Q&A with Sally Polasek

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Sally Polasek

Sally Polasek

Teen pregnancy is one factor behind the district’s high dropout rate. Pregnant teens often find themselves pushed out the door of their school with few options since the district shut down two of three schools for pregnant girls and cut out the highly praised Cradle to Classroom program, which provided services to teen mothers and helped them stay in school. Sally Polasek, an administrator for the state’s Teen Parent Services program, talked to Associate Editor Maureen Kelleher about the difficulties she faces helping teen parents navigate the school system.

What do pregnant and parenting teens need most?

For teachers and counselors not to encourage them to leave. Principals have told students in 6th, 7th and 8th grade that they have to go to Simpson (the only remaining school for pregnant girls). Girls have tried to get in, found there was a waiting list, and wound up dropping out. Students are not always told that homebound services are available. And if there isn’t someone to help them through every step to get those services, sometimes the student just falls between the cracks. Then, they try and go back to school and now they’re too old for elementary school or have trouble getting into an achievement academy (for overage 8th-graders). I shouldn’t be able to go to my reception room, grab a young woman, ask her why she is a dropout and hear the same stories all the time. Very few teen moms left school because they wanted to. Most of them tell these real horror stories about how they were pushed out the door.

What has happened since Cradle to Classroom staff were cut?

In the past it was common for us to have a relationship with the workers, for verification of student attendance, for sharing information about developmental screenings in the infants and to just touch base to coordinate services. Now they’ve disappeared.

What impact has the closing of the two schools for pregnant and parenting teens had?

A lot of those girls left and did not make the transition from Tesla and Arts of Living back to their own high school. There wasn’t room for all of them at Simpson.

CPS is reaching out to older teens with few credits through its new ‘Learning in New Communities’ schools. How are these schools doing and are they appropriate for some of your clients?

My difficulty in finding schools for our clients has been that we cannot get 16-year-olds placed through the CPS office of dropout retention and recovery. They told me that they would only serve kids who were 17 or over. I’ve got 16-year-olds who may not have an 8th grade diploma, whom nobody has room for.

I’ve heard that the LINC schools have a lot of vacancies and have had difficulty recruiting students. The problem is that so many dropouts have been out there for a while, they have low literacy levels and they’re getting older. And it’s questionable whether they could possibly get a high school diploma before they turn 21.

Do teens realize the impact that having a child could have on finishing school?

Kids are not very future-minded. And most of them were not planning on this. Most adolescent moms were sexually assaulted or abused before age 18.

Should pregnant teens and teen moms be required to get counseling to avoid future pregnancies?

I don’t think you can force anyone to go to counseling. But I’ve never seen a kid that turned away from information if it’s offered.

Some research shows that girls who have a stronger sense of identity and of their future are less likely to get pregnant.

If girls feel that they have no future in school, or boys for that matter, they’re not going to stay there. Positive youth development is what will save our kids. And that means you can’t cut out all the music and drama and dance, and you have to offer tutoring. You have to connect education to the real world.