Expecting an Education

For a long time, the Polly T. McCabe Center wasn’t somewhere you went because you wanted to. You went because you had no other choice. At least, not really: If you were a pregnant teenager in New Haven, you needed a place where you could learn to feed your baby and change diapers and escape from the smirks and stares of your classmates, and you were not going to find that at your normal middle or high school. So you went to Polly McCabe, an alternative school established in 1966 for pregnant students in the New Haven Public School system. For the duration of your pregnancy and through the academic quarter after you gave birth, you would attend traditional classes like math and biology, plus courses tailored to the needs of pregnant students, such as nutrition and group counseling. And, perhaps more importantly, the school provided a refuge from the stigma of teen parenthood.

Today, “choice” is a loaded word in the contexts of both schools and pregnancy. But when Polly McCabe opened, the word was a bridge between those two worlds: for pregnant girls, a choice to go to Polly McCabe was a choice to stay in school. Their other options were bleak. They could either drop out immediately, or they could stay in their traditional schools without any special care or resources. A Yale study conducted at Polly McCabe in 2000, at the height of the school’s activity, found an 80 percent high school completion rate for its students. Nationwide, the current number for pregnant teens hovers around 50 percent.

In the nineteen-nineties and early two-thousands, Polly McCabe served more than one hundred students every year. Last year, it served no more than sixteen—on a good day. While sixteen students were officially on the school roster, only four to seven attended regularly, said Dr. Belinda Carberry, who served as Polly McCabe’s principal for the last three years. Enrollment had been decreasing for decades, in line with plummeting teen pregnancy rates across the country: a 68 percent drop nationwide since 1991, 65 percent in Connecticut. Of the teens who did get pregnant, more and more were choosing to stay in the schools they had already been attending; New York City closed its four remaining “P” schools in 2007.

Last April, New Haven followed suit. The Board of Education’s finance committee voted to stop providing services out of Polly McCabe’s Canner Street facility by the next academic year. Students now receive pregnancy support resources, under the McCabe name, from within mainstream schools. Although administrators emphasized that Polly McCabe was not closed, just reinvented, the fact remains that pregnant teens in New Haven now have fewer options when it comes to their education.

But given how few girls chose Polly McCabe in the last decade, how important, exactly, is that option anyway?

Administrators cited two main reasons for shuttering Polly McCabe: federal Title IX regulations and financial constraints. These justifications are closely intertwined. Title IX, passed six years after Polly McCabe’s founding, requires public schools to provide equal resources to students regardless of sex. But it became increasingly difficult to provide comparable academic resources at Polly McCabe, said NHPS Director of Instruction Billy Johnson. There was “no way” the district, with its $4.6 million deficit, could afford to offer the same range of courses and electives at a school with four students as it could at one with hundreds, he said.

For pregnant girls, a choice to go to Polly McCabe was a choice to stay in school.

By the end of last year, Polly McCabe no longer offered art, world languages, or science classes. And because graduation requirements are consistent district-wide, many new mothers were missing the credits they needed when they returned to their original schools after giving birth, undermining Polly McCabe’s goal of helping pregnant students get their diplomas.

New Haven’s high school landscape also may have contributed to the decline in enrollment. In addition to its traditional high schools, New Haven is home to a variety of magnet schools with highly specialized curricula: Hill Regional Career focuses on medicine and entrepreneurship; Co-Op on the arts. Polly McCabe likely felt increasingly limiting, Johnson explained. “The reality [is]…when it has ten different high schools to compete with, that’s a totally different ball game,” he said.

And so the school was caught in a vicious cycle. The fewer choices that Polly McCabe offered, the fewer students it attracted; the fewer students who enrolled, the fewer choices the school could offer. In 2014, the most recent year for which the state has data, there were 137 teen births in New Haven. Less than 15 percent of those mothers enrolled at Polly McCabe.

Arguably, they had no need to: all the resources those students could have received at 400 Canner Street are now available in their traditional schools.

In a quiet corner of James Hillhouse High School on Sherman Avenue, Sharon Bradford sits in an office plastered with posters of young mothers cradling their babies. On her desk, she keeps a copy of the summer 2016 Southern Connecticut State University alumni magazine, which profiles a former Hillhouse student and teen mother who won a full Gates Millennium scholarship for college. Several decades ago, Bradford was also a teen mother in New Haven. In this room, secluded from the hallways where students weave around each other like cars on a busy freeway, she now heads the Support for Pregnant and Parenting Teens Program (SPPT), a statewide support program.

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SPPT, established in 2012, is funded by a combination of state and federal programs. It operates in five Connecticut school districts, including New Haven; now that Polly McCabe no longer occupies a physical space, the services it used to offer have been folded into SPPT. Each year, Bradford and her staff meet with sixty to seventy students across the district—mothers and fathers—several times a week, depending on the students’ needs. They track the teenagers’ school attendance, coach them through conflicts with their partners, or just share M&Ms.
Daphney St. Louis, a Hillhouse sophomore, said she never considered decamping for Polly McCabe when she became pregnant with her son, who is now three months old.

“I had support here,” she explained one Monday morning as she sat in Bradford’s office. The SPPT program provided St. Louis with advice, a car seat, and a breast pump. She still visits the office almost every day to do her homework and chat.

Since Polly McCabe’s founding in 1966, New Haven’s support services for teen mothers have grown. In the early 1990s, a group of Yale Law School students opened the Elizabeth Celotto Child Care Center, which operates out of Wilbur Cross High School and provides free childcare to teen parents district-wide who stay in school. Director Robin Moore-Evans said the center provides many services similar to the SPPT program, including academic advising and parenting classes.

The Celotto Center was the reason Maria, who asked to be identified by her first name only, also decided against Polly McCabe. Like St. Louis, Maria stayed at Hillhouse after becoming pregnant in 2014.

“I didn’t want to get separated from high school at all. I got along with the teachers and staff at Hillhouse, and I didn’t really know anybody at Polly McCabe in order to make new relationships with them,” said Maria, who is now a sophomore in college. “I felt like everybody as a community came together, and they have options and different resources for the different types of people that attend school…Polly McCabe, it seemed like a good school, it just didn’t seem like the right decision for me.”

The numbers suggest that most pregnant teens in New Haven felt like Maria and St. Louis. But some still chose Polly McCabe.

I was unable to get in touch—directly or through administrators—with the handful of students who were still at Polly McCabe when it closed. According to Bradford, several were too busy or did not want to draw attention to themselves.

“I think that having a school dedicated to pregnant and parenting teens was better because the girls were more focused,” said Dorothy Mazon, the SPPT program’s registered nurse, who worked at Polly McCabe until it closed. “It was a like group of people. In a regular school there is still a lot of name-calling. There’s discrimination, harassment. Even some of the teachers don’t want to be ‘bothered’ with a pregnant individual. They act like they don’t know what to do.”

In a regular school there is still a lot of name-calling. There’s discrimination, harassment. Even some of the teachers don’t want to be ‘bothered’ with a pregnant individual.

“I have known students to attend McCabe and testify that without McCabe, they could not have made it,” Carberry, the school’s principal, said.

Both St. Louis and Maria said they sometimes felt stigmatized by their peers at Hillhouse. St. Louis said classmates stared at her belly when it grew. Maria recalled hearing some snide comments. But both women said they did not allow the scrutiny to deter them.

“I didn’t pay attention to them,” Maria said. “It was a matter of, I’m going to school to learn and not to listen to everybody else and what they have to say.”

The importance of Maria’s choice to pursue and prioritize her education, in spite of her pregnancy, is a point everybody agrees on regardless of their views on Polly McCabe as a standalone school. But that choice, like the choice to attend Polly McCabe, is also under threat from funding shortages.

The shortfall is twofold: The school district did not gain any money from closing Polly McCabe’s educational services, and the support services, now under the umbrella of the state-sponsored SPPT program, are losing funding too.

On the educational side, the district is technically saving over $100,000 a year from the closure, both on the costs of running the Polly McCabe building and on the expense of teacher salaries—the latter of which was already reduced because for the school’s last year, the district had hired only part-time retired teachers, Carberry said. But given the district’s multimillion-dollar deficit, the money saved cannot be redirected to other resources. Money saved in a deficit, Johnson pointed out, “doesn’t really exist.”

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On the support side, the grant money for SPPT, which has always come from the state rather than the district, is still active––for now. But another grant the program relied on, the Young Parents Program Grant, ended recently. Bradford’s staff has been reduced from six to four, and each member feels the strain.

“We just need more staff,” Bradford said. “We’re being asked to do more with less.”

And if the state or federal government decides to decrease educational funding or stop providing money for pregnant and parenting teens altogether, Bradford will face the prospect of doing more with less. When asked if the district would continue providing parenting classes and counseling if the grant money were to stop, Johnson turned his palms skyward.

“That’s when I go like this,” he said, shrugging. “It wouldn’t be up to me. I really don’t know.”

St. Louis and Maria are testaments to the fact that pregnant students can flourish inside traditional schools. And Bradford and Mazon acknowledge that Polly McCabe’s closing has brought some unexpected benefits. School attendance, a frequent problem at Polly McCabe, is now slightly up among pregnant students.
“They’re around their friends, they have access to different activities that they didn’t have there,” Bradford explained.

“Polly was not the panacea,” Mazon said.

But pregnant students can succeed only with support, whether it comes from a standalone school or a support program.

St. Louis said she can’t imagine what her pregnancy would have been like without resources like SPPT. Sitting in the program’s office, as she chatted with Bradford about her son’s upcoming baptism, she described the help the program had given her.

“They helped me with the colic, and making sure he doesn’t sleep on his back,” she recalled. “A lot of things I did not know.”

There was a time when she didn’t think she would have that support. When she found out she was pregnant, she said, she had no intention of going to anyone at Hillhouse for help.

“I was petrified,” she said. “I was like, I don’t know them. Why would I go there?”

It was a friend who had been through the program who finally convinced her. St. Louis remembered thinking, “Maybe I should try it out.”

That was the choice that shaped the rest of her pregnancy. And of all the choices now potentially limited by Polly McCabe’s closing—the choice to stay in school, the choice of what kind of school to attend—that is the one that matters most, and perhaps the one that is most endangered: the choice to ask for help, knowing that it can be found.

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