updated 7/2/2008 1:39:44 PM ET 2008-07-02T17:39:44

The high school where the principal claimed girls formed a pact to get pregnant is one of the few in Massachusetts with a day care center, leading some to wonder whether that sent a message that teen motherhood is OK.

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Christopher Farmer, superintendent of the Gloucester school system, said the district would look into whether its day care center, which opened in 1996, somehow contributed to the spike in teen pregnancies from about four a year to 17 this school year.

"Clearly people are saying that it's possible that the presence of the day care center may encourage teenage pregnancy," Farmer said. "Since people have raised the question, clearly it would be wise for us to address the question."

A furor erupted in Gloucester last month after the principal, Joseph Sullivan, told Time magazine that several of the girls had set out to get pregnant and raise their babies together.

Farmer and the city's mayor denied any pact existed , but officials have started an extensive study of teen pregnancy in Gloucester, including a review of the city's sex education programs.

The school system's health education programs have been hit with budget cuts in recent years, and two employees at the high school's health clinic recently resigned after the hospital that controls its funding refused to support a proposal to distribute contraceptives without parental permission.

Fewer than 20 child care centers are located in high schools around Massachusetts. Elsewhere in the country, many urban high schools are adding them.

Farmer said he does not believe the Gloucester High girls considered whether the school had day care when they chose to have their babies. He said that public schools have a responsibility to help young mothers complete their education, and that the center has successfully done that for years.

"We expect people to make mistakes, and educators hope that people learn from mistakes," the superintendent said. "If we as a society think that mistakes made by young people should permanently harm their life chances, than I would worry about that."

Advocates who run these child care centers say they must strike a delicate balance: responding to an undeniable need while avoiding any implication that it is OK for teens to get pregnant.

'We try to keep a low profile'
Diana Makhlouf, director of the teen parenting program at Malden High just outside Boston, said she hears criticism of the school's child care center. But she said many of the young moms did not even know the place existed before they decided to keep their babies.

"We're sort of in a corner in the back of the building and we try to keep a low profile," she said. "Girls are not going out there and getting pregnant just because we're here. It's so much more complex than that."

In Washington, Maria Tukeva, the principal of Bell Multicultural high school, wrestled with her decision to add a day care center a few years ago. She feared that providing free day care might make parenting look easy or desirable. To counter the message, she now asks teen moms to participate in a parenting prevention group.

"It is the right thing to do to take care of these women, to help them succeed, to help them get the best education we can," said Bill Albert, chief program officer for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. "We have to be equally as strong in sending a message of preventing future teen pregnancy, about how raising children and having children is an adult activity."

Centers key in helping teen moms graduate
Few critics look to ban day care centers from high schools outright, partly because they have shown success since 1970s in helping teen mothers graduate, said Linda Klepacki, the sexual health analyst at Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian ministry founded by the evangelical leader James Dobson.

But Klepacki said such centers should be accompanied by a curriculum that stresses waiting until marriage to have sex.

"It really is in the way that you surround the day care center with really good education for the rest of the student body," Klepacki said. "Make them know from the get-go that this isn't something to encourage teen pregnancy and to encourage sexual activity."

Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, a nonprofit policy and advocacy organization, said in-school programs do not increase teen pregnancy.

Gloucester's teen birth rate declined by about 45 percent from 1996 to 2006. Nationally, the birth rate for women ages 15 to 19 rose 3 percent in 2006 — the first increase since 1991.

Lauren Dolloff, a 19-year-old who graduated from Gloucester High in 2006, said girls who see classmates using the day care center may get an incomplete picture of parenthood and believe it's easier than it really is. They don't see the moms staying up late to finish homework or caring for a sick baby, she said.

"It's showing other kids that it is OK if you have a child because you can still go to school," Dolloff said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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