Last spring, I taught my first Mother Tongue class at the Santa Fe High School Teen Parent Center, pulling five juniors from their parenting class for a weekly reading-and-writing seminar that culminated in publishable personal essays. Attendance and resources were highly variable. We occupied whatever space was available within the center’s three portable buildings on the southern edge of the 164-acre campus.
One afternoon, we gathered in a room the width of its two-cushion sofa. I sat on a cabinet with a baby bouncer and told my students I wanted them to write comments in the margins of their reading assignments. "What's a margin?" one asked.
Incredulity stalled me: How could a high school junior not know this? "It's the white space on the edge of the printed part of a page," I answered, pointing to the essay I'd assigned. And then, for lack of a whiteboard, I used my dry-erase marker to write "margin" on a window.
"Essays, books, poems—they all have margins," I said. My students were not interested in margins, much less marginalia. I looked at them, squished on the couch, perched on a stool, eyeing a waking baby in his car seat. "Also, think about it," I said. "Where is the Teen Parent Center in relation to the main campus?"
The girls shrugged, unsure what I was asking.
"Are you in the middle? Where are you?"
"Um. On the edge?"
"Yes! You are on the margin of the high school property. You—we—are out here way, way away from the main activity of the high school, from teachers, other students, permanent buildings." I wrote "marginalized" on the window.
They perked up. Real-life margins were more interesting.
New Mexico has the country's highest teen pregnancy rate and the second highest teen birth rate, according to the Guttmacher Institute's 2010 data. Meanwhile, we're number 49 for high-school graduation—one of five states with a graduation rate below 70 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In Santa Fe County, the teen birth rate is 39 births per 1,000 15- to 19-year-olds. The Santa Fe Public Schools (SFPS) high school graduation rate sits at 62 percent.
The district has not systematically tracked the graduation rates of its teen parents, yet Theresa Baca, director of the Department of Student Support Programs, which oversees the Teen Parent Center at Santa Fe and Capital high schools, says that seniors who enroll in the center as seniors usually graduate. Not all teen parents participate in the center.
National estimates, however, indicate that only 40 to 50 percent of teen mothers graduate from high school.The lack of adequate on-site child care is frequently cited as the main reason teen parents drop out. Insufficient social, parenting and academic support contribute, too. And then there's simply the difficulty of balancing it all.
"The most difficult part for me is when my baby is sick," writes SFHS student Alondra Espinoza in an essay for my Mother Tongue class. "I have to miss school, and that's when my stress begins because I get behind with all my classwork. So then I get a bunch of homework. This stresses me and makes me tired: I have a sick baby who needs my attention plus a lot of homework. The only thing I can do is just try to find space to do everything."
Santa Fe's Teen Parent Center started in 1985 in an effort to address some of the challenges parenting students experience. It supports 20 to 35 expectant and parenting middle school and high school students each year at the district's two high schools, offering prenatal services, counseling, case management, parenting classes and academic support for graduation.
According to the center's 2013-14 end-of-year report, a significant number of its teen parents "are highly vulnerable and at-risk youth." Roughly 95 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch because of their economic status. The students in my weekly class seemed to have steady family homes, if not reliable transportation, and most had family support and involved co-parents. All are smart, capable young women. Even so, they have been marginalized—socially, economically, physically, academically, and in terms of expectations and opportunities.
According to Baca, the transition afoot for the SFPS school year that begins on Aug. 18 aims to bring teen parents in from the margins. The Teen Parent Center's revamping includes a complete staffing change and a new parenting program called New Mexico Graduation Reality and Dual-role Skills, or NM GRADS, which may earn students high school health credit, pending expected approval from the state's Public Education Department. NM GRADS also gives teachers and students access to a wide range of materials and resources.
At Santa Fe High, NM GRADS will be taught in the designated main-campus classroom where the Teen Parent Center will be relocated. Also, like their Capital counterparts have generally done, Santa Fe High teen parents are now expected to attend regular classes instead of relying primarily on the online program Edgenuity 2020, as many have done in years past.
"A big part of it is students developing skills to be more confident and to learn how to advocate for themselves and their children," Baca says.
"You're not doing that when you're off by yourself. The best place for students is to be in a classroom with peers and a highly qualified teacher and participating in a regular curriculum."
Leah O'Shell, who will teach the NM GRADS class at Santa Fe High, agrees. "When they're not mainstreamed in regular classes, I'm not sure they're getting the education they need that's on par with what other students are getting."
Since Capital High has never had a separate, dedicated space for its Teen Parent Center and parenting classes, this year's changes seem most drastic at Santa Fe High, where teachers and administrators have noted that the Teen Parent Center operated "on their own little island." Baca thinks that bringing expectant and parenting teens onto the main campus will make it easier for center students and high school staff to better communicate with each other.
"We share these students, and we need to be in collaboration to make sure they're prepared for graduation," Baca says. "When teachers are aware of student challenges and students are communicating well with them, teachers will bend over backwards to help."
Nevertheless, trepidation about being "mainstreamed" was high among Santa Fe High teen moms last spring when they learned about the district's plans. They worried about balancing the demands of regular coursework with prenatal appointments, infant and child checkups, breastfeeding schedules, sick babies, daycare challenges and sleepless nights. The former Teen Parent Center at Santa Fe High gave moms a separate place to breastfeed and bond with their babies, deepen supportive relationships and learn from other parents and longtime center staffers. Combined with online classes, it shielded its students from the judgmental eyes of peers and teachers—a factor often noted in teen moms' conversations and writing assignments.
"I think judgment is the biggest problem we face," says Mother Tongue student Jazmin Ramirez.
"The isolation is more comfortable than being where many people want to judge you or act as if it's a crime to get pregnant at a young age," writes Maria Campos in a Mother Tongue assignment. "It's comforting that there are women you can relate to about things that are happening to you or that you think about."
The new Teen Parent Center will be led by coordinator Christine Eisenberg. Splitting her time between the high schools, Eisenberg expects to work with students to build individualized academic and parenting plans and collaborate with agencies and organizations serving teen parents. A part-time social worker is expected to help provide counseling and coordination of services for each student.
In addition, each high school will have a certified secondary-school teacher leading its NM GRADS class: O'Shell at Santa Fe High and Katie Buttram at Capital. Both undergo NM GRADS training this month. O'Shell says the teachers are still "trying to learn the ropes," and they are scrambling to get to know the students enrolled in the program to best identify what help they need.
Seeing NM GRADS function positively in other schools prompted Baca and SFPS to adopt the Socorro-based program for Santa Fe. The comprehensive, standardized resource materials and training for teachers are key components, Baca says.
"This is designed for the goal of high school graduation and assessing post-secondary opportunities, as well as supporting parenting. It's specific to the needs of our teen parents—fathers and mothers."
NM GRADS has operated in some form in the state for more than 20 years and now serves about 600 teen parents at 29 high schools. About 80 percent of its enrolled parents graduate high school, reports the program, which is funded by the state Legislature, the Department of Children, Youth and Families Child Protection Services, the Public Education Department and federal Office of Adolescent Health grants.
Sally Kosnick, NM GRADS executive director, notes that the program's overall goal is to help teen parents graduate and transition into further training to earn above minimum wage. It also pays for teachers and helps facilitate on-site child care. In Santa Fe, where Presbyterian Medical Services provides on-site child care at both high schools, NM GRADS will contribute $18,000 towards an additional daycare classroom.
Baca is optimistic about the Teen Parent Center transition, and she points to her initial meeting with SFHS teen parents last spring as an indicator: "When I first walked into classroom, they were very upset and didn't want any change. And I think I ended with them at least willing to look at something different, to being open to the conversation."
New programming aside, the Teen Parent Center's most productive asset may be the students' own motivation. "I've seen some of the best parenting I've ever imagined with young parents if they have the resources," says Kosnick. "They really want to learn. They want it to be better for their children, and that's the exciting part." In my involvement with teen parents, I've heard them repeatedly say how they want to succeed for their children—and for themselves.
"My plans for my life are big," writes Mikayla Trujillo, pictured at left. "I want to provide for my children financially and emotionally. I want them to know I will always be here for them."
"Family and friends tell me that I should just stop studying and just be home with my baby, but inside me I say, 'No. I'm going to work hard, go to school, get my diploma, start a career in the medical field and show all those people that they were wrong,'" writes Espinoza. "A baby doesn't stop you from doing anything; it actually makes you want to be more successful."
Like many teen parents, these young women resist being stereotyped and marginalized—yet they know most people don't see them as ambitious, capable students. As a demographic, they have a lot of vulnerabilities and even more challenges. As individuals, they have a lot of potential and, as parents, even more reasons to realize it. As writers—like the five young moms who took my Mother Tongue class—they have much to say.
"I want people to know and understand me better," writes Melissa Ruiz. "I don't want them to judge me before knowing my story."
Appeals like Ruiz' sparked my involvement with the Teen Parent Center. I figured I could help teach parent/students writing skills and offer them a forum through my Mother Tongue blog for SFR. The essays that follow are the voices of three students from last spring's course: