It would not have surprised many had Karina Ramirez not graduated from high school last school year. As a senior at Valencia High in Los Lunas, New Mexico, Ramirez gave birth to a son. “When I got pregnant even my family said, ‘OK so she’s not graduating, she’s not going to be anyone in this life,’” the 19-year-old said recently.
Two weeks after Ramirez’s baby was born, she says a school administrator called and left a message with her parents: “They told me I was dis-enrolled because I missed too many days.”
In every state in America, among all racial and ethnic groups, rates of teenage pregnancy have been falling; down by nearly 60 percent since 1991, and 10 percent in just the last year. But education outcomes for teen mothers remain relatively bleak: just 38 percent of young women who have a child before they turn 18 graduate from high school and only 2 percent of teenage mothers go to college before they turn 30, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
That’s in part, experts say, because of school policies that make it difficult for teen moms to continue their education. While it’s no longer legal to simply kick young women out of school when they become pregnant, teen parents and their advocates say that unless they are provided with accommodations, these students often miss too many classes and are eventually expelled for absences.
“We have laws in place to protect pregnant and parenting teens,” says Laura Lindberg, Ph.D., a researcher at the Guttmacher Institute. “But the fact that the law is on the book does not mean that every student is welcome. At best, parenting teens fall through the cracks. At worst they are pushed out.”
Ramirez said when her baby was born, she felt like her school system gave up on her. In sex ed classes “they give examples of teenagers who get pregnant so they don’t graduate or have a career or have a job,” she said one recent afternoon at the Los Lunas Public Library, where she’d brought Saith, her son. “But they never talk about people who graduate, who have a career, that have a job.”
Now New Mexico, the state with the highest rate of teen pregnancy, is attempting to shift the balance, placing greater attention on keeping young parents in school, in addition to preventing teen pregnancies in the first place. In 2013, New Mexico’s governor signed a law that creates an abbreviated parental leave policy for high school students. The first of its kind in the nation, the law requires that all school districts provide parents with 10 days off after the birth of a child and another four days for a baby’s doctor’s appointments or to care for a sick child. That’s on top of the permitted 10 days of unexcused absences for all students.
“This is about education,” said Denicia Cadena, an organizer with Young Women United, a community-organizing group that led efforts to pass the legislation last year. “We all say over and over again that every child deserves an education. That includes young parents. This policy helps make that possible.”
When Saith was born in January 2014, Ramirez spent a week at home recovering and planned to go right back to school. Her mother had agreed to take care of the baby; Ramirez’s boyfriend would help too, when he wasn’t away on a construction job in another city. But Saith began to have medical problems, and Ramirez spent another week with him in the hospital. “I wasn’t ready to go back, because my baby had a problem,” she said.
Under federal Title IX anti-sex discrimination laws, schools are prohibited from expelling young women for missing class because of pregnancy and birth-related health issues. But those protections do not apply to absences related to a baby’s health. Ramirez quickly found herself exhausting the school district’s 10-day absence policy.
Two weeks after Saith was born, the school called Ramirez’s parents and said that if she didn’t go back to school the next week, “they were going to drop me,” she said. “I wanted to go back to school, but I wasn’t going to just leave my son….[An administrator] said, ‘but that’s the baby’s problem, not yours, so we can’t give you any time off.’”
But Ramirez would soon learn that her son was born at just the right moment, because the state had just passed the parental school absence law. When Julie Dutchover, a former teacher of Ramirez’s, heard that she’d given birth, she began to advocate for her. Though Dutchover was not working in Ramirez’s school when Saith was born, she’d met Ramirez the previous year and volunteered to approach Valencia High School administrators to let them know they were out of compliance with the new law.
“It’s a new policy. Schools are just beginning to learn that they have to follow it,” says Dutchover, a teacher with New Mexico Grads program, which operates in 27 school districts providing parenting classes and advocacy for teenage parents. “Most students don’t know they have these rights.”
Ramirez said she was certain she’d be kicked out of school. “I was scared,” she said. But after a bit of negotiating, Ramirez resumed classes several weeks later.
The New Mexico Public Education Department says that it’s too soon to know how consistently schools have followed the law. “We have implemented the law and informed districts of the change,” a department spokesperson said. “We are working with districts to ensure they understand the change, and we are looking to hear from students about any issues or concerns.”
The Los Lunas school district’s spokesperson, who also heads the truancy division, told NBC that communication must have broken down at some point between Ramirez and the school. “We would always try to work with a student who is missing school because of a pregnancy,” said Besi Garcia, the spokesperson.
Garcia added that all students have plenty of warning before they are dis-enrolled and that students’ parents should actively help their children to negotiate the school bureaucracy. Ramirez says that the school did call her home, but her parents, who speak only Spanish, did not understand what the caller told them.
Advocates who backed the legislation in New Mexico argue that supporting teenage parents, and making accommodations in class scheduling is not only an investment in each individual student but has broader economic benefits.
In New Mexico, teenage births cost taxpayers an estimated $103 million in 2010, according to figures from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancies. Nationally, the group set that figure at $9.4 billion in long-term associated costs of teen parenthood: higher rates of foster care involvement, greater likelihood that children of teenage parents will end up in jail, and higher poverty and lifetime lost wages.
Supporters of the law say it was these statistics that that helped galvanize broad bipartisan support for the legislation last year.
“We hear all the time that teen parents cost a tremendous amount, but much of that is in lost tax revenue,” said Cadena of Young Women United. “Young parents can be successful, but it’s about laying the infrastructure.”
The New Mexico Education Department spokesperson says it’s too early to measure the bill’s impact. But those students who have benefitted from the new law say it’s already working.
“That law changed my life,” Ramirez said. Last summer, she earned her diploma from Valencia High School and in August she enrolled in Central New Mexico Community College. “I’m really excited,” she said. “I will have a career and will be a mother -- and more than a mother. I’m doing it for him, and for myself.”