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Early pregnancy and academic achievement of African-American youth.

* Ideally, the current educational system is designed to educate all students. In accomplishing tiffs goal, programs have been targeted to the masses, as well as students not fitting the stereotypical student mold. These students outside the norm are commonly referred to as exceptional learners. Berdine and Blackhurst (1985) defined exceptional children as follows:

Children who have physical, mental, behavioral or sensory characteristics that differ from the majority of children such that they require special education and related services to develop to their maximum capacity. (p. 7)

This generic definition includes students with various conditions. I propose that students who are adolescent parents, though not considered disabled, are impaired by their situation. Their condition is the disabling effects of the environment, including the school environment. If the educational community is committed to providing equal access to learning by all, educators must consider this population of students when they ponder the needs of exceptional students and atrisk student populations.

According to Pallas, Natriello, and McDill (1989), at-risk students include those who have (1 ) minority/racial/ethnic group identity; (2) poverty in households; (3) a single-parent family; and (4) a poorly educated mother/father/guardian. These are also characteristics that place a young woman at risk for early pregnancy (Fox, 19 86; Prater, 1990). Baer ( 1991 ) reported that despite obstacles, at-risk students have all the potential that other kids have. Therefore, parenting adolescents have as much potential for academic success as their nonparenting cohorts. What is the major factor that impinges upon their school achievement? Although the answer is multidimensional, one significant factor is that of dropping out of school.

Many investigations have shown that prenuptial pregnancy hinders educational attainment (Beyer, 1.983; Furstenberg, 1976; Hayes, 1987; Jekel, Klerman, & Bancroft, 1973; Klein, 1974; Mott & Marsiglio, 1985; Prater, 1990, 1991a, 199 lb). Klein (1974) reported that younger adolescent mothers exhibited a "syndrome of failure," which included a failure to remain in school. In fact, curtailment of education is viewed as the most far-reaching consequence of teen pregnancy (Finkel & Finkel, 1983). Dropping out of school can be devastating for all youth, but especially for African-American youth, who may already be disadvantaged.

Pursuing an education should not be compromised by early parenting, especially for African-Americans. On the average, African-American youth and their parents have less education, lower incomes, more unemployment, and are more likely to live in poverty than white Americans (Bell-Scott & McKenry, 1986; Center for the Study of Social Policy, 1991; Chilman, 1979; Glascow, 1980). Interestingly, the value of seeking quality education has long been a part of the foundation for survival of African Americans. There was almost an obsession with learning, defying a more commonly held belief that African-Americans were inherently unable to learn (Phillips, 1991). Today, rather than laws that restrict access to education, social pressures and choices of individual students impinge on academic achievement. The question is why students choose alternatives to education. Unfortunately, there is no single answer. Family, peers, residential community, media, the individual's sense of identity, and the society at large collectively impact the intensity with which a student seeks an education (Obiakor, 1991). It appears that all these factors may potentially influence one significant alternative to schooling, that of teenage pregnancy and parenting.

As cited earlier, one characteristic of an at-risk student is to be a member of a minority group. This theory is substantiated by the incidence of teenage pregnancy within the African-American community. Because African-American adolescents are reported to have experienced sexual activity at an early age and are less likely to practice contraception (Franklin, 1987; Hayes, 1987), one might anticipate a high pregnancy rate among this group. Supporting this prediction, Wailis (1985) found that 90% of babies parented by black teenagers were born to unmarried adolescents. Unprotected sexual intercourse, not race or ethnicity, is the cause of teenage pregnancy. However, 55% of all African-American births occur out of wedlock to young African-American mothers (Bell-Scott & McKenry, 1986).

Unmarried African-American adolescent mothers do not perceive early pregnancy as presenting any significant disadvantages (Chilman, 1979; Prater, 1990, 1991a, 1991b). Furthermore, 17% of all teenage mothers experienced a second pregnancy within a year after the birth of the first child (Ford, 1983). Furstenberg (1976) found that this additional childbearing generally brought schooling to an abrupt halt. Phipps-Yonas (1980) characterized adolescent women with more than one pregnancy as having poor academic records and facing the likelihood of dropping out of school.

If becoming educated were viewed as a primary goal and pregnancy as a barrier to achievement, a logical behavior would be to avoid an early pregnancy. One might assume that pregnancy was allowed to happen because there was a lack of motivation for school success and continuance. In what Furstenberg (1976) described as the status-failure hypothesis among less committed and less competent students, pregnancy served as an excuse for withdrawing from school. Single mothers with low educational ambitions were more than three times more likely to become pregnant again within 2 years of delivery than their peers who had high educational ambitions during pregnancy (Furstenberg, 1976). According to this view, pregnancy does not "cause" dropping out; it merely provides a convenient rationale.

Judging from the number of adolescents who become pregnant yearly--approximately 1 million, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute (1981 )---it is warranted that sex education is provided for all students. Early pregnancy puts all students in this situation at risk for dropping out of school. More precisely, young women with poor basic academic skills are more than three times as likely to be parents than are those with average or better basic academic skills (Pittman, 1986). Moreover, girls who are poorly skilled academically are more likely to continue pregnancy to motherhood and to bear more than one child during their teenage years than peers with average basic skills (Children's Defense Fund, 1986). In this research, Clients 4 and 9 were previously enrolled in special education classes for "slow learners," according to the administrator of the alternative school. Because a certain level of intellectual functioning is necessary to properly use contraceptive measures and understand the relationship between sexual behavior and consequences (Muccigrosso, Scavarda, Simpson Brown, & Thalacker, 1991; Prater, 1990), sex education should also be provided for students enrolled in special education programs, whether in mainstreamed or self-contained classes. According to Muccigrosso et al. (1991): "Limited documentation of pregnant or parenting teens in special education indicates that the problems of this group of adolescents are similar to, if not greater than, those of the nonspecial education student" (p. 1).

Adolescent pregnancy and subsequent parenting can create major obstacles to any student's achievement in school. However, for young women already experiencing academic failure or low levels of achievement, it can be devastating. Students in special education classes, or those otherwise labeled as having disabilities, are of particular concern. Furthermore, sexual development in these students may be as healthy and normal as in other adolescents. They are very capable of conceiving and bearing a child, although they may not understand the process of pregnancy, birth, and delivery. In the vast literature addressing adolescent pregnancy, little attention has been given to this group of young mothers. Few researchers have chosen to explore adolescent sexual behavior and pregnancy of youth in special education programs or to investigate how special education initiatives can be targeted to all adolescent parents attending school. This article is an attempt to provide special education professionals with an increased sense of the complexities facing adolescent mothers and to propose that parenting adolescents, whether special education or "regular" students, are students at risk of school failure or of dropping out.

METHOD

Subjects

Subjects for this case-study research consisted of 10 unmarried, African-American, adolescent mothers ranging in age from 15 to 19. In keeping with George's (1979) suggestion, intensive analysis of a few cases was viewed as more rewarding than a statistical analysis of many. Nine participants were in Grades 9-12 at East Side Day School, a special school for pregnant adolescents. In addition, one other participant was a current client at Alton Park Community Health Center. Selection of subjects was based on teacher and health administrator recommendations and participant compliance. The criteria for selection was that participants were unmarried, African-American adolescents with at least two children or were currently pregnant with the second child. Table 1 provides detailed information about the subjects.

Table 1 also provides a composite picture of the African-American, unmarried, adolescent mother in this sample. Typically, the young mother is from a single, female-headed household. Her mother, sisters, and friends got pregnant when they were adolescents. She loves her children and desires to complete school in an effort to better provide for them. Her financial assistance is from the state or her relatives. She is shy, influenced by peers, and has a desire to please men to gain affection. Sexual intercourse is motivated by the desire for male affection, rather than any pleasure-seeking for herself. From discussions with her, her verbal skills do not indicate that she is academically talented. Her world view is narrow, and her goals are short term.

Instrument

An interview schedule, consisting of 46 items, was designed specifically for this research project. Using the schedule guaranteed a specific battery of information would be solicited from each adolescent. With the exception of items designed to elicit demographic data, questions were open ended. Based on subject response, the researcher was prompted to ask additional questions. These probes were used to elicit a deeper response to a question ,and to increase the richness of data, or to give cues to the interviewee about the level of response desired.

This process was in keeping with the purpose of qualitative work, which is aimed to disclose and reveal, not merely to order and predict (Van Maanen, 1983). Except for seeking demographic information, questions were designed to gather information as it related to the Deficit, DecisionMaking, and Subjective Utilities Models in explaining adolescent pregnancy. The Deficit Model proposes that specific circumstances prove to be detrimental to the well being of the individual. Questions to test this model included "Has pregnancy interfered with your getting an education?" and others to determine if the respondents perceive any disadvantages of early pregnancy. Decisions related to engaging in sexual intercourse, use of contraceptives, and pregnancy resolutions were explored through questions targeted to the Decision-Making Model. "Where did you get your information about birth control?" was one of the questions asked to help determine if rational decisions were made--or if lack of knowledge was involved in the nonuse of birth control. The Subjective Utilities Model proposes that there are significant elements in the adolescent's environment that serve as a model for behavior. Various questions were asked about the family and friends of participants, such as "What was the age and marital status of your mother at her first pregnancy?"

Procedure

The fundamental principle of qualitative interviewing is to provide a framework within which respondents can express their own understandings in their own terms (Patton, 1980). According to Rank (1988), the strength of qualitative data is in the richness and depth of the data of small samples, whereas quantitative data are ideal for describing the characteristics of a large population. For this qualitative research, three intensive interviews were planned by the researcher. The first two sessions, each 1 hr in length, used the structured interview schedule, interspersed with probes generated during the interview process. The third session varied in length; its purpose was to follow up any question or concern raised during previous sessions. The first two sessions were in neutral settings, either at the alternative school or the health center. Follow-up sessions were in the homes of the clients, at the alternative school site, or on the telephone. It was essential to retain and retrieve information provided from the interviews. For this reason, all sessions, except the telephone follow-ups, were tape recorded. Field notes were taken during the telephone sessions. Because the raw data for this research were the quotes from the interviews, it was important to have full transcriptions of interviews.

RESULTS

In the analysis of data, pattern-matching (Yin, 1989) was the process used. This method allowed the researcher to identify patterns among participant responses and match them with existing assumptions from reviewing the results of extensive quantitative research. The patterns were identified before conducting the research. In keeping with the goals of this article, only those patterns within the Deficit Model that related to schooling are reported. Regarding early parenting and academic achievement, some very clear patterns emerged. Sample responses, selected because they were representative of the patterns, are included to give the reader a sense of the feelings of these young women.

The role of parent interfered with schooling, ranging from dropping out to getting lower grades, For instance, school attendance was determined by such factors as baby-sitting arrangements and health of the children. Baby sitters were hard to find for students with one child. Those with more than one child had an especially difficult time making child care arrangements. As reported by Client 6:

Everybody always says how hard it is going to be and stuff like that. After I had her and everything, I felt that it wasn't all that hard, but it was hard. I had to try to figure out who I was going to get to keep her while I was going to school, and stuff like that. I went through, I don't know how many baby sitters. Finally, I put her in day care. That was hard, trying to come up with the money.

This pattern of role overload was similar to that reported by Furstenberg (1976), which he called the status-conflict hypothesis. He reported that serious strains were evidenced when a young woman simultaneously attempted to meet the demands of student and parent. Client 6 gave an indication of the difficulties parenting students faced as she described difficulties in trying to balance these competing roles:

I'm constantly stopping what I'm doing to get up and see what she wants, Then, while I'm doing whatever she wanted me to do, she'll climb on the table and tear up my homework and I have to start all over again. It's hard, 'cause I have to set certain times for me to be with her and stuff. I have to do my homework when I get home from school. She'll just mess up the house and I'll have to clean up after her. Then I'll be up until about 10 o'clock, 'cause her bedtime is 9 o'clock. It's just that I don't get that much sleep. It's pretty hard trying to go to school and attend to your child. Some schools don't understand, like if you have a detention at school. You say, "I can't serve my detention 'cause I have to pick up a child." They say, "Well, that's not my problem, that's yours. You shouldn't have gotten pregnant." When you have a child, the teachers whisper back and forth and stuff. It hurts, it hurts to know the people well, they suppose to be your teachers and should set an example of what you should be. Instead, they stand around and gossip.

Further, these parenting students could not participate in experiences enjoyed by other students. For instance, extracurricular activities, which can add much to the total school experience of most adolescents, were practically nonexistent for participants in the study. One young woman had been successfully involved with the track team. She tried to continue her efforts after the first child, but after having a second daughter, she had to completely curtail participation.

Despite hardships, schooling emerged as important. Only one participant was not enrolled in school. One characteristic response to explain why parenting teenagers remain in school was provided by Client 4. She stated:

I told everybody that I don't care how many children I have, as long as I finish school, and I have, almost. I just want my education. Maybe I can find me a good job or something. If you drop out, you really don't be having no good jobs, you know. You depend on you mama and stuff. I be just wanting to get out and get my own place and stuff and try to help her out with the bills and stuff.

A significant part of the school climate is the faculty. Because many teacher education programs are targeted to teaching the "ideal" student, responses from participants suggested an insensitivity of teachers to the differing needs of these young women, as compared with nonparenting students. As described by Client 3:

Teachers, I believe they make the people not want to go. You know, you have kids. I guess it ain't their fault that you got children, like some teachers say. The point is, when you are at home, you don't be having time to do homework. Your children, if you ain't cleaning up or doing this, the children are hollering. How do you expect someone to do homework? Like when you are out having a baby, you can't be doing all that make-up work. A lot of people have two, but even if you have one, you have to still keep your household chores. Then you have to do all that work. You don't even have time. That's why so many people be flunking and they flunk, so they just drop out. I had said that if I flunk, I'm dropping out.

Community services were available to students in the school settings. Students' perceptions were that these resources were difficult to access or were indifferent to their situation. According to Client 2:

I called the Department of Human Services. I asked them if they had a program where you could get day care and you wouldn't have to pay for it. Every time I called, they were trying to be a little bit smart and stuff. So, after that, I called and I left my name and number, so I could go and apply. They never did call me back. So, I don't know. I guess I'll try to do that again.

DISCUSSION

Although most clients had a strong desire to "get an education," few had mastered even basic grammatical or verbal skills. Also, self-reported grades indicated that students needed help in the area of academic achievement and that educational deficits existed prior to pregnancy, especially for the two special education students.

Most were motivated to receive a high school diploma, but only two participants had received any type of vocational training in high school. It appeared that receiving a high school diploma, a piece of paper, was equated with being educated. These data raise questions of their understanding of the need to have mastered marketable skills in high school. For example, when a 17-year-old, Client 9, was asked about her occupational objectives, she replied, "I ain't decided yet." Few differences were noted between special education students and other research participants, except that the nonspecial education students verbalized their feelings more extensively.

Actually, they were all at risk. It appeared that the level of cognitive functioning for all participants influenced contraceptive behavior and pregnancy resolution, especially for special education students. According to Muccigrosso et al., (1991), learning characteristics of learners with disabilities inhibit their opportunities to acquire and apply relevant and comprehensible information about sexuality and family life. Moreover, responses of all participants indicated that there was little perception of the long-term consequences of their behavior. However, explanations provided by the special education students were very simplistic. For instance, when asked about contraceptive behavior, Client 4 explained, "My mama tried to talk to me, but I wasn't even paying attention." Concerning adoption, Client 4 stated, "You be hurt when you give it to them, and about a year later, you be probably wanting it back and stuff." According to Client 9, she thought about adoption. She said, "I was seeing it on the news where all of those folks were giving their babies away, and I said, nawl, I will go ahead and keep it."

Schools have a variety of specialized cognitive programs to address the academic needs of exceptional students, but more attention should be focused on the affective domain. Self-concepts issues, interpersonal skills, and social relationships should be included in educational programs for these students. Because their low cognitive functioning and the subsequent labels given to them may set these students apart from their age cohorts, additional support is warranted.

Obviously, this study had limitations. First of all, a convenience sample was used. Since most of the participants were students at an alternative school site for pregnant students, they were enrolled. in school. A similar project using a scientific sample would more appropriately explore the challenges of remaining in school for this student population. For instance, some cities do not have alternative school sites. Also, data consisted primarily of student perceptions, which may or may not accurately reflect the situation.

IMPLICATIONS FOR EDUCATORS

School Initiatives

The study supported the contention that sex education, as a prevention initiative, is needed in schools. Young people are not getting enough information about birth control (Evans, Selstad, & Welcher, 1976; Juhasz, 1974). One valuable source of information could be school-based clinics. So far, the only school programs that can report a decrease in student pregnancy rates, resulting from program intervention, are those that include on-site clinics prescribing contraceptives and providing family-planning counseling (Sherman, 1986). One of the advantages of school-based clinics is the convenience to students. When family-planning services are provided within a context of comprehensive health care, young people can be assured of getting contraceptives without being identified as sexually active. Therefore, it takes away some of the embarrassment. Another advantage is that contraceptive continuation can be enhanced by frequent contact and regular follow-up (Dryfoos, 1985).

Role of Special Educators

Because many pregnant young women are academically and cognitively disadvantaged, teachers trained in special education could assist in designing sex education materials and in teaching those lessons. Graduates of special education programs may be better prepared to understand the level of comprehension of these students, as well as types of appropriate instructional materials. Also, by nature of their training, special educators may be more sensitive in dealing with the needs of parenting students, an atypical student population. It appears that society considers mentally or physically disadvantaged adolescents to be asexual (Monat, 1982). This is not the case. They have unexplained sexual arousal like other teenagers. In support of this contention regarding exceptional learners, Price (1987) reported:

They are influenced by the same pressures affecting the sexual decision making of every adolescent and teen, such as peer pressure, movies, and television. The differences lie in the [disabled] person's lack of appropriate information about physical and emotional changes of adolescence, sexuality, and birth control. (p. 154)

Special educators could facilitate the organization of peer-counseling programs for their students. Student peers, who were succeeding in school as a mother or a nonmother, could be paired with nonpregnant special education students, as well as pregnant and parenting teens struggling with school. This would develop a network of positive role models to help with school assignments and personal adjustment. Such a program might decrease initial and repeat pregnancy. The participants in this study discussed what they would say to younger adolescents, if given the opportunity. In fact, one client suggested that she may not have been in her situation today if a parenting teenager had told her what motherhood as an adolescent was like.

Teacher Training

It was clearly evident that there is a need for teacher inservice training. The traditional posture of educators toward pregnant students has been extremely unsympathetic (Furstenberg, 1976). The level of teacher insensitivity reported by project participants was appalling. Regardless of the personal attitude a teacher may have about premarital pregnancy, the teacher should be committed to providing pregnant and parenting teens with equal access to education. Based on interviewee perceptions, service providers had little sensitivity to the range of responsibilities these young women assumed. The school must become "user friendly" for these students. The competing roles thrust upon parenting students place them in a unique situation, compared with their nonparenting age cohorts.

Role of Administrators

Educational administrators could engage in decisions to assist adolescent mothers. For instance, participants in this study discussed the difficulty of completing homework when there were children to care for in the evenings. A study hall for parenting students could be a part of the regular schedule. In addition, disciplinary techniques other than after-school detention should be used with these young women. They have to pick up children after school and are unable to serve in this type of detention.

Related School-Community Support

Community-based support programs for adolescent mothers should include provisions for affordable day care or baby-sitting services. Indeed, some of these programs could be housed within the school setting and funded by other sources. Successful models for such services are already in existence. Child care is a critical concern for these young women. Family members may be an option for some, but "built-in" baby sitters are not available to all. The intergenerational pattern of early pregnancy is producing grandmothers at much younger ages than in the past. These young grandmothers are very active themselves, and may not have the time, or desire, to stay at home and baby-sit. This was the case in this research. Most of the grandmothers were themselves mothers as teenagers. In one particular instance, the mother of Client 9 was a 33-year-old single, never married woman with 11 children. Her youngest child was 3 months old.

Another service provider for parenting "at risk" students could be the local church in the African-American community. To assist these young mothers, churches could establish a financially supplemented day-care center. If money for an individual church was a problem, a cluster of churches could join in sponsoring such a project. Churches could also provide sex education programs to their members and persons living in nearby communities. One such program was established in an African-American church in Syracuse, New York. The community was supportive, and parents were eager for the program. Program developers experienced a need for printed and audiovisual materials in the area of sexuality, developed specifically for African-Americans (Timberlake & Carpenter, 1986).

RESEARCH IMPLICATIONS

I initiated a computer search of literature exploring the incidence of pregnant students in special education programs. Only one article specifically targeted these young women. There is definitely a need for special educators to become more involved in various methods of intervention to address this issue. In terms of research implications, the adolescent's level of cognitive functioning should be more closely examined in studying adolescent pregnancy and parenting. Some youth do not demonstrate formal reasoning capacity by age 15 (Peterson & Crockett, 1986). Hence, before some adolescents are capable of making informed choices, they are already sexually active and pregnant. Ultimately, more investigation should. be focused on the relationship between motivation for school success and pregnancy prevention. This is an area in which all educators, teachers as well as administrators, should focus attention as a possible pregnancy prevention strategy.

TABULAR DATA OMITTED

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

LORETTA PINKARD PRATER is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Ecology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
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Title Annotation:Issues in the Education of African-American Youth in Special Education Settings
Author:Prater, Loretta Pinkard
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Oct 1, 1992
Words:5349
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