Innovative New Mexico Law Helps Young Mothers Get Their High School Diplomas

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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

New Mexico teenager Karina Ramirez nearly dropped out of school just two weeks after the birth of her baby, because school officials said she had missed too many days. In fact, family responsibilities are the top reason why young women drop out of high school; the Gates Foundation found that 26% of students who dropped out of high school did so because they became a parent. Some are pushed out of school by administrators or teachers who don’t want parenting students there, and some just fall out of school because of inadequate support. Either way, the consequences to parenting students’ education and their (and their children’s) future economic prospects are serious: a 2007-08 national survey of teen mothers found that only half had their high school diploma before the age of 22.

Dropouts are much more likely to be unemployed, poor, receiving public assistance, in prison, unhealthy, divorced, or single parents than high school graduates. A Detroit school for teen mothers had a solution to this problem, successfully teaching teen mothers a traditional high school curriculum, while also providing on-site day care and early elementary education for their children for over three decades. Sadly, funding cuts recently forced the school to reopen as a private charter school. On reopening, the school required teachers to implement a nontraditional curriculum where students somehow had to not only find their own externships, they had to provide their own transportation to get to them, and to get their children to the school for childcare. Not surprisingly, enrollment plummeted. Former students and parents have filed a lawsuit alleging that the school violated Title IX, the federal law that outlaws sex discrimination in education.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Title IX protects pregnant and parenting students by requiring schools to excuse a student’s absence when it is due to pregnancy or childbirth. It also requires that a pregnant or parenting student returning from an excused absence must be able to return to the same programs, and be allowed to make up late work with no penalty. However, Title IX does not require schools to excuse absences for parenting students, unless the reason is directly related to pregnancy or childbirth.

Luckily, state and local laws can provide more protections than federal laws. New Mexico—which has had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the country in recent years—has taken the lead by implementing a new parental leave law to help students like Karina stay in school. Before this new law was enacted, parenting students in New Mexico did not receive excused absences to take their baby to the doctor, which often led to them being expelled for missing too much school, as nearly happened to Karina. The new law will allow parenting students to have 10 days off after the birth of their baby and four more excused absences per year (in addition to the 10 excused absences every student already gets). This is in line with the American Academy of Pediatricians’ recommendation that babies have five medical check-ups during the first six months of their life.

Now parenting students in New Mexico, such as Karina Ramirez, are able to graduate from high school. Although Karina was nearly dis-enrolled from her school, with New Mexico’s new parental leave law, she was able to continue her education and eventually earn her diploma. (Read Karina’s full story here.)
We don’t know the full impact of this new law yet, but we do know it is a step in the right direction. Other states should follow New Mexico’s lead and implement laws that give more accommodations to parenting students. Being a parent while going to school is challenging, and students shouldn’t have to choose between taking care of their babies’ physical health—by going to doctors’ appointments—and their babies’ economic health—by staying in school until graduation.

You can read more about Title IX’s protections for pregnant and parenting students in the Department of Education’s recent report on Pregnant and Parenting Students and Legal Momentum’s Know Your Rights fact sheet.

Contributed by Aubree Dalfonso and Christina Brandt-Young