As summer vacation begins, 17 girls at Gloucester High School are expecting babies more than four times the number of pregnancies the 1,200-student school had last year. Some adults dismissed the statistic as a blip. Others blamed hit movies like Juno and Knocked Up for glamorizing young unwed mothers. But principal Joseph Sullivan knows at least part of the reason there's been such a spike in teen pregnancies in this Massachusetts fishing town. School officials started looking into the matter as early as October, after an unusual number of girls began filing into the school clinic to find out if they were pregnant. By May, several students had returned multiple times to get pregnancy tests, and on hearing the results, "some girls seemed more upset when they weren't pregnant than when they were," Sullivan says. All it took was a few simple questions before nearly half the expecting students, none older than 16, confessed to making a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together. Then the story got worse. "We found out one of the fathers is a 24-year-old homeless guy," the principal says, shaking his head.
The question of what to do next has divided this fiercely Catholic enclave. Even with national data showing a 3% rise in teen pregnancies in 2006 the first increase in 15 years Gloucester isn't sure it wants to provide easier access to birth control. In any case, many residents worry that the problem goes much deeper. The past decade has been difficult for this mostly white, mostly blue-collar city (pop. 30,000). In Gloucester, perched on scenic Cape Ann, the economy has always depended on a strong fishing industry. But in recent years, such jobs have all but disappeared overseas, and with them much of the community's wherewithal. "Families are broken," says school superintendent Christopher Farmer. "Many of our young people are growing up directionless."
The girls who made the pregnancy pact some of whom, according to Sullivan, reacted to the news that they were expecting with high fives and plans for baby showers declined to be interviewed. So did their parents. But Amanda Ireland, who graduated from Gloucester High on June 8, thinks she knows why these girls wanted to get pregnant. Ireland, 18, gave birth her freshman year and says some of her now pregnant schoolmates regularly approached her in the hall, remarking how lucky she was to have a baby. "They're so excited to finally have someone to love them unconditionally," Ireland says. "I try to explain it's hard to feel loved when an infant is screaming to be fed at 3 a.m."
The high school has done perhaps too good a job of embracing young mothers. Sex-ed classes end freshman year at Gloucester, where teen parents are encouraged to take their children to a free on-site day-care center. Strollers mingle seamlessly in school hallways among cheerleaders and junior ROTC. "We're proud to help the mothers stay in school," says Sue Todd, CEO of Pathways for Children, which runs the day-care center.
But by May, after nurse practitioner Kim Daly had administered some 150 pregnancy tests at Gloucester High's student clinic, she and the clinic's medical director, Dr. Brian Orr, a local pediatrician, began to advocate prescribing contraceptives regardless of parental consent, a practice at about 15 public high schools in Massachusetts. Currently Gloucester teens must travel about 20 miles (30 km) to reach the nearest women's health clinic; younger girls have to get a ride or take the train and walk. But the notion of a school handing out birth control pills has met with hostility. Says Mayor Carolyn Kirk: "Dr. Orr and Ms. Daly have no right to decide this for our children." The pair resigned in protest on May 30.
Gloucester's elected school committee plans to vote later this summer on whether to provide contraceptives. But that won't do much to solve the issue of teens wanting to get pregnant. Says rising junior Kacia Lowe, who is a classmate of the pactmakers': "No one's offered them a better option." And better options may be a tall order in a city so uncertain of its future. With reporting by Kimberley McLeod/New York