Teacher Gerry Garibaldi’s urban Connecticut high school is not short on resources. “We don’t want for books—or for any of the cutting-edge gizmos that non–Title I schools can’t afford: computerized whiteboards, Elmo projectors, the works,” he writes in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. But all the money and reforms can’t help a problem no one wants to confront: teen pregnancy. “This year, all of my favorite girls are pregnant, four in all, future unwed mothers every one,” he writes. “There will be no innovation in this quarter, no race to the top. Personal moral accountability is the electrified rail that no politician wants to touch.”
“In today’s urban high school, there is no shame or social ostracism when girls become pregnant. Other girls in school want to pat their stomachs. Their friends throw baby showers at which meager little gifts are given. After delivery, the girls return to school with baby pictures on their cell phones or slipped into their binders, which they eagerly share with me. Often they sit together in my classes, sharing insights into parenting, discussing the taste of Pedialite or the exhaustion that goes with the job. On my way home at night, I often see my students in the projects that surround our school, pushing their strollers or hanging out on their stoops instead of doing their homework.”
Connecticut is particularly generous to unwed mothers, Garibaldi writes. But those benefits are tantamount to a public endorsement of single motherhood, “one that has turned our urban high schools into puppy mills. The safety net has become a hammock,” he notes.
Garibaldi’s moving piece describes his efforts to teach journalism to several teenage mothers-to-be–girls who read on the 5th grade level in high school, and expect (and receive) no help from the fathers of their children. “The young father almost always greets the pregnancy with adolescent excitement, as if a baby were a new Xbox game,” he writes. “But a boy’s interest in his child quickly vanishes. When I ask girls if the father is helping out with the baby, they shrug. ‘I don’t care if he does or not,’ I’ve heard too often.”
I keep in touch with a substantial number of my former South Bronx students. Garibaldi’s piece arrived in my inbox minutes after I left a message for one of my favorite, if most troubled, former students–an exceptionally bright, emotionally volatile young woman who at 17 has just given birth to her second child. Still in the foster care system, she lives with the mother of the young man who fathered her children. I asked her if she has the help she needs with her babies; she asked me for help finding a school where she can finish up so she can go to college. It sounds hopeful, but I’ve learned to temper my expectations. Last year I made arrangements after the birth of her first child for her to attend a transfer school with an array of support services, she failed even to show up to take an entrance exam she could have aced in her sleep.
Another of my former students, 18, who stopped going to school after 9th grade and last year stopped attending even her GED classes, recently posted on Facebook that she is pregnant. She regularly puts up pictures of her tattoed and swelling belly and updates her status daily with news of her clearly unstable relationship with the baby’s father–another former student she refers to as her “hubby.” A sweet and trusting young woman, it would be disingenuous of me not to admit that I could see this one coming years ago. Her page overflows with congratulatory messages from friends and family members about the baby, and profane advice on what to do with ”hubby.”
Back to Garibaldi:
“Every fall, new education theories arrive, born like orchids in the hothouses of big-time university education departments. Urban teachers are always first in line for each new bloom. We’ve been retrofitted as teachers a dozen times over. This year’s innovation is the Data Wall, a strategy in which teachers must test endlessly in order to produce data about students’ progress. The Obama administration has spent lavishly to ensure that professional consultants monitor its implementation. Every year, the national statistics summon a fresh chorus of outrage at the failure of urban public schools,” he concludes. “Next year, I fear, will be little different.”