This post reviews Lee SmithBattle, “‘I Wanna Have a Good Future:’ Teen Mothers’ Rise in Educational Aspirations, Competing Demands, and Limited School Support.” in Youth and Society 38, no. 3 (March 2007): 348-371.
SmithBattle, a professor at the St. Louis University School of Nursing, here describes how pregnancy and childbirth often serve as motivators for young teens to raise their educational aspirations.
In a fascinating reversal of received wisdom, SmithBattle argues that for many teen mothers pregnancy is not a hindrance to their future but may actually improve their life chances. Teens who become pregnant are more likely to be from poor, majority minority communities. Their educational and employment prospects are not good to begin with, so having a baby doesn’t really interfere with a viable life-trajectory. Moreover, the fact of parenthood often fosters a sense of maturity and responsibility among these girls, many of whom give up bad habits upon finding out that they’re pregnant and resolve to make something of their lives.
To get at the subjective experiences of teen mothers, SmithBattle conducted a longitudinal study of 19 teen mothers, interviewing both the teen mother and a parent or guardian six times from late pregnancy to 10 months postpartum. Girls were all first time mothers, aged 15 to 18. Ten were black and nine were white. Five had dropped out of school before becoming pregnant. Six dropped out during pregnancy. Eight stayed in school in one way or another, three of them by home schooling.
While SmithBattle’s study produced a number of interesting findings, I will only note here what she found regarding home schooling. Much of her article describes the frustration experienced by these young mothers trying to keep up with their educations along with childcare responsibilities and employment. Each girl’s case was unique, but the three girls whose school districts provided at-home tutoring had a much easier time making it work. Teens whose school districts did not provide at-home tutoring were forced to find childcare for their kids and jerrymander transportation of their child to the caregiver and of themselves to the school–a complex situation that frequently broke down leading to much missed school. Students who received at-home tutoring were spared this headache and were able to do schoolwork between feedings without the social challenges endemic to low-grade high schools.
SmithBattle’s study relates several heartbreaking stories of earnest efforts by these young women to continue their educations that are rebuffed by inflexible school bureaucracies “enforcing policies” that disregard the “complex realities” of these mothers’ lives. Urban schools were especially rigid, particularly in terms of offering alternative services. “Home schooling was a critical resource in maintaining academic progress,” notes Smithbattle, “but this option was only available to suburban students.” Urban teens, in contrast, were shunted “into a separate pregnancy school” with a cumbersome enrollment process. “More troubling still, the urban distrct used the pregnancy school to deny home schooling to pregnant teens, even though these students, like peers whose medical conditions result in school absences, are entitled to such services.”
In closing let me simply note that this article is a wonderful example of the sort of insight that can be attained by careful qualitative study. SmithBattle’s year-long efforts with these 19 girls give her text a richness of detail that makes for compelling, almost novelistic reading at times. It also provides us with another example of how public education can utilize the home schooling paradigm to accomplish meaningful results, in this case with a population that might not be able to succeed in any other way.