If there were space for just one more crib at the Little Owls day-care center at Hartford Public High School, it would be filled immediately.
Because there are 18 babies on the waiting list and for Hartford's teenagers, the children keep coming. The moms keep dropping out. Before long, those babies have babies, perpetuating the cycle.
Without Little Owls to care for her son, Eliesel, during the day, Leslie Rodriguez is certain that she'd be one of those dropouts. But after motherhood at 15, Rodriguez is now an 18-year-old junior at Hartford Public, planning on college and, she hopes, law school.
"It's not something a 15-year-old should be doing," Rodriguez said about her life.
Nearly 400 teenagers had babies in Hartford in 2005, about 18 percent of all births in the city. The odds are good that these babies will be the ones struggling when kindergarten starts for them in 2010.
It's true and very good news that the percentage of births to teens is down by more than a third since a peak in 1994. Birth control, expanded sex education, and improved school-based health clinics - especially at middle schools - have had a lot to do with this.
It's also true that Hartford's teen pregnancy rate remains higher than any other city's in the state and among the highest in the nation.
"We could fill a high school," I heard Hartford Superintendent Steven Adamowski say the other day, "with children who are having children."
Merely saying no hasn't worked. A recent study of federally funded abstinence programs found that they had no effect in delaying the onset of sexual activity.
"I want to address this very, very high rate of teen pregnancy," Adamowski told me, through a "school where they come back as soon as they have their baby."
With social welfare programs everywhere you look, Adamowski knows that the Hartford schools can seem like a socialist state. The effort to reduce teen pregnancy is different, he said.
"It is the very high correlation between the education level of the mother and the education level of the child," he said. For city schools to improve, Adamowski argues that girls with babies must stay in school - because if they become educated women, maybe their babies won't repeat the process.
It might seem as if infant care and birth control at high school don't exactly discourage girls from having babies. But what do you do when there are no role models at home and when there's no tradition of finishing high school?
At Bulkeley High School alone, nurse practitioners have tested nearly 200 girls for pregnancy this year.
It isn't about promoting sex, clinic supervisor Pamela J. Clark told me.
"Our interest is keeping the kids safe so they can be in school to learn," Clark said. "Safe sex" is part of the bargain, she said, but it's also about changing behaviors.
Without health clinics and day care in schools, these kids won't be around to graduate, said Dr. Kurt Myers, the schools' health director.
"The need is huge," he said. "What we don't do is provide them with the support to stay in school."
Say what you want about this not being the job for schools, but if they don't graduate, we all pay - for welfare, social workers, job-training programs, subsidized housing, cops and prisons.
It's still a hard life for Rodriguez. Her younger sister must watch Eliesel while Rodriguez goes to work at McDonald's until 9 or 11 p.m. After that, she does her homework.
"I have nobody to take care of my son," she said, as we sat in the Little Owls nursery while Eliesel slept beside us. "If this wasn't here, I wouldn't be in school."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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