During my second year of law school, I taught civics and civil rights in an alternative high school in D.C.—that is, a school for students who preferred or were pushed into a nontraditional setting. Almost all my students were Black, and many of them were either pregnant or already parents. In addition to trying to graduate, they had to deal with many other responsibilities most teenagers don’t even think about: scheduling doctor’s appointments; arranging and paying for childcare; finding affordable housing; holding steady employment to support themselves and their kids. The last thing they needed was grief for being a young parent.
Yet that’s what many African American teen mothers encounter from their peers, teachers, and administrators, according to Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls: A Call to Action for Educational Equity, a new report from the National Women’s Law Center and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
African American girls experience unintended pregnancies at three times the rate of white girls, and almost half (45%) of African American girls will become pregnant at least once before turning 20. The increased rate is attributed in part to disparate conditions of poverty among Black girls. And without support and encouragement to stay in school, African American teen moms and their children are likely to continue the cycle of poor educational outcomes and poverty. In fact, only half (51%) of teen moms obtain a high school diploma by age 22, compared to 89% of women who don’t have children in their teen years. Unfortunately, many school administrators unlawfully bar pregnant and parenting teens from school activities, penalize them for pregnancy-related absences, or pressure them to attend alternative programs, even though Title IX prohibits schools from discriminating against pregnant students and the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued extensive guidance last year reminding schools of their obligations to pregnant and parenting students. The bias against pregnant and parenting teens is so strong that some who manage to succeed, like Kymberly Wimberly, are met with disdain by school administrators. Wimberly, who is Black, was a high school junior at McGehee High School in Arkansas when she gave birth to her child. The next year, she took a full load of Advanced Placement classes and finished with the highest GPA in her class. Yet the school called her achievement a “big mess” and named a white student with a lower GPA as her “co-valedictorian.”
The real “big mess” is the way so many schools fail to support their pregnant and parenting students. Read our report for more information and recommendations for how schools can clean up their act.