boyfriends’ homes, where school leaders here say the boys’ mothers often treat the girls like maids. Come Christmas, the girls make wish lists that break their teachers’ hearts: wipes, diapers, pacifiers. They don’t ask for anything for themselves.
When Viviana became pregnant in 2018, she briefly considered getting an abortion. Many girls in Brownsville choose to get abortions in Matamoros, where the procedure is cheaper and easier to access than in the United States, according to students and educators here. A Matamoros pharmacist named Pablo, who did not want to give his full name since abortion is illegal in northern Mexico, said many Texan teens come to his pharmacy to purchase combinations of medications known to terminate pregnancies.
“The girls come here and we need to pretend that we don’t know what they’re doing,” Pablo said. The medications needed cost 185 Mexican pesos (equivalent to $8.45) in his store.
Ultimately, Viviana decided against getting an abortion. “God gave me this baby so I can get my life in order. Before I had her, my life was all over the place,” she said.
Hall said all of the school’s adults — including the bus drivers, cafeteria servers, and janitors — know every one of the 140 students and every baby by name and do whatever is necessary to ensure that every student attends school. School buses pick up students and infants at their homes on individualized schedules. The school runs a store in which students pay for items such as diapers, onesies, bottles, and strollers with tokens they earn through class participation and consistent attendance.
Perhaps most importantly during the pandemic, students use an online, self-paced academic curriculum called Edgenuity, which helps them earn credits towards graduation at their own pace. And though educators at the school worry students did not get as deeply into the subject matter as they would have with a teacher near them, being already set up for students to learn online was an advantage most schools did not have.
One thing the school does not offer is a comprehensive sexual education course, although Lincoln Park does have a full-time nurse trained in obstetrics. Teachers said students learn about the biology of pregnancy and birth from their doctors and from personal experience. Still, students often turn to on each other for advice on what kind of pain or bleeding are normal and which require medical attention. Depending on each other for such advice helps the girls feel like part of a community, said Wilson, the science teacher.
“To hear it from an adult is one thing, but to hear it from their peers makes it real to them,” she said.
Wilson, who said she tries to teach as much as she can about sexual health in her classes, said she has heard students perpetuate myths about sex, like that standing up after sex prevents pregnancy. (It does not.)
School should not be considered impossible for young women with children to manage, said Alma Cardenas-Rubio, the district’s assistant superintendent for innovation, strategy, and educational technology. She thinks the focus required to succeed academically actually provides a “mental break” for students with troubled or chaotic lives outside of school.
A graduate of Brownsville public schools, Cardenas-Rubio knows something about the lives these young mothers lead. She became pregnant at 19 and feared that her life choices had narrowed to nearly nothing.
“I know what it’s like to wonder if you’re going to have enough money for gas, to wonder if you’re going to have problems at home,” she said. But her father told her something that she said changed her outlook then and now: “You’re not paralyzed, you’re pregnant.”
Cardenas-Rubio’s father was a lawyer. Most of the students here do not have parents with such stable employment. All of the students at Lincoln Park qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Many of their parents are undocumented and are unable to find work in the U.S., according to teachers here. And among those who do work, most do manual labor or work in the fast food industry. The pandemic hit frontline, low-income workers especially hard.
One school cannot change all these issues, nor is Lincoln Park getting everything right. The school does not offer parenting classes, for example, which, when done well, have been shown to help new moms and their children. And depression and anxiety, which Hall said many students suffered before pregnancy, are not eliminated by having a child.
Ultimately, however, the greatest impediment to pregnancy prevention may be the paucity of stability and emotional support in students’ lives. (“The girls want to have a baby because they want to be loved,” said Hall.) And stability and emotional support are two things Lincoln Park does appear to provide.
Bolstered by her teachers, her peers and her own academic success here, Viviana said her desire to provide for her daughter has driven her to make a concrete plan for her adult life. Right now she is working part-time at Raising Cane’s, a fast food restaurant, and is enrolled in a two-year associate’s degree to earn certification as a Patient Care Technician. After that, she plans to earn the bachelor’s degree necessary to become a registered nurse. The hurdles between today and that future are myriad, but Viviana said she’s motivated by a desire to do right by Bella Rose.
“Now that I have her, it’s not about me anymore,” she said. “My daughter comes first.”
This story about programs that help teenage mothers stay in school was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.