Mamas in the Classroom
Sixteen and pregnant, but with a GPS for a new direction.


Kathryn Jean Lopez

‘What can you do to stem the tide of teen pregnancy?” Jacquelyn Wideman asks from New York City, where the rate is at least 12 percent higher than the national average. 

Get them fully engaged in their new lives as parents, she says, answering her own question.

By which she does not necessarily mean a shotgun wedding — though marriage is absolutely to be encouraged, for the sake of parents and child. She has in mind New Directions, a proposed charter school for Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, and the idea behind it is to get teenage mothers and fathers dealing with their new responsibilities in “a motivational, supportive environment,” Wideman, a nonprofit consultant on the planning team, explains. “The proposed charter high school seeks to give them the environment, the area, the access to continue their education.”

New Directions is the dream of a group of New Yorkers, a number associated with the Faith Assemblies of God Church in Brooklyn. According to the school’s working mission, it would “give pregnant teen girls and parenting teen boys and girls residing within the five boroughs of New York City a place where they have the opportunity to resume and complete their high school education. New Directions Charter High School will provide an environment that is non-judgmental, encourages academic growth and excellence, develops self-confidence and worth, and promotes critical thinking skills that will open the door for positive life choices.”

How exactly does accommodating teen pregnancy with its own school “stem the tide of teen pregnancy”? Because it’s not accommodating the teenagers. It’s equipping them to meet the challenge of their new life as parents. “They see this is very hard. That may prevent them from a repeat pregnancy,” Wideman explains. The engagement strategy is quite practical: “keep them busy, so they’re not motivated to have a second child.”

But it’s not busywork. Wideman stresses “excellence.” Passing classes will require a 70 or more. They’re aiming for a 100 percent graduation rate. They want students to be college-bound — not an easy goal, but with online schools and other options, New Directions would help these too-young parents map out their options. Wideman tells me they want “to get students educated, to assist them in completing their educations, providing employment opportunities, and helping them succeed.” The school would be about “tools and opportunities.”

In 2007, the last four public high schools for pregnant teenagers closed in New York City. Wideman believes among the reasons they failed was a lack of vigilance in covering core subject areas, in preparing students for key state exams, and in doing follow-through when a student didn’t show up. Attendance was low. The New Directions planning team wants to make sure that theirs is one place that reaches out and holds enrolled students accountable.

But by pushing teen parents to see the opportunities before them, the New Directions strategy is not to pretend that life has not changed. Further: “We want to discourage them to get pregnant again,” Wideman tells me. While creating a “non-judgmental” environment, New Directions would truly seek to put these kids on a new direction: away from more pregnancies before they’re ready. And away from dependency. Toward even the possibility of more than a “minimum-wage-paying job,” since they’ll need to work hard to provide for the family they’ve created.