Every day at lunchtime, a handful of mothers leave their high school classrooms, walk down the hallway at the NET Gentilly campus and into a childcare center. They scoop up their toddlers and colorful lunchboxes and usually head to picnic tables outside, using the break from class to transition from student to mother.
After lunch, the babies will have their naps and the mothers will return to the classroom, transitioning back to being students for a few more hours.
About 20% of students at Educators for Quality Alternative’s schools — The NET East, The NET Gentilly, and The NET Central City — are pregnant or parenting, their days spent juggling children and schoolwork.
Though the rate of teenage pregnancy is lower than it has been in years past, Louisiana’s teen pregnancy rate remains among the highest in the U.S., at 25.7 per 100,000 women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Faced with extra responsibilities, many teenaged mothers put their education on hold or discontinue it.
“I have never met a young parent who doesn’t care very much about getting this right,” said Elizabeth Ostberg, CEO of Educators for Quality Alternatives. “They want to do right by their kid and they know education is part of it.”
Last week the Orleans Parish School Board adopted a policy that requires schools to offer extra accommodations for pregnant or parenting students in an effort to help keep them in school. The accommodations range from expanding excused absences to requiring dedicated space for breastfeeding.
The policy, which affects charter schools citywide, seeks to standardize how pregnant students are supported no matter the school, said Orleans Parish School Board member Katie Baudouin.
“If we’re moving into a world where more women get pregnant and carry to term even if they don’t want to, we’re going to have to make more accommodations like this and others to make sure those parents can continue their education,” she said, referencing recent legal restrictions to abortion.
The policy aligns Orleans Parish with legislation adopted by the state that went into effect in August. State Rep. Mandie Landry, D-New Orleans, who filed the bill last session, said advocates should also push to improve sex education.
District policy adds accommodations
The new policy in Orleans Parish calls for schools to allow excused absences for pregnancy or parenting related reasons as well as ample time to make up missed school work.
It also says schools must provide a private place for students to breastfeed and provide accommodations for those students. Schools are required to counsel students about daycare options, though not required to provide them.
Baudouin noted that the policy adds accommodations for parenting fathers as well.
For schools like The NET, the policy change won’t actually change much. Sometimes schools refer pregnant students to EQA schools if the student has had numerous absences, Ostberg said.
At EQA schools about 30 students at each school are pregnant or parents, including some students at the Bridge, the group’s middle school, Ostberg said. The Gentilly and New Orleans East campuses have daycares and EQA partnered with a childcare center near its Central City location to pay for its students to use.
“It has definitely helped retention, kids staying in school once they have the baby and finishing and graduating,” Ostberg said, noting that mothers who bring their children to the NET’s daycares, called NESTs, have consistently higher attendance rates. The NEST is offered as a full-time solution or an emergency basis if childcare falls through, something Ostberg said negatively affected attendance of students in the past.
The schools also offers home-bound services, where teachers visit and help students stay on track before or after they give birth and counselors work with students to create childcare plans.
“It’s pretty easy to understand why a lot of kids get overwhelmed and drop out,” Ostberg said. “It’s not because they don’t care about school or don’t think it’s important or don’t want to finish eventually. But you’re balancing a lot of priorities.”
On a dreary November day, three 2-year-olds sat at a table in the NEST at the Gentilly campus coloring pictures of squirrels and singing with their teachers. The NEST usually has about six children, aged six weeks to 3 years old, said Shannon Jones, director of the early childhood program.
Jones said the NEST was formed after mothers eager to finish their degrees would bring babies to class with them. They made it work — teachers would pass around the babies — but it was chaotic, Jones said.
Jones and other staff grow close with their charges and the mothers, often assuming the role of counselor, helping students apply for assistance or book doctor appointments for their kids. The NEST provides a network for some single mothers who are on their own, Jones said. They sometimes throw baby showers and have held hands in the delivery room.
“Finding resources and giving simple things like extra hugs to our big babies,” Jones said. “It’s a lot of support, encouragement and love.”
For mothers like Shirley Garcia, 18, having her daughter close is a comfort. At the NEST’s Thanksgiving celebration on Thursday, Garcia bounced 7-month-old Eliany on her knee and fed her peas. Garcia said she takes breaks from class to breastfeed Eliany.
Without the NEST, she said, she likely would have dropped out. Instead she’s on track to graduate in May and plans to pursue nursing or join the military.
“I feel at peace bringing my daughter in with me,” she said.