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Buffalo School District is right in recognizing the need to keep teen mothers in class

Some problems are urgent because of the terrible consequences they visit on individuals or institutions. But some are even worse, portending crises that repeat themselves generation after generation. Two of those issues are epidemic in Buffalo schools as teenage pregnancy and lack of education feed one another and condemn young women to unfulfilling lives of poverty and even desperation over the course of decades.

It’s time to confront these intertwined problems head on, as the Buffalo School Board has concluded it must.

Even knowing the Buffalo School District had a problem with student pregnancies, the numbers in a News story Thursday were disturbing. In 2014, 652 babies were born to mothers between the ages of 15 and 19, and while that was down from the previous year’s total of 741, it is destructively high. Even if the number continues to decline, the problem would demand a serious response.

The issues are manifold. Not only are these pregnant teenagers vastly more likely to drop out of school, but within five years, their babies will be in school, many of them suffering from lack of adequate health care, safe housing or early childhood education. Many of them may have been born prematurely or at a low birth weight, issues that lay the groundwork for other obstacles as they grow. They, too, are unlikely to graduate. It’s a self-perpetuating disaster.

A useful response was proposed by Board Member Theresa Harris-Tigg. Based on her resolution, the board voted to explore the possibility of opening a special school that would serve both teen mothers and their children. It’s a smart idea that acknowledges the facts of teen pregnancy.

By providing services for the student and baby, the chances increase that the student will stay in school. The forward-looking goal is to keep teenage mothers on track to graduate while also ensuring that their children receive the medical, academic and social support that will help them succeed when they start school.

The district already has a program for teen mothers, but it serves only about 200 students, nowhere near meeting the demand. If it wants to interrupt the cycles of poverty and lack of education that come with teen pregnancy, it needs to find a way to do more.

Superintendent Kriner Cash supported exploring the possibility of creating such a school, but noted that many other subsets of students face unique challenges. He’s right, of course, but to the extent that teenage motherhood predicts desperate lives for their offspring and for following generations, this problem is especially urgent and deserves commensurate attention.

The promise of Say Yes to Education has been that it could interrupt cycles of poverty by guaranteeing a college education to students who otherwise have no expectation of anything past high school. Given that shared goal of altering a destructive dynamic, it would be worth exploring what role Say Yes could play in the effort to keep young mothers in school.

No one can say the district hasn’t taken this problem seriously. Last summer, it approved a policy allowing school nurses to make condoms available to students who complete a sex education class. It was enacted after a survey showing that 44 percent of Buffalo high school students have had sex and that a third had had sex in the previous three months.

To add to the problem, city data from the Erie County Department of Health showed that sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea and chlamydia are extremely high among teenagers – especially girls – between the ages of 15 and 19.

The district needs to evaluate the success of that program and, if necessary, step it up, too. If it is crucial to offer special help to teenage mothers and their babies, it is important as well to work to prevent those pregnancies in the first place.