Teaching teen mothers

A debate is unfolding over the city's Paquin school, which could be moved or even closed amid budget cuts and falling enrollment

March 20, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

The classrooms are filled with desks, some with computers, too, but day after day many of those rooms go unused. Here's where pregnant girls and teen mothers used to learn about business education and science. Now, only half of the nursery's cribs are filled with infants.

Laurence G. Paquin Middle/High School in East Baltimore has had its staff cut nearly in half in the past year because of system budget cuts. Teachers say staff cuts led to dwindling enrollment. And now that the facility on Sinclair Lane has excess space, city school officials want to give the building to another school and move Paquin to the nearby Lake Clifton High complex.

But Paquin's students, teachers and supporters say the proposal is a ploy to close the school, which for 40 years has nurtured girls who have babies. They say the move would put Paquin in cramped space in an inferior building where it would be unable to maintain its acclaimed medical clinic and preschool.

"The wolf's at the door," said Brian Hoffman, who has taught at Paquin for five years and has seen his duties grow since the budget cuts. Asked what he teaches, he replied, "You name it," and rattled off a list: world history, U.S. history, American government, business communication and technology, and social studies.

The school system plan calls for Baltimore Freedom Academy to move into Paquin's building in the next few years.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, long a Paquin supporter, questions whether the plan would work. She said she visited Lake Clifton and found only 13 empty classrooms, most of them in need of major renovations. On March 28, the school board is scheduled to vote on a proposal to move Paquin and Hamilton Middle School to Lake Clifton.

Phillip H. Farfel, a former city school board president who helped develop a medical clinic at Paquin, said the recommendation is "sneaky" and "shows a total lack of understanding" of the needs of the girls and babies Paquin serves.

School system officials say they can't justify keeping the Paquin program in its own large building when only about 135 girls and babies attend each day. Even after the budget cuts, they say, Paquin's small classes are the envy of nearly every other school in the city. The system is spending $1.2 million this year to operate Paquin, once the only public school in the city where a pregnant girl could get an education.

The debate over Paquin is unfolding as such schools around the country are being closed one after another.

"It's definitely a dying breed," said Pat Paluzzi, president and chief executive of the Washington-based Healthy Teen Network, a national organization focused on teen parenting and pregnancy prevention.

Critics say that such schools are no longer necessary because teen pregnancy has become more socially acceptable and day care centers at high schools are commonplace. Others say the closures are indicative of society's reluctance to serve pregnant girls and teen mothers, for fear of the appearance of endorsing teen sex.

Paluzzi said it is much easier to find support for pregnancy-prevention programs than services for pregnant and parenting teens.

"If you do get pregnant, we kind of wash our hands of you," she said. "It's the kids of teen parents who are at the greatest risk of being teen parents themselves, for dropping out of school, for committing crime, for living in poverty. If we wash our hands of them, we're never really going to get a handle on the issue."

The proposal to move Paquin came from an evaluation of city school buildings amid declining enrollment and state demands to operate more efficiently.

When the time comes for Paquin to move, in 2007 or 2008, system staff will "take a hard look" to see if it really fits at Lake Clifton, said Eric Letsinger, the school system's chief operating officer. If it doesn't, he won't move it there, he said.

In Baltimore, the teen pregnancy rate has declined in recent years but remains high. The city Health Department reports that 1,686 babies were born to mothers under age 20 in 2004, the most recent data available, compared with 2,228 in 1999.

Paquin's clinic provides prenatal care, which results in a high percentage of babies being born on time and of normal weight, said Dr. Misbah Khan, a pediatrician who has worked at Paquin since it opened in 1966. Nationally, low birth weight is common among babies of teen mothers, and premature babies are more likely to require expensive special-education services later.

Paquin offers day care for babies at least 6 weeks old. It has space for 45, but now can serve just 20 because of staff cuts.

In a recent letter to the school board, Clarke said Paquin would be unable to comply with medical and licensing requirements for the clinic and day care in the space at Lake Clifton.

Paquin's current building, though nearly 30 years old, is meticulously kept, with the floors gleaming even at the end of a school day. Some students questioned whether it would be safe for them at Lake Clifton.

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