Yvonne Abraham

Solution for dropouts

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / October 25, 2009

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EVERETT - Usually, big social problems are so complicated that it’s hard to imagine ever fixing them. And, daunted, we don’t.

But sometimes, solutions are closer than you think.

A state report released Wednesday painted a grim picture of dropouts in Massachusetts: Ten thousand kids quit our schools every year, joining the ranks of those most likely to be poorly paid, unemployed, on welfare, or in jail.

The numbers haven’t budged for over a decade. A lot of kids drop out because of a mass of intractable social ills. But for about a quarter of dropouts, it’s a little simpler: They leave school because they’re having children.

“I don’t know of a single group more tied to the dropout issue than pregnant and parenting teens,’’ said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy. She estimates that there are currently 10,000 pregnant or parenting girls in this state, and 4,000 parenting boys. Keeping them in school, and lowering teen pregnancy rates, would put a huge dent in the dropout rate, she said.

In Massachusetts, the cities and towns with the highest dropout rates are also the cities and towns with the highest teen pregnancy rates: Lawrence, Fall River, Holyoke, Chelsea, Springfield.

Obviously, preventing kids from getting pregnant in the first place is the best solution here. To that end, kids need better sex ed in schools, access to birth control, and reasons to delay sex and pregnancy. It would be handy if more parents stepped in.

And the girls who are already mothers need someone to care for their babies while they go to school.

That’s obvious to Beth Anderson. Her Phoenix Charter Academy, on the Chelsea-Everett line, specializes in working with the dropouts who have state officials wringing their hands. Sixteen of her 180 students are pregnant or parenting. They get the same intensive teaching and counseling as everybody else, and are held to the same standards: They can’t graduate without a college acceptance letter.

They also get on-site day care. On Friday, a dozen babies and toddlers slept or played with caregivers as their mothers sat in chemistry and literature classes. Amanda Williams, 17, perched herself on a tiny chair by her pigtailed daughter Anais, 2. Williams dropped out of a Boston school last year, frustrated at being kept back. Consumed with caring for her daughter, she lost focus. She had a voucher to a day care center, but it took two buses and a train to get there from Mattapan, so she was always late for class.

“I have to be here by 9 or I get kicked out, but I can do that,’’ Williams said. “I’ve gone from straight Fs to being a high honor roll student.’’

Because Williams will finish school, her daughter is more likely to finish, too: Phoenix is changing two lives.

Giving teen mothers access to child care so they can graduate high school may just be the simplest and most sensible solution to a big part of our dropout problem. Williams is lucky Anderson raises private funds to pay for her on-site day-care center.

Meanwhile, the state is gutting the programs that will help other young mothers.

Last week, the state trumpeted its commitment to reducing dropout rates. This week, the governor is expected to announce cuts that will send those numbers in the wrong direction. Quinn expects child-care funds for teen mothers - already reduced in this year’s budget - to be further slashed. As if that wasn’t bad enough, teen pregnancy prevention programs will likely be eviscerated, too.

There’s no denying that the state’s finances are a mess. But this doesn’t make sense. Cutting teenage parents loose might save us some money now, but down the line, it’s going to cost us a whole lot more.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is