changing times

To close or evolve? As teen birth rates drop, school programs for teen parents face a new landscape

PHOTO: quavondo | Getty Images

There was just one student in the Boulder Valley School District’s teen parent program last year. She graduated in May, and and the district spent the summer turning the program’s nursery into a child care center for staff.

In the Englewood district just south of Denver there were no students in the teen parent program last year, and in the western Colorado city of Montrose, the long-standing charter school for pregnant and parenting teens was newly closed because of dwindling enrollment.

These are just a few examples of Colorado’s shifting educational landscape for teen parents and the school districts that serve them. As some programs downsize or close their doors, others have worked to adapt to the times — stepping up advertising, adding online offerings, or moving away from single centralized programs.

In part, these trends are driven by the state’s record-low teen birth rate, which mirrors national declines. Other factors that may be siphoning students away from teen parent programs include the option of virtual school, the fading stigma of teen parenthood, and the ease of getting a job in Colorado’s thriving economy.

For many advocates, the changing shape of teen parent programs is cause for both celebration and concern. On one hand, it’s a testament to the success of a state program — launched with private funding in 2008 — that provided long-acting birth control to low-income women.

At the same time, they worry that such public-health victories obscure the fact that nearly 3,000 Colorado teenagers are still having babies every year — circumstances that put them at high risk for dropping out of school.

“There’s still a need for programs like ours,” said Suzanne Banning, president and CEO of the Denver-based Florence Crittenton Services, which runs the state’s oldest high school for pregnant and parenting teens in partnership with Denver Public Schools.

“In the long run, without these programs being there, you’re going back to having these young moms not having a place to go and not graduating, and then their kids have a higher probability of becoming a teen mom or teen dad,” she said.

Sizing it up

It’s hard to get an exact picture of how many Colorado school districts offer teen parent programs and how many students enroll in them each year. For the most part, the state education department doesn’t track this.

It does tally enrollment for stand-alone schools for pregnant and parenting teens, but there are just two: Florence Crittenton and New Legacy Charter School in Aurora.

Credit: Sam Park

Meanwhile, some districts, such as St. Vrain, Westminster, and Mesa County Valley, house teen parent programs within larger alternative high schools and others, such as Aurora, serve teen parents with mobile teams that visit multiple schools. In both cases, state enrollment counts don’t distinguish teen parents from other students.

Pat Paluzzi, president and CEO of the national organization Healthy Teen Network, which promotes teen sexual and reproductive health, said there’s no clear-cut national data on teen parent programs either. Still, she’s heard plenty of anecdotal evidence pointing to a shrinking footprint.

Some teen parent programs, she said, closed down even before dramatic declines in the teen pregnancy rate, in part because federal funding streams dried up.

“Support for the teen parent in general has really waned over time,” Paluzzi said.

As separate programs for teen parents have dwindled, support for such students at traditional high schools sometimes ramps up, she said, but it varies widely by school and district.

For 16-year-old Alexia Alvarado, who became pregnant in September of her freshman year at Longmont’s Skyline High School in northern Colorado, it was a tough slog.

She said while her teachers were extremely supportive, her classmates were “weirded out” by her pregnancy.

“It was definitely awkward. I felt like a wild animal,” she said. “I get it they were curious, but the staring every day was very unnecessary.”

Alvarado, whose son Gabriel is now 15 months old, stayed at Skyline through her freshman year and transferred to the district’s teen parent program at the alternative Olde Columbine High School for her sophomore year.

It wasn’t her first choice, she said. She initially wanted to enroll in online classes, but soon realized her tendency to procrastinate and the distraction of her baby while she studied would derail her.

Although Alvarado had heard Olde Columbine was for “troubled kids,” her advocate at a local agency convinced her to give it a try. She has no regrets.

Alvarado likes having Gabriel in the same building — until January when he’ll age out of the on-site nursery — and loves the supportive vibe from staff and students. Occasionally, she’s had twinges of interest in returning to a mainstream high school so she can participate in time-honored traditions like prom, but she pushes those aside.

“To me the most important thing is my future,” said Alvarado, who wants to go to a four-year college and become a neonatal nurse.

“If I went to regular high school I would just be another student. At Olde Columbine, teachers you don’t even have know your name.”

End of an institution

For nearly two decades, Montrose had a stand-alone school for pregnant and parenting teens, Passage Charter School. It closed at the end of the 2016-17 school year.

Montrose Superintendent Stephen Schiell said, “The bottom line was they didn’t have enough students to stay open … It wasn’t feasible.”

He said there were fewer than 10 students at the school when it closed.

Sarah Fishering, who is on the Montrose school board but spoke to Chalkbeat as a private citizen, was initially upset because the school’s closing meant the loss of sorely needed child care spots in the rural community. At the end, her two young children were among those enrolled at the school’s nursery, which served both teen parents and community members.

Fishering worries the program’s demise leaves a massive void for teen parents in the region.

“I kept on hearing from people, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that we don’t need Passage Charter School anymore?’” she said. “However, in Montrose … and also in our neighboring county of Delta, there are particularly high rates of teen pregnancy.”

Credit: Sam Park

Both counties have rates well above the 2017 Colorado average of 16 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19. The rate was 32 births per 1,000 women in Delta County and 26 births per 1,000 in Montrose County. Last year, 58 babies were born to teens 15 to 19 in the two counties.

Even in Colorado’s populous urban areas, some teen parent programs have contracted in recent years.

Banning said until about 2012 Florence Crittenton High School served 300 or more pregnant and parenting teens a year. These days, it’s around 220.

As that dip occurred, she said, the school began advertising on bus benches and through spots on the Spanish-language television station Telemundo.

At New Legacy, which opened in 2015, school officials have seen a growing number of non-parents enroll — often siblings or cousins of teen parents.

Last year, about 30 of the school’s 100 students were neither pregnant nor parenting, up from about a dozen two years earlier, said Sarah Bridich, chairperson of the New Legacy board.

She believes interest from students who aren’t teen parents stems from the fact that New Legacy is a small non-traditional school that offers lots of personal attention — and isn’t a sign that there are too few teen parents to fill its seats.

Like Banning, she said it’s important for the school to actively recruit prospective students.

“It would be a great problem if we closed [because] there weren’t pregnant and parenting teenagers,” she said. “I don’t foresee that happening in the near future.”

Evolution and expansion

In some districts, declining enrollment in stand-alone teen parent programs has spurred officials to try something new. That’s how Boulder Valley leaders see the shift in their program, which was down to one student last year.

Joan Bludorn, principal of Arapahoe Ridge High School where the teen parent program used to be housed, said besides decreasing teen pregnancy rates, changing cultural norms have contributed to the evolution of the district’s teen parent programs.

“Many of the students want to stay in their home high school,” she said. “Pregnancy is not looked upon as it was 20 to 30 years ago when you [left] your building.”

Starting this year, the teen parenting class that used to be taught at Arapahoe Ridge will be available online, with the course’s longtime teacher supervising participants. While the high school’s nursery for teen parents has been repurposed as a staff child care center, Bludorn said there will still be spots for children of students if needed.

Mary Faltynski, coordinator of Boulder County’s GENESIS home-visiting program for teen parents, said when stand-alone programs shrink, it’s important for districts to think differently.

“We have to say, ‘OK, maybe we don’t have a school’s worth of students who need a special program, but we have to look at how to help students individually in their own schools.’”

In the Aurora school district, the teen parent program became stagnant several years ago, after the high school where it was housed relocated to a new building, shifted to an expeditionary learning model, and shed its alternative school reputation. Only a handful of teen parents remained in the program a couple years into the switch, said Anne Burris, a nurse who leads the district’s Young Parent Support Program.

That’s when the district created a mobile team that works with pregnant and parenting teens — both mothers and fathers — connecting them with child care, advocating for them in their schools, and helping them prepare for college or jobs. The team, made up of Burris and three advocates, served 261 students across the district last year.

Across the state in Grand Junction, the teen parent program continues to be housed in the alternative R-5 High School, but two years ago got a much-needed ingredient: more nursery space.

Before the expansion, “We’d start off with 30 parents and we were losing eight to 10 young parents because they didn’t have a place to put their toddlers,” said R-5 Principal Don Trujillo.

In 2016, the school relocated to a new building and added eight spots for toddlers on top of the eight it already had for infants. Now, more teen parents are staying at R-5 for the whole school year, he said.

The Fort Collins-based Poudre School District has similar plans for its teen parent program, which last year moved from one of the district’s comprehensive high schools to a K-12 hybrid school called Poudre Global Academy. There, students take on-site classes two days a week and work online the rest of the time. District officials plan to open an on-site nursery at the school as soon as next year.

making moves

In New York, a new focus on housing could also spur more diversity in schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
In 2016, the Community Education Council in Manhattan's District 3 approved a controversial school rezoning aimed in part at integrating schools.

On a recent morning in Brooklyn, principals, parents, and education leaders from across the state gathered to drill into the root causes of school segregation and develop plans to spur more diversity. Joining the discussion was someone unexpected: a representative from the state’s Fair and Equitable Housing Office.

“We want to see within your districts, what your challenges are, what your ideas are,” said Nadya Salcedo, the office’s director. “You can’t talk about integration and segregation without talking about housing.”

It is often taken as a given that schools are segregated because neighborhoods are. Yet the twin challenges of integrating where children live and learn are rarely tackled in tandem. In New York, two recent moves have the potential to address both.

The first: State education leaders who are working with local districts to craft school integration plans are also inviting housing officials to the table early on — and plan to include them throughout the process.

The second: In New York City, housing officials have launched a tiny pilot program to help low-income renters move into neighborhoods that offer more opportunities, defined partly by school performance. The initiative isn’t meant to tackle school segregation directly, but if it grows, it could result in more diverse classrooms.

Both are small and unconnected, involving officials from different agencies. Details about both the state and city efforts are scant, for now. But taken together, they suggest a new energy toward tackling housing issues that are often a barrier to more integrated schools.

“There have been some ripples of hope out there,” said Fred Freiberg, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center. “But we still have a long ways to go.”

The meeting in Brooklyn brought together school district leaders who have been armed with a state grant to help improve schools by integrating them. Now, housing officials have been looped into that work to brainstorm how to collaborate.

The housing department “is working to help desegregate communities,” spokeswoman Charni Sochet wrote in an email. “This includes working with our federal, State and local partners.”

Similarly, the city began its housing pilot this summer but didn’t share details until this week, when the Wall Street Journal profiled the program. The 45 families in the program’s first phase are getting assistance searching for a new home — including rent vouchers that are worth more in wealthier neighborhoods, financial counseling to help them afford a move, and support navigating the intimidating New York City housing market.

“The mayor’s education and housing plans take dead aim at achievement and economic gaps decades in the making,” Jaclyn Rothenberg, a city spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “All students benefit from diverse classrooms. Neighborhoods benefit from a diverse community.”

The pilot is striking given what Mayor Bill de Blasio has said about housing in the city in the past. When asked how he plans to tackle school segregation, he has often argued that the city’s power is limited because schools reflect entrenched housing patterns and private choices by families about where to live. “We cannot change the basic reality of housing in New York City,” he said in 2017.

Families with rental vouchers often find it difficult to move out of segregated neighborhoods where schools tend to struggle under the weight of concentrated poverty. The city’s pilot could tackle those issues.

“At least now I’ll have a chance to apply to some of these apartments,” one participant, the mother of a 10- and 12-year-old, told the Wall Street Journal. “I’m moving to a better school district, and nothing else matters.”

In places such as Baltimore, similar “mobility” programs have included a sharp focus on helping families move to areas with better schools, and making sure that students adjust well to their new classrooms. On a wide scale, such efforts could create more diverse neighborhoods and learning environments, since income tracks closely with race and ethnicity — and schools with high test scores are often filled with white students and those from more affluent families.

It could also have profound effects on how children perform academically and later in life. Moving to a neighborhood with lower poverty rates can boost college attendance and future earnings, according to some of the most influential research on the topic.

Montgomery County, Maryland offers another example, where the housing commission randomly assigned families to public housing instead of letting them choose where to live. There, children in public housing who went to “advantaged” schools in less impoverished neighborhoods did better in math and reading than their peers who lived in public housing but attended the district’s least-advantaged schools, according to a report by the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.

That result hews to a growing body of research that has found that students benefit from attending schools that are integrated by race and socioeconomic class.

How the city implements its pilot will matter if students and schools are to benefit most. Although some studies have found that housing programs can improve affected students’ academic performance, the effect can be modest and vary greatly depending on where families relocate and which schools their children attend.

New York City presents some additional challenges. With a vast system of school choice and programs that selectively sort students based on their past academic performance, students and neighborhoods aren’t as closely linked here as they are in other cities.

Recent research found New York City schools might be slightly less segregated if students actually stayed in their neighborhood schools. And simply living near a school does not guarantee access in cases where competitive entrance criteria are used to admit students — a process called screening that critics say contributes to segregation. School attendance boundaries can also separate students by race and class even when they live side by side, a dynamic exemplified by recent rezoning battles on the Upper West Side and in gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods.

In New York, the scale of the challenge is huge: The city has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, an ignominious superlative that also applies to neighborhoods. The politics of unraveling these issues can be explosive. Many advocates for both fair housing and more diverse schools caution that policies should work both ways, giving low-income families and people of color the chance to leave under-resourced schools and neighborhoods, while also boosting investments in classrooms and communities that have been historically neglected.

“It shouldn’t be an either-or,” said Freiberg, the Fair Housing Justice Center director. “You’re going to have to do both.”

Though conversations seem to just be getting started, integration advocates and housing experts are heartened by the small steps already taken.

“This is a dream come true for people in the housing world,” said Vicki Been, a former city housing official who is now faculty director at the New York University Furman Center. “We have always been looking for ways to get families into neighborhoods that have better schools, lower crimes, better job opportunities.”

Reema Amin contributed reporting. 

money matters

Haven’t heard of participatory budgeting? Voters approved it on Tuesday — and here’s how it can bring millions to New York City schools.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Sunset Park Prep Principal Jennifer Spalding, left, and Assistant Principal Lauren Scott, right, sit in the school auditorium, which was renovated with funds won through participatory budgeting.

When a city councilman told Laura Espinoza she could win thousands of dollars for her local schools through a process called participatory budgeting, the mother of four was skeptical it could be true.  

Then she thought about a recent experience volunteering in her daughter’s Sunset Park school, where she watched the deep disappointment of a boy who lost a class project on an outdated laptop that abruptly died.

Espinoza decided to put together a proposal, working with teachers and administrators, to fund technology upgrades for P.S. 24, as well as other schools in the district, including her son’s middle school at the time, Sunset Park Prep. She was amazed when her son’s assistant principal called to say their project had won a share of almost $700,000 to be divided among schools.

“I said, ‘Wow! That’s what we were able to do?’” Espinoza remembers.

More New York City parents could have similar experiences at their schools after voters on Tuesday passed a ballot referendum that calls for participatory budgeting to expand to every council district. It’s a concept many New Yorkers may never have heard of but allows everyday parents and even students to steer millions of dollars to their communities, including their schools.

As it stands now, council members choose to participate in the process, dedicating at least $1 million of their discretionary budgets for the public to spend. Residents gather ideas through a formal process, and the proposals are put to a vote. Children as young as 11, or those who are in at least the sixth grade, can cast ballots — as well as anyone else who lives in the district. Projects with the most votes get funded.

Participatory budgeting has been a lifeline for Sunset Park Prep, a school that serves mostly children from low-income families and is nestled on a few floors of a 100-year old building. Principal Jennifer Spalding estimates the process has pumped $1.8 million into her school over the past five years.

“There’s no single source of money I can think of that would replace that amount,” she said. “It’s allowed us to do projects I never thought would be possible.” 

Since her first foray into the process, Espinoza has dedicated countless hours to drum up ideas and voters to support projects for schools in her community. She’s not alone in council District 38, which is overseen by Councilman Carlos Menchaca. Spanning immigrant enclaves such as Sunset Park, Red Hook, and other Brooklyn neighborhoods, the district last year tallied the most votes for participatory budgeting projects.

Many of those voters are school parents like Espinoza, who have turned to the process to fill resource gaps in their children’s classrooms — raising the kind of money that would be the envy of PTAs in more well-off schools but also challenging stereotypes about how involved immigrant parents and those of more modest means are in their neighborhood schools. Across the city, surveys show that participatory budget voters are more likely to be among the very poor, Hispanic, or come from communities who can’t participate in regular elections.  

“For me participatory budgeting, as a Hispanic, as an immigrant, as someone who feels like she doesn’t have a voice in this country, changed my life,” Espinoza said. “Though we can’t vote, though we can’t give money that families and professionals in Park Slope can, we can give something too — and it’s not a small thing. They are things that change the lives of children.”

Principal Jennifer Spalding speaks fondly of the century-old building that houses Sunset Park Prep middle school, which features long windows and soaring ceilings. But with age comes plenty of capital needs — and not always the kind that are a top priority in a city where the average school building was constructed in 1948.

Rich red curtains hang in the auditorium, where the sound system will soon get a makeover. The gym sports a shiny wood floor and freshly painted walls. In science classrooms, there are brand new cabinets and the sinks now work. A metal cart houses dozens of sleek MacBook Air laptops in a multimedia room stuffed with new tables and a smart board. All were paid for through participatory budgeting.

The process is especially important for schools like Spalding’s, where the parent organization is focused more on building community than raising dollars. The school relies on $3 tickets to dances to help fund field trips, while other nearby schools throw fancy galas and pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars. (A new city council bill will track those disparities by requiring the education department to collect and report PTA fundraising.)

For Spalding, the value of these badly-needed infusions goes beyond dollars. Students get their first taste of civic engagement by participating in voting during a school day. They feel a sense of empowerment when their school benefits. And they see the tangible benefits of their votes — and that they’re worth investing in.

“It adds so much value to our students’ lives,” she said. It sends a message that, “this is a place worth being, and a place of value.”

Not everyone supported expanding the process — at least not in the way the city ballot measure calls for. It creates a commission that would oversee voter initiatives, including a wider roll-out of participatory budgeting. A majority of members will be appointed by the mayor, prompting some to call the initiative an unnecessary expansion of mayoral power. Others have cautioned that participatory budgeting may not be as inclusive as it appears.

After seeing its power in his own district, Menchaca lent his support to the ballot initiative.

Before Menchaca was a city councilman, he worked in the Brooklyn borough president’s office managing capital projects. Though he saw many positive improvements being made, he was confounded by how opaque the process was, and how removed projects often seemed from what people really wanted. Then he became a city councilman.

“Participatory budgeting was like this ‘aha’ moment —  this eureka moment where it shifts the balance of power,” Menchaca said.

He made the process the centerpiece of how he does city business. When Menchaca meets a new constituent, he starts the conversation with participatory budgeting: “Do you have an idea about how to make your community better? Great,” he says.

His open invitation was met by organized and motivated parents who saw deep needs in local schools, but sometimes lacked the ability to give from their own pockets. Through countless public meetings, with steady translation services to reach the many Chinese and Spanish speakers in the district, parents were quickly won over.

“This was the first time parents had an idea for a concept and could fund it themselves,” Menchaca said.

Last year, more people voted for participatory budgeting projects than they did in the district’s primary election. Menchaca dedicated $2.5 million to the process last year — and often ends up spending most of his discretionary budget on other ideas that just missed the cut.

But the process is also a reminder of the scale of need that parents see in their neighborhood schools. It’s a challenge the district will have to overcome if a new school integration plan is to succeed. Approved in September, the plan changes the way students are admitted to middle schools in District 15, which overlaps Menchaca’s district. Advocates say the diversity push will have to go beyond attempts to simply move students around, and also to tackle inequities that continue to exist within individual schools.

While many in his district see participatory budgeting as a game-changer for schools, it can only go so far to fill resource gaps. The process only divvies up money for capital projects like building repairs and park renovations. It can’t pay for programming like an arts class or after-school robotics club or fund salaries for extra helpers in the classroom.

Those are the kinds of holes that Espinoza says will need to be filled if the district is to meet its integration goals. The city is dedicating $500,000 to implement the plan, part of which will go towards new resources for schools. Advocates also called for an analysis of available programming.

“We’ve been alleviated a little with these projects,” Espinoza said. “But more is needed”