A proud mother recently called with some wonderful news — her two daughters had finally graduated from high school.
It took a few minutes to grasp that this was no ordinary graduation story.
Did I remember, she asked, the article I wrote in 1994 about the kid with an 8-month-old and a 2-year-old trying to survive as a student at Hartford Public High School? She now wanted a copy because she knew a few young women who ought to read it.
The mother, eager to preserve her privacy, told me she'd come a long way in the 17 years after she was a struggling mom at Hartford Public High School, trying to make a future for herself. A program for young mothers out of St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church almost certainly saved her life — or rather showed her the possibilities that remain if you stay in school and take responsibility for your life.
It was a dicey time for teenage mothers in 1994, when having a baby often meant dropping out of school. More than 600 girls — this amounts to an entire elementary school — were having babies every year.
The depressing thing was these girls were just perpetuating the cycle: children of welfare moms, often from teenage mothers themselves, having babies.
It's more than a great story to learn of a woman who breaks this depressing cycle because it also cracks an ugly Hartford stereotype.
These days there aren't anywhere near 600 babies being born to teenagers in Hartford. The number of births to teens in Hartford has dipped to about 350 annually for the last few years, part of a long trend downward dating to the early 1990s.
That's the good news, even though it's roughly equal to the number of kids who graduated with my daughter from Conard High School last week.
The bad news is that hundreds of girls in Hartford still get pregnant, still go on welfare and still drop out of school every year. We all pay for this, by the way.
Hartford's still unacceptable teen pregnancy rate is three times the state average: the city's teen birth rate is 72.9 births for every 1,000 teenager girls, compared to 21 births per 1,000 for the entire state.
In recent years, the emphasis on test scores and student achievement has left little time in the school day to spend on sex education. The Internet — and perhaps a smutty congressman here and there — have become our sex educators.
"Nobody talks to them about sexuality or birth control," said Regina Roundtree, executive director of the Hartford Action Plan, which runs the "Breaking the Cycle" teen pregnancy program. "There's not so much sex education."
"We really need to understand that it is like an epidemic and we are too comfortable with it,'' Roundtree said. "We shouldn't be. Kids are still struggling with it. There are kids growing up today who don't know they can get pregnant the first time they have sex."
Recognizing the problem in cities such as Hartford, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has given the city a $4.5 million grant that will help address the lack of sex education programs among minority teenagers.
Candida Flores — who was on the city's board of education during the 1990s and now runs a program that works with teen moms — told me that right now, "the city doesn't have a plan. Teen pregnancy is a public health issue and no one is looking at it from that perspective."
"Chances are if they have a child and they haven't completed their education, they are going to remain in this cycle of poverty. In my opinion, there is not a strong commitment to addressing these issues,'' said Flores, executive director of Family Life Education.
Roundtree told me there's hope to be found within this latest initiative, which will link together a variety of community organizations and city hall to fight teen pregnancy.
But she worries that people may think "that there are too many other problems in the world and this will seem like it's not so important.''
"If a child is born to a mom in poverty, they will most likely remain in poverty,'' Roundtree said.
Unless, of course, you make sure that child doesn't get pregnant and graduates from high school. In Hartford this year, there's at least one mom who broke the cycle.
Now that's truly something to celebrate.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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