Having day-care at school fueling teen pregnancy?

The high school where the principal claimed girls formed a pact to get pregnant is one of the few in Massachusetts with a day care center, and some people are wondering whether that sent a message condoning teen motherhood.

Christopher Farmer, superintendent of the Gloucester school system, said the district would look into whether its day care center, which opened in 1996, somehow contributed to the spike in teen pregnancies from about four a year to 17 this school year.

“Clearly people are saying that it's possible that the presence of the day care center may encourage teenage pregnancy,” Farmer said. “Since people have raised the question, clearly it would be wise for us to address the question.”

A furor erupted in Gloucester last month after the principal, Joseph Sullivan, told Time magazine that several of the girls had set out to get pregnant and raise their babies together.

Farmer and the city's mayor denied any pact existed, but officials have started a study of teen pregnancy in Gloucester, including a review of the city's sex education programs.

The school system's health education programs have been hit with budget cuts in recent years, and two employees at the high school's health clinic recently resigned after the hospital that controls its funding refused to support a proposal to distribute contraceptives without parental permission.

Fewer than 20 child care centers are located in high schools around Massachusetts. Elsewhere in the country, many urban high schools are adding them.

Farmer said he does not believe the Gloucester High girls considered whether the school had day care when they chose to have their babies. He said that public schools have a responsibility to help young mothers complete their education, and that the center has successfully done that for years.

“We expect people to make mistakes, and educators hope that people learn from mistakes,” the superintendent said. “If we as a society think that mistakes made by young people should permanently harm their life chances, than I would worry about that.”

Advocates who run these child care centers say they must strike a delicate balance: responding to an undeniable need while avoiding any implication that it is OK for teens to get pregnant.

Diana Makhlouf, director of the teen parenting program at Malden High just outside Boston, said she hears criticism of the school's child care center. But she said many of the young moms did not even know the place existed before they decided to keep their babies.

“We're sort of in a corner in the back of the building and we try to keep a low profile,” she said. “Girls are not going out there and getting pregnant just because we're here.”

Few critics look to ban day care centers from high schools outright, partly because they have shown success since 1970s in helping teen mothers graduate, said Linda Klepacki, the sexual health analyst at Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian ministry founded by the evangelical leader James Dobson.

But Klepacki said such centers should be accompanied by a curriculum that stresses waiting until marriage to have sex.

Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, a nonprofit policy and advocacy organization, said in-school programs do not increase teen pregnancy.

Gloucester's teen birth rate declined by about 45 percent from 1996 to 2006. Nationally, the birth rate for women ages 15 to 19 rose 3 percent in 2006 — the first increase since 1991.