When I arrived at the hospital on the evening of July 21st Brittney was lying silent in the bed clearly in a great amount of pain. Her grandmother and aunt greeted me and we discussed her progress as I set up my camera. At the tender age of 16 the girl in front of us, no longer a child but not yet an adult, was about to become a mother.
I met Brittney at the Young Mothers and Interim Health Academy in late May — halfway through her sixteenth year. A small but sturdy cheerleader, she was 7 months pregnant. Once school ended, her life consisted of weekly visits to the OB/GYN and the daily visits of her home tutor who was preparing her to re-take two of her Regents exams in August. It was a hot summer and the weight of her swollen belly seemed to grow with every step. Despite everything she seemed to take it in stride. Brittney was certainly strong willed and resilient but I suspect it was, at least partially, a front.
The Young Mothers and Interim Health academy shares a building at the end of Hart St. with several other businesses and institutions, most notably the Office of Adult and Career Learning Services (OACES). The entrance to the building has the full gamut of security features. Upon entrance to the lobby all bags are required to be put through an X-Ray machine and everyone must walk through a metal detector. Visitors must also sign in and out of a log book including the make and model of their car. From there it is a short elevator ride to the third floor where the doors open to the front desk of Young Mothers. Approximately 80 students are enrolled each year and on any given day about 50 students are in attendance. Begun in 1969, the school provides a safe learning space with more flexible attendance policies for not just pregnant students, but also those students with chronic illnesses that prevent them from attending school regularly.
An alarm goes off and Brittney stirs. It is 4:30 A.M. and after only a few hours of sleep Brittney is awakening to prepare herself and her son for the cold Rochester air and the long trip they take each morning to the babysitter’s home and to school. Her room is a mix of her childhood and her son’s; cheerleading trophies and stuffed animals line dusty shelves at the far end. Her son has an entire dresser filled with his clothes, diapers, etc not to mention his crib and various toys and rockers strewn about the room. Photographs, trinkets, and half-empty bottles of sports drinks line every flat surface. On the wall above Brittney’s bed brightly colored vinyl letters spell his name and on her vanity a matted print displays her name in block letters. She has free reign of the basement which used to be her father’s bedroom. The only part of him that remains is a Tupac Shakur poster hanging on the wall next to her bed, tacks pushed forcefully into the corners by her father many years ago now. Brittney doesn’t even really care for Tupac but the tacks are too difficult to remove.
Brittney’s mother was 19 when she had her. The third of what would become seven children, Brittney has lived with her grandparents and older brother more or less since kindergarten. The way she tells it, her father is “locked up” and she isn’t allowed to know where her mother lives though she does occasionally see her. However, she lights up when she speaks of her grandmother. “My grandmother is like my mom,” she has said many times. Debbie is Brittney’s paternal grandmother and legal guardian and has been raising children for 37 years. Besides being the family’s main breadwinner Debbie is Brittney’s biggest supporter. Without her unrelenting support it isn’t clear how Brittney would be faring as a new mother.
Brittney, however, is just one of many young women affected by the high rates of teenage pregnancy in Rochester, NY despite a more than 50% decline since the peak year of 1990. Reporting the highest rates of teen pregnancy and birth in the state outside of New York City, Rochester saw 561 children born to teenage mothers in 2010 (the latest year for statistics). Now four years on, those children will fill 25 kindergarten classrooms come fall 2015. Rochester knows many struggles, though. Besides being the fifth poorest city in the United States, Rochester also has the lowest graduation rate in the state at 43%, the highest rate of human sex trafficking in the state outside of New York City, and an infant mortality rate on par with countries like Jamaica and Albania.
In the 1990’s almost every high school in Rochester had a daycare within so that students could bring their child to school with them and visit them during their lunch period. Tom Gillett, who taught at East High School during the peak years for teen pregnancy, recalled to me that there was scarcely a female student that wasn’t pregnant or already a parent in his classes. Pat White, the school nurse for the Young Mothers Program from 1990 until 2004, told me of comprehensive healthcare for the pregnant and parenting students that was cut near the end of her tenure. Today, the teen pregnancy and birth rates have declined more than 50% nationally and in Rochester (though Rochester’s rates remain almost three times higher than the national rates) however only 38% of girls who have a child before the age of 18 earn a high school diploma nationally. High school dropouts tend to rely more on public assistance, are more likely to be incarcerated, and will, on average, earn $260,000 less over their lifetimes than their graduated counterparts. The children of teen parents are more likely to experience abuse as a child, drop out of high school, be incarcerated, and become teen parents themselves.
Today, the Young Mothers and Interim Health Academy is the final remaining resource for pregnant and parenting students given by the Rochester City School District. But even Young Mothers has its flaws: students can only attend Young Mothers for the year that they are pregnant and must return to their previous school the following fall. Programs at the YWCA, Boys and Girls Clubs, and the Mt. Hope Family Center attempt to bridge the gap but much is still to be done until teen pregnancy is seen as a direct cause of generational poverty in the greater Rochester area rather than a social phenomenon that breeds slut-shaming and reality television. It is also important for our communities to reassess how we view teen pregnancy and young mothers in order to become better advocates.
Before transferring to Young Mothers in February, 2014, Brittney attended Northwest High School where she said fights broke out regularly and learning was difficult. Her GPA was well below 2.0 and when she did attend class she would often be sent to the principal’s office. At 16 she was still a freshman. Young Mothers provided her with a reduced-stress environment while she carried out her pregnancy. Her grades improved in the short time that she was there and she attended parenting classes. Despite going into the fall semester at a new school, Vanguard Collegiate High School, with a less than two month old son she was more focused and determined to get ahead. Now, as the semester comes to an end, many of her grades are A’s for what she says is the first time in her life. For Brittney the future is uncertain, but with her son as her motivation she is setting out realistic goals for herself. The most important thing she can do for herself now is to graduate from high school.
This project has received support from the Digital Journalism Incubator and the Knight Foundation.