A Supportive Place for Teen Parents

By Priscilla Pardini

Illustrator: Susan Lina Ruggles

Mother and baby spend some quality time together at the daycare center at Lady Pitts High School.
-Photo: Susan Lina Ruggles

Like typical teens, most of the girls sitting in the lunchroom at Milwaukee’s Lady Pitts High School wear jeans, worry about how their hair looks, and carry on whispered conversations with their friends while keeping one eye on the teacher. They puzzle over algebra problems, struggle over writing assignments in English class, complain about homework, and sell hot dogs to raise money to pay for the senior class trip – in this case, to Atlanta.

But along with worries over bad hair days, final exams, and getting to their part-time jobs on time, these girls have other things on their mind. Some battle morning sickness. Others wonder if they’ll recognize the early signs of labor. Still others worry about their infants and toddlers, who are napping just down the hall in the school’s daycare center.

Yet, even as the 165 pregnant or parenting teenage girls enrolled at Lady Pitts High School cope with awesome responsibilities ideally left to older, more financially secure, married women, they have at least one thing going their way: They’ve found a supportive environment in which to finish high school.

“People ask me all the time, ‘What’s it like teaching pregnant girls all day long?'” says math teacher Beth Boberschmidt. “But I don’t think of them as pregnant. They’re just students to me.”

To be sure, Boberschmidt realizes better than most the challenges facing her students. “They’re so young, and lots of them don’t have any support . and then to have a baby,” she says. “Even if you have a husband, money, and resources, that’s hard. I really admire them for even being here.”

Yet, the fact is, when one of her students comes back to school after taking a leave to give birth, “It’s not something we talk about a lot,” says Boberschmidt. “What we do here is not about the girls and their babies. It’s about their education.”

That’s the prevailing attitude at Lady Pitts, Milwaukee Public Schools’ School Age Parent Center. The program, located in the basement of Custer High School, opened in 1968, during an era when schools routinely closed their doors to pregnant and parenting teenage girls. First organized by church and community groups, the program was taken over by Milwaukee Public Schools in 1973. It serves pregnant and parenting girls in grades 6-12 from Milwaukee and its surrounding suburbs.

According to Audrey Potter, coordinator of psychological, speech and language, and allied health services for Milwaukee Public Schools, the district does not keep track of the number of pregnant or parenting teens enrolled in its schools. Yet, given the high incidence of teen pregnancy in Milwaukee, she says pregnant girls can be found at every high school and most, if not all, middle schools in the city.

Despite that, William Dosemagen, a social worker at Lady Pitts, says there is still a stigma to being a pregnant teen. “You hear comments . that these girls are ‘easy’ or ‘tramps,'” he says. “And students who come from other schools tell us they felt the students, teachers, and administrators looked down on them.”

Dosemagen says he believes that attitude reflects the feelings of the general public. “I think most people in Milwaukee think we’re ‘coddling’ these kids. That’s a word that’s used a lot. The prevailing opinion is, ‘You’ve made your bed, and you ought to lie in it.'”

But Dosemagen says he sees no reason to “punish children who have met with just about every possible disadvantage.” He estimates that up to two-thirds of the school’s students have been sexually abused, and that close to 40 percent have left home and are now living with relatives, in foster care, or on their own. Most have a history of poor school performance and many had already dropped out of school at least once before enrolling at Lady Pitts.

Julia Cooper-Felts works as an advocate for the district’s School Age Parent program at Lady Pitts and two other high schools. Her role: to help teen parents navigate pregnancy and stay in school. “A lot of girls who wind up pregnant don’t know what to do, where to go,” says Cooper-Felts. “They’re terrified when they find out. A lot of them say, ‘I’m going to get thrown out of the house.'”

Cooper-Felts remembers the day her own teenage daughter confessed that she was pregnant. “We both cried. And then I realized that if I was going to have a grandchild, he had to be a healthy grandchild. So we wiped away the tears and made a plan.”

Her daughter went on to graduate from high school, attend college, and get a good job. She plans to get married next year.

Today, Cooper-Felts makes sure other pregnant teens get adequate health care and other social services. She helps them find day care once their babies are born and makes sure they have information on contraception that can prevent a second pregnancy.

Cooper-Felts, who is Black, takes issue with those who point to disproportionately high pregnancy rates among African-American teens as evidence that teen births are acceptable – even celebrated – in the Black community. She says she has never met a parent who was happy to find out that his or her teenage daughter had become pregnant. “It’s not desirable, and we don’t promote it,” she says. “We deal with it.”

Donna Luebke, principal at Lady Pitts, says the school walks a fine line between being supportive of pregnant teens and celebrating the fact that they are giving birth. Although volunteers provide each newborn with a basic layette, Luebke says the staff avoids activities that might be viewed by teen parents as celebrating, or even “condoning” pregnancy. That means there are no baby showers for pregnant teens, public address announcements at school when someone delivers a baby, or visits to hospital maternity wards. (Luebke has asked members of a local sorority who last year held a baby shower at the school to instead sponsor a career day this year.) Says Luebke, “We don’t want to reinforce the notion that these girls are special because they are pregnant.”

So the staff at Lady Pitts focuses on academics. And with good results. According to Dosemagen, 56 out of the 60 students who were eligible to graduate last year received their diplomas – a rate that far exceeds that at most Milwaukee high schools. Another positive sign: Only 10 percent of Lady Pitts students get pregnant a second time, less than half the national average.

Dosemagen traces much of the school’s success to its seasoned, dedicated staff and an innovative schedule that allows the school to offer a standard curriculum at an accelerated pace.

Luebke also likes the fact that Lady Pitts is a small, all-girls school. “The girls are kind of sheltered here,” she says, “and they get the support they need to get back on track. Nobody’s judging anyone. We’re all working together.”