Nineteen-year old Kathleen Clement looks forward to Tuesdays.
That’s the day she gets to put aside parenting for a few hours with other young moms at Akron’s First Glance youth center. During this recent evening, Clement and about 15 other women in their teens and early 20s are gathered around a folding table, making card games for their kids. Clement gave birth to her daughter Helena during her senior year at Towpath Trails High School. And like many students who suddenly face having to care for an infant, she dropped out shortly after.
“I don’t have a car, so it would have been hard for me to get to school with a baby,” Clement said. “And it was more important for me to be with her.” But as we talk more, Clement reveals it wasn’t just a lack of transportation, or even devotion to her newborn, that led her to leave school. Her relationships started to change, and she didn’t like the extra looks she was receiving.
“I started to feel very uncomfortable with people staring at me and things like that,” she said. “I ended up putting a ring, an engagement ring, on my finger just because people kept looking at me like it was disgusting and a sin.”
You can't hide it
Lara Kaufmann, the director for education policy for at-risk students at the National Women’s Law Center, says what Clement felt is common and is one of the reasons young women drop out.
“As soon as a girl is showing, it makes it clear to her fellow students she’s engaged in sexual activity,” Kaufman explained. “And unlike a male student, she can’t hide it. Some students see that as a fair game for sexual harassment.”
But that’s less true today than in the past, says Yvonne Culver, a guidance counselor of over 15 years at Akron Public Schools. She says schools today are more accommodating to pregnant teens, offering emotional support, and connections to important resources like daycare once the baby is born.
She says their goal for them is no different than for any other student: do what it takes to get them to graduation. “We can’t make school a baby shower,” Culver said. “So, just walking that line where the student doesn’t feel ostracized, they just feel like a student.”
The organizer of First Glance’s young moms’ night, Karen Freeman, thinks schools do a decent job to reach out to expecting students, but says they may be fighting a losing battle from the beginning. Education isn’t a priority for most of the mothers she’s met over the past eight years, especially those who themselves are coming from single parent households.
Repeats and the stats
“The pattern just repeats itself,” Freeman said. “And a lot of times, it’s not a matter “if they’ll have a baby,” it’s “when they’ll have a baby”, so it’s just a given. The girls’ worlds are so small that they don’t realize there’s more than just what’s in their bubble.” Kathleen Clement said she’s determined to return to break the cycle and finish her high school education at some point.
But the odds are still against her. Only 38 percent of moms who have a child before age 18 earn their high school diploma by age 22, and less than 2 percent earn a college degree by age 30, according to data from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. And while Clement’s dream job is to be a psychologist, she sheepishly nods her head while admitting that’s a lot of schooling.
So in the meantime, she focuses her energy on the big dreams she has for her little girl. “I hope she likes to read books,” Clement said. “I hope she likes to watch documentaries. I just hope she has her values and she sticks to them.” For StateImpact Ohio, I’m Amy Hansen.