by Jessica Hille
Article IX of the Washington State constitution makes the state responsible for providing education to youth in the state. But for teens who must balance pregnancy or child care with school, this promise of public education for all students may go unfulfilled. Students who become pregnant still face a number of obstacles particular to their situation as student-parents. These include balancing school and parenting time, limited access to health and child care, stigma, bullying, and discrimination.
When their schools are unable or unwilling to support them and their needs as pregnant or parenting teens, some students turn to alternative schools like South Lake High School in South Seattle. The school offers several programs for non-traditional high school students, including the Graduation Reality and Dual-Role Skills (GRADS), an in-school secondary program for pregnant and parenting teens to learn child care skills while finishing high school. The GRADS curriculum includes information on topics like economic independence, interpersonal relationships, and healthy families. Some traditional high schools in and around Seattle also offer GRADS courses, encouraging pregnant and parenting students to stay in school. South Lake High School also offers a free daycare center where babies and young children can stay while their parents are in class. Mothers can learn hands-on parenting skills and even be excused from class to breastfeed. Not all schools have a GRADS program, however, and the SLHS program is relatively small: the whole school’s capacity is 200.
Though programs like GRADS can be beneficial, schools cannot force students into alternate programs or schools. If students do choose to take this route, the schooling they receive must be at least as good as traditional courses offered by the high school. According to a 2012 report from the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), many states do not have clear or comprehensive policies that protect teen parents and encourage them to finish high school. The report ranks Washington 16th in the country terms of state policies that protect the rights of pregnant and parenting students.
The Pregnant and Parenting Students Access to Education Act was introduced in 2011 to protect students’ rights, but the bill has yet to make any progress in Congress. To encourage support and raise awareness among your elected representatives, you can send them a copy of the NWLC report.
The bottom line: Pregnant and parenting students have the right to stay in school, participate in activities, and do make up work for missed classes. Discriminating against them is sex discrimination, which is illegal – not to mention wrong and shortsighted. All students have a right to a good education, regardless of their family situation. All students deserve the opportunity to succeed and the support they need. Helping pregnant teens and young parents stay in school gives them a better chance to go to college, start a career, and be good role models for their children. Depriving them of these opportunities serves no one – not the student, their children, or their community. Schools and legislators must develop better policies to more thoroughly protect students’ rights and help them become healthy, happy, educated adults.
Jessica Hille is a legal intern at Legal Voice. She has a law degree from Washington University in St. Louis and will receive a Masters in Law in Health Law and Policy from University of Washington this spring.
To learn more about South Lake High School, including volunteer opportunities, visit their website. More information about GRADS is available through the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
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