3 Basic Problems in Allendale: Poor Education, Teenage Pregnancy, and Disconnected Dads

Let me start by clarifying what I mean by “3 Basic Problems in Allendale.”
  • 3: There are not just three things that are problems, but these are common here.
  • Basic: These are not core issues. I’m still processing through what the deeper issues are. These basic ones are a good place to start for you to understand this culture.
  • Problems: I don’t want to give the impression that everything is bad in Allendale, since I’ve already said that we shouldn’t only focus on the negative statistics.
  • Allendale: Not everyone has these problems, and these are not unique to this area. But there is a pronounced prevalence and depth of these issues here.

That being said, in my time here I’ve seen that there are three areas that need to be addressed in order to have a long-term hope for change in this community: Education, Teenage Pregnancy, and Disconnected Dads

Poor Education

I wrote about one boy’s struggle with literacy, but he is definitely not alone. Many of the students that I work with in the after school program also struggle with reading. Last month I was in a school-related meeting where a district employee touted a program that has seemingly helped improve reading scores. For students in grades K – 8th, about 1 in 3 cannot read on grade level; this is an improvement, since at the start of the year it was closer to 40%.

I see kids struggle to read, and if they cannot read well, they will struggle to do homework in every subject, even math when it involves word problems. I remember this guy telling me that reading is more than looking at words; it’s about comprehension.

And reading isn’t the only subject where I see problems; math is also high on the list. A large portion of our kids in the program count and add on their fingers, even 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders doing problems like “8 + 7.” This technique may be fine up to a point, but how will they learn their times tables if they don’t even know simple addition tables?

I’m not sure where he got this data, so I wouldn’t flaunt this info too much, but one parent and leader from this part of the state told me this: “In middle class families like ours, parents read to their child an average of 2500 hours by the time the child is age 5. In impoverished areas, the child is read to for about 17 hours.” (This source says that that those numbers are 1000 and 25, respectively; either way, it is a huge gap.)

Teenage Pregnancy

A friend’s mom who worked in the school district in the 1990’s told the administration, “You cannot change the future of this area until you can do something about teenage pregnancy.” A survey in the high school last fall indicated that 79% of high school students have had sexual intercourse at least once. Now, the vast majority of the survey-takers were freshman and sophomores; therefore, many of these students are having sex in middle school (or younger?). And where you have irresponsible sex, you will have pregnancies.
About 32% of babies in Allendale are born to mothers with less than a high school education. With a baby (or two) in tow, the opportunities for a teenage mother decrease significantly. She will struggle to graduate from high school, much less think about college. In order for her to get a job (and with minimal education, what do you think she is qualified for?), she’ll have to find someone to take care of her child(ren). I had one young mom who was interested in volunteering at the after school program, but she had trouble lining up a babysitter.

And teenage pregnancies do not just affect the mothers. Becoming a teenage father stunts his educational development, “reducing the chances of graduating high school by fifteen percentage points and increasing the chances of receiving a GED by eleven percentage points.” Now we have both young moms and young dads with infants, who are scared, tired, without hope, and without a proper education and means to provide.

A Framework for Understanding PovertyHaving babies at a younger age tends to lead to other issues. Across the US, 28% of mothers who have two or more children have those children by more than one man. I would hazard to guess that these numbers in Allendale are significantly higher. Consequently, as described in A Framework for Understanding Poverty, “family trees” in areas of generational poverty are much more complicated than in middle-class families.

Why is teenage pregnancy so common? I have heard lots of reasons:

  • Lack of productive things to do.
  • Peer pressure (remember the 79% data from above).
  • Older men with some money who entice teenage girls to be their girlfriends.
  • Moms and grandmothers telling young girls that having a baby is a way to get a check from the government.
  • Lack of positive role models who would actively encourage children to not have sex.

In truth, it’s probably a mix of all of these, and more. (And read more in Feeling the Pain of a Fatherless Generation: Forgotten Fairy Tales.)

Disconnected Dads

Allendale needs men (especially Dads) to be responsible, not passive. This last issue is big to me. It trumps the education and illiteracy issue. Dads need to read to kids. Dads need to talk with kids, since conversation is what helps a young child grow his or her vocabulary.

Having a man that is connected and responsible also trumps the teenage pregnancy issue. Let’s be clear — teenage pregnancy is not the end of the world. For most of history, women became pregnant as teenagers. Of course, in the context of our culture, teenage pregnancy is vastly different than what it meant centuries (or decades) ago. But in any culture, the key factor is whether Dad will stay involved. If Dad stays connected to the mother and child (whether or not marriage occurs), it will make the world of difference in the life of the child.


We need to reach kids (and their parents) when the kids are young. I thought this meant 4K and 5K, but now I’m thinking it’s when the kids are toddlers.  It’s when kids are 2 years old that they need to learn to control their emotions. It’s when they are 2 and 3 that they need to be talked to and read to, so that they can develop vocabulary and a love for reading, besides helping them learn to listen and concentrate.

We need role models and mentors to encourage kids to abstain from sexual intercourse and to make good choices. We need to teach boys and girls what it means to be real men and real women.

I’m not sure what all this looks like, but it’s interesting to think and dream about.

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11 responses to “3 Basic Problems in Allendale: Poor Education, Teenage Pregnancy, and Disconnected Dads”

  1. Mark says :

    Good post. “The Read-Aloud Handbook” by Jim Trelease should be on your reading list…if you haven't already read it.

  2. Joey Espinosa says :

    Haven't read the book. But I just looked at some reviews at Amazon, and it looks interesting. On my “wish list”!

  3. Jen P says :

    I learned in my Human Development class at FU that children's personalities are developed by age 5, meaning their experiences up to that age are what shape them. Infancy and Toddlerhood are very crucial times to be connected to our kids.

    Another good book: _Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children_ by Michael Thompson, PhD and Catherine O-Neill Grace

    aside: I can see what impact this has on birth order too on The Younger who was subjected to a very chaotic environment as he was only a few months old when we began our ASD journey with his brother. This affected his anxiety level as my stress level increased rapidly in those early years. Now we are seeing the aftermath of that in that he “needs” chaos. If there is none, he creates it. We are focusing on coping skills now. I want him to know there are good, moral, and safe ways to cope with stress. Because once they are teenagers, I'm just gonna be their “stupid” mom.

  4. Joey Espinosa says :

    Thanks for the tip on the book.

    Yes, it's easy to see that the question is not as simple as Nature vs Nurture, but “How do BOTH nature and nurture play their roles in shaping who we are?”

    God definitely gives unique personalities, gifts, and strengths. But environment (family dynamics, for example) also play a huge role.

    A great book that talks about these things from a Gospel-centered perspective is “Shepherding a Child's Heart.” I recommend it here:


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