Teen Moms Must Balance Bonding, Books

There will be no specific maternity leave policy in Denver Public Schools, because there doesn’t need to be, administrators and school board members said this week.

What there soon will be are newly clarified regulations about long-term absences for all students who miss school for health-related reasons.

The volatile issue of how to handle students who have babies in a school division with one of the state’s highest teen pregnancy rates arose during a December hearing. There, one pregnant student claimed girls in her condition needed more support. The student and a couple of counselors claimed that DPS policies could force new teen mothers back to class before they are physically or emotionally ready.

School board member Kevin Patterson called the conversation “off the wall.”

“If a kid has surgery, there’s always a health plan that can make accommodation,” he said. “To say the new mom has to come back the day after delivery does not make sense.”

And it isn’t happening, school officials insist.

“The assumptions were not correct,” school system spokesman Alex Sanchez said of the student and counselor claims.

Still, the policy needs adjustment, admitted school board Chairwoman Theresa Pena.

What it won’t get is a controversial title that radio talk show hosts, critics of public education and political challengers of DPS’ elected school board can feast on.

“We are not going to have a maternity leave policy,” Pena stressed. “What needs to be changed are regulations. Different schools were handling things differently, not just for young mothers, but any long-term absence. It needs to be addressed.”

Sanchez said the school system already offers support to pregnant students under an overall health leave policy. “We have never given unexcused absences to anyone who missed school to have a baby,” Sanchez said.

Nor has the school system automatically given unexcused absences to teen mothers who take time off to recover from delivery and bond with newborns, Sanchez continued.

“What happens is if the student comes to school and says, `I’m pregnant. Here’s my plan.’ — that’s an excused absence. But students are still accountable and responsible for the school work they miss.”

Pena said the school system needs “to update regulations so there is some consistency.”

The conflict stems from competing demands of recovery and academic progress.

“If you ditch school for 30 days, it’s a truancy situation,” said Pena. “That’s different than a health care situation.”

The goal, she emphasized, “is to keep kids in school.”

Giving birth and bonding with newborns clearly falls into the category of health-related absence. The problem is that birth and bonding should not exempt new teen moms from having to do school work if they want to pass on to the next higher grade.

Whether or not your absence is excused, after you miss a certain number of assignments, you’re not academically prepared for promotion.

“It goes to an attendance issue of so many accrued absences,” Pena said.

It also goes to a sad irony.

As bad as the pregnancy rate is in Denver Public Schools, the dropout rate is worse.

So administrators will tweak the scales that balance health with learning, hoping to keep the school board from a politically risky vote.

  “We’re waiting for the language,” Sanchez said of the policy clarification.

It should “respect family or medical professional” wishes while insuring that students who must miss school continue to make academic progress.

“It’s about the application of current policy,” Patterson said.

He’s right. It should not take a vote of the Board of Education to get teachers to homebound students whether they just had a baby or an appendectomy. But the students of the Denver Public Schools need to understand one thing before they answer the unprotected call of hormones that can change the rest of their lives:

Bonding with your baby will never give you the skills to provide a decent home for that child.

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Jim Spencer

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