The Fort Worth school district’s campus for students who either have a child or are expecting one has moved twice in the last three years. The New Lives School, started in 1971 by Broadway Baptist Church, could be on the move again, and some observers are worried about where it might land.
For the last year, the school, which offers on-campus day care for students’ children, has been housed in East Fort Worth. But the lease on the space is set to expire in June, and district administrators are considering moving the school to the Middle Level Learning Center in Benbrook. The problem: In the new location, the school will share space with the district’s alternative program for middle school students with disciplinary problems.
Observers fear that if the school were to share a space with the MLLC, the students would have to worry about their own safety, as well as their children and schoolwork. They also believe that the school’s location is too far away from where the majority of the students live.
Michael Steinert, the district’s executive director of student support services, said the district has not yet decided what to do with its program.
“That decision has not been made yet,” he said. “[The board] is at a … point where they have to decide if they want to renew the lease” on New Lives’ current space. “We have explored the plan for co-locating it in the same building as the MLLC, having them in the same building but with separated space. The third option will be to look at somewhere different.”
District administrators estimate that about 500 young women students in the district either have a child or are expecting one. Those students have the option of either staying put at their original schools or attending the New Lives School. Last year, 67 students chose to transfer to New Lives. The child-care service at the school cared for 17 children.
If the district moves New Lives into the MLLC, Steinert said that safety should not be an issue for the pregnant or parenting girls or their children.
“Based on what I’ve seen of the plan, there’s going to be a fair amount of renovation of the [MLLC’s] existing space,” he said. “There will be some walls and doors put in to clearly separate the two. We’d have one program on one floor and one on another, and there would be additional monitors for security. The start and end times of classes would be different. The lunch times would be staggered. The only space they’d share would be the cafeteria and gymnasium, but never at the same time.”
Board trustee Judy Needham said she thinks that moving New Lives to the MLLC campus would not only be unsafe for the pregnant students but it would also be too far removed from where most of the district’s pregnant young women live.
“I will not support the movement of New Lives to MLLC,” she said in an e-mail. “It’s not a fit, it’s unsafe, and has no bus line. Plus, it’s located as far away as possible from where a majority of our pregnant girls reside, and we don’t need to waste any more money [retrofitting] that MLLC building.”
Trustee Tobi Jackson also had concerns about how far away the MLLC campus is from the majority of the pregnant or parenting students in the district. The pregnancy rate for students in the Morningside area is three times higher than the national average, she said.
“I have concerns that the majority of the pregnancies in Fort Worth ISD are not located in proximity to Middle Level Learning Center,” she said. “If we could helicopter that building out to somewhere else, I think we’d be in better shape.
“That’s a lot to ask of girls who are pregnant, who may not be comfortable having to get up at 5 in the morning and ride a bus for two hours,” said Jackson. (The buses that pick up students for the New Lives School have long routes with lots of stops.)
Steinert said the district provides transportation to school and would continue to do so should the program move to the MLLC. Though he said he hasn’t kept specific data on where the students live, he said the young women who need the school’s services come from all corners of the district. Some, he said, enroll there from other districts that don’t have such a program.
He also noted the district already has a similar arrangement at the International Newcomers Academy for students who are new to this country. On a separate floor, the building also houses the Applied Learning Academy, which is a less structured program for middle school students.
The New Lives program is already in hot water with the Texas Education Agency for its test scores. The state agency labeled the campus a low-performing school, and its graduation, attendance, and continuation rates are all well below national and district standards.
As for graduation rates, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, the national average for pregnant or parenting students is around 40 percent. New Lives’ graduation rate is “somewhere in the mid-30s,” Steinert said.
Attendance rates are even further behind the district’s average.
“When we look at attendance, it’s consistently below 78 percent, when our district numbers are up near 96 percent,” said Xavier Sanchez, the district’s director of school leadership.
He said the district is trying to fix the academic problems with New Lives while balancing the need to also teach students to be parents.
“A lot of it comes down to leadership development on campus [for staff] and making sure that we are meeting the academic needs of our girls, which really tends to focus on literacy,” he said.
“We need to meet the social and emotional needs of our students,” said Sanchez. “These young ladies are dealing with the hard work of being a student and the hard work of being a parent.”
When a pregnant student stays at her own school, she is much more likely to graduate. Those students are involved in a program called Project Reach. The graduation rate for that program is 85 percent, about double the national standard.
Needham said she would rather see more pregnant or parenting students stay at their schools and join the Project Reach program, led by Nina Jackson, the district’s director of adolescent pregnancy services, because of its better results.
“I support the continuation of the girls being absorbed into Nina Jackson’s very successful program in which the girls remain in their high school and are served by highly trained social workers,” she said. “Several of us have asked that the administration bring us a different way to serve the middle school pregnant girls. Mrs. Jackson needs to have more social workers, which we will ask to be included in the new budget.”
While both programs offer parenting classes and access to social workers, New Lives gives more individual attention to its students. It serves 67 students and has two in-house social workers. Project Reach has between 400 and 500 students, who get help from the six social workers who cover the whole district.
At New Lives, Sanchez said, “There’s a parenting component, caring for their children, and a component for learning how to cook for their children.” In addition to the social workers who help the students connect with various social services, New Lives offers an at-home teacher for students on maternity leave.
However, Steinert acknowledged that there are also strong reasons for students to stay enrolled in their original schools.
“I can tell you there is a benefit to students who remain at their home campuses,” he said. “They have a peer group, a support system. They’re connected to lots of faculty and other student support services staff.
“Now when students choose to go to New Lives, they are uprooting from their campus where they had a great deal of support. They are starting from scratch in building those relationships,” he said.
Nina Jackson said one of the biggest challenges of both New Lives and Project Reach is that the typical teen who gets pregnant is probably already experiencing difficulties at school.
“Many of them already have a history of failure,” she said. “They typically have some attendance issues and academic issues, and then you add becoming pregnant and parenting on top of that, and it makes a bad situation worse.”
Another factor, she said, is that many students who choose the New Lives campus do so out of shame. “You have students who may feel that if they remain at their home school they’re going to be ridiculed or ostracized,” she said.
But Steinert said the district has experienced a cultural shift over the last five years. Pregnancy is no longer a “scarlet letter.”
“I think that’s changed a lot,” he said. “We really have worked hard at the traditional campuses [to make it clear to] the support staff, administrators, and teachers that it needs to be a welcoming environment for students who do become pregnant.”
Wherever New Lives ends up, he said, he’s confident the school district will make the transition as smooth as possible.
“I don’t think the physical location has anything to do with how the kids are doing,” he said. “The accommodations for the campus have always been outstanding.”
Board member Ann Sutherland said she and other board members had requested more detailed information on the plans to move the New Lives School to the MLLC campus but never heard back from district officials. She and others also asked for a vote to be held on the matter at the last board meeting, but it wasn’t scheduled.
“This is yet another example of FWISD’s failure to follow board policy with requests from board members,” she said.