CHICAGO
01/31/2012 11:12 am ET | Updated Jun 26, 2013

Teen Mothers In Chicago Find Camaraderie, Empowerment While Staying In School

The Simpson Academy for Young Women, a Chicago public school, last week cut the ribbon on its newest addition -- and it wasn't a new library wing, computer lab or gymnasium. As Fox Chicago reported, the academy on Friday celebrated the opening of a new clinic run by the Rush University College of Nursing and connected to Simpson, a school that caters to teens who are either pregnant or mothers.

Simpson, according to its website, is the only school of its kind in the city with the mission "to provide quality education and developmental support to young mothers." It offers pregnancy and parenting classes, mentoring groups and health and sexual education programs, in addition to core subjects and electives. The academy is young, too; it celebrated its first graduating class last year, according to the Chicago Tribune.

"We want to teach them the skills to balance their roles in life," Simpson president Joi Kidd-Stamps told the Tribune last year. "They need to know how to be successful at balancing the parent piece and the work piece because if they don't, something will give. ... We are preparing them to be great mothers, great scholars and great citizens."

MOMS, MEET YOUR MENTORS

And while Simpson might be the only local school specifically geared to young mothers, other groups are working throughout the city not only to help pregnant teens access medically accurate information and other needed resources, but also to educate students in neighborhoods with high drop-out rates due to pregnancy that becoming a mother is just one of many choices they might make in their teenage years.

Angela Carter is a manager with Mentors of Mothers, a Metropolitan Family Services program operating out of four sites (in the city's Roseland, South Chicago, West Lawn and Portage Park neighborhoods) that serve students in a number of Chicago Public Schools.

The program offers both group and individual sessions with "mentor moms," some of whom were young mothers themselves, who meet with students during lunch periods, after school and sometimes on weekends to share information for having a healthy, successful pregnancy and to help the girls complete school and go on to college and enter the workforce.

In order to qualify for the program, young women must be between 13 and 21 years old and already pregnant or a mother to at least one child, who may be no older than three years old.

Some of the girls, Carter told The Huffington Post, come and go, while others stay for the full three years they are eligible for the program. And though some may stop coming to the program, sometimes they return to their mentor mom later with a question about breastfeeding or working with pediatricians.

Carter said those are the sort of "longstanding relationships" that develop during the program -- and keep its participants coming back.

"The girls enjoy the camaraderie between themselves and their peers as they go through the program," Carter said.

The program also aims to prevent child abuse and neglect, as well as unwanted second pregnancies, behaviors that Carter said she believes would be more prevalent if Mentors of Mothers was not around.

The population is not as informed as they should be, Carter continued. "We help these girls to be able to advocate for themselves."

A BACK-BURNER ISSUE

Misinformation is the main target of another unique program led by the Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition. Just one of the group's projects is the community-based work it does at Englewood's Paul Robeson High School.

In the news two years ago for its high teen pregnancy rate (more than 1 in 8 female students were pregnant at one point) and relatedly high drop-out rate, the school now hosts a peer education program that trains young people to talk to other youth about issues including healthy relationships, sexual health and pregnancy, which gives them tools in "a non-preachy or [non-]judgmental way," Janine Lewis, IMCHC executive director, told The Huffington Post.

As of 2008, about 32 out of every 1,000 girls aged 10 to 19 living in Chicago had given birth, and while the overall teen birth rate in the city has been on the decline, the decreases have been significantly greater among whites (70 percent) than among blacks (38 percent) and Hispanics (23 percent), according to the Chicago Department of Public Health.

"I think we have been somewhat lulled into a sense that it's getting better in terms of local and state teen pregnancy rates, but it's not so great in certain enclaves, in particular among low-income, minority populations where rates are still very high," Lewis said. "I think this issue has been on the back burner for way too long, and I think family planning has gotten a bad rap."

"If you don't want a child at 17, how can you prevent that from happening?" she asked.

NOWHERE ELSE TO TURN?

At the school, trained peer educators meet with students and talk -- young woman to young woman -- about the realities of HIV/AIDS, other sexually transmitted infections and more broadly about leading healthy lives.

Because the state lacks mandated age-appropriate, comprehensive sexual education in the classrooms, many teens are left to rely on what they learn from friends, television, movies and at home. A program called "Cradle to the Classroom," through which CPS once provided case workers for teen mothers, was cut in 2004 by Arne Duncan, then-CEO of CPS.

Meanwhile, Lewis said, "you'd be surprised what young people don't know about how the human body functions." And that ignorance is the opposite of power.

"What we want to impart to youth is a sense of empowerment, that you have a right to know about your body and to make decisions about it," Lewis said.

CLARIFICATION: Another Chicago high school, the Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School in Humboldt Park, also has been running a program similar to Simpson's for the past two decades.

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