Less support for young moms

Students: Deep staff cuts at Baltimore's pioneering Paquin school have disrupted learning and left fewer spaces in its day care.

February 06, 2005|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

A couple of months after Carin Ford gave birth to a baby boy last fall, the 10th-grader was ready to return to Laurence G. Paquin Middle/High School, Baltimore's school for pregnant students and teenage mothers.

The 15-year-old had reserved a place for her son in Paquin's infant day care program, glad that he would be looked after in the building where she attended classes. But then, she received a phone call telling her that the day care program had been scaled back because of budget cuts and there would be no room for her son.

"I cried," said Carin, who had laid out a new baby outfit for her first day back at school. "I had to stay out of school for an extra three weeks to find him day care."

Carin is among about 200 students whose lives were turned upside down when the school system cut Paquin's staff nearly in half in the middle of first semester. With the loss of teachers and aides, the school was forced to eliminate several courses and programs, shuffle students into different, larger classes, and turn away new teenage mothers seeking day care for their babies.

"This is really the decimation of the Paquin program, if it's allowed to stand," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, a longtime supporter of the East Baltimore school. A hearing is scheduled for Feb. 15 on a resolution sponsored by Clarke and other council members urging the school system to undo Paquin's budget cuts.

Although Baltimore's teen birthrate has reached its lowest level on record - 7 percent of the city's girls ages 15 to 19 gave birth last year - it continues to be higher than the national rate of about 4 percent.

To advocates for pregnant teens, that makes Paquin, established in 1966 as one of the country's first schools for pregnant girls, as necessary as ever.

"It was established at a time when the schools weren't even retaining girls after they became pregnant," said Laurie Schwab Zabin, a professor of family health sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. After state law was changed and other schools began admitting pregnant girls, Paquin distinguished itself through its expertise in educating girls in parenting as well as academics, and by the medical services and work force training it provided.

"It was then that it proved its importance," Zabin said of the later years. "The other schools did not provide the additional training [the girls] needed."

Paquin has always been at the forefront of issues related to teenage parents. It drew criticism for offering students the controversial contraceptive Norplant in the 1990s; has welcomed visits from foreign health and education officials; and adopted a philosophy early on that everyone around a young mother - the father of her baby, the grandparents - needs information and training.

The school has faced previous budget cuts and proposals to shut it down, but advocates said they have been able to fight off major blows to the program.

Last summer, school officials imposed a new systemwide staffing formula that led to larger class sizes, under a budget-cutting initiative aimed at reducing the system's $58 million deficit. Schools, including Paquin, were allocated a smaller number of teachers and aides.

Opponents of the reductions argue that Paquin, which has had one teacher for every 15 students since 1993, should have been treated differently.

"We have a population that's at-risk to begin with," said Brian Hoffman, a high school social studies teacher at Paquin. "They need the extra attention that we can provide, and now, in some cases, we can't do that."

School officials say they gave Paquin four more teachers than it was entitled to based on its enrollment of slightly more than 200. Rosetta Stith, the school's principal, said enrollment ebbs and flows because some girls choose to attend only while pregnant, and others stay for years. Paquin generally serves about 500 girls a year, she said.

"We're doing our best to relieve ourselves from a huge budget deficit," said Frank DeStefano, director of city high schools. "But we did make sure we were able to maintain as much of the [Paquin] program as we could."

DeStefano also said Paquin was given ample warning about the impending staff cuts and chose to delay them until November, a decision that resulted in the midsemester loss of staff.

Stith, who has headed the school since 1980, declined to comment about the effect of the budget cuts.

Clarke, in whose district Paquin is located, said the school was caught off guard when 16 teachers and aides were transferred in November. Over the summer, it had already reduced its staff by one-fourth - to 36 teachers, aides and clerks - and hoped to avoid other proposed cuts, she said.

"The school was under the impression that they had negotiated successfully ... and reduced the amount of cuts," said Clarke, who feels the system should have found a way to keep more teachers.

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