Baby on Board

A successful teen parent program reaches a crossroads

Percentage of Santa Fe High School seniors who graduated last year: 63
Percentage of New Mexico high schoolers who graduate after becoming pregnant: <33
Percentage of Santa Fe High School Teen Parent Center participants who graduated last year: 100

Five years ago, the Teen Parent Center at Santa Fe High School got a call from a local obstetrician. He was referring a patient—a girl who had dropped out of seventh grade after becoming pregnant—for the center’s services.

This year, that girl is a senior at SFHS and still participates in the Teen Parent Center program. She's on track to graduate on time in the spring and plans to enroll in a dentistry program at Santa Fe Community College.

"I see her now and see how much she's matured and grown, and she's such a great mother to her child," TPC Coordinator Janet Aboytes says.

Despite the extra obstacles that teen parents face, the graduation rate for Santa Fe High School girls participating in the Teen Parent Center program last year was an astonishing 100 percent; this year, all of the girls went on to Santa Fe Community College as well. The percentage of college-bound TPC participants has approached 100 percent for each of the last five years.

"We try to instill in the girls, while they're at the Teen Parent Center, that their lives will be better if they could at the very least get a certificate in a profession," says Tita Gervers, director of student wellness at Santa Fe Public Schools.

Now, TPC staff members are hoping to transition the program—along with a less-developed teen parent support system at Capital High School—to a new site in order to alleviate funding issues that threaten its remarkable success.

Judging from the statistics, graduating from high school in this school district is hardly a given even for students who don't have the extra challenge of becoming a parent so early in life. Last year, the district's high school graduation rate was the second lowest statewide [cover story, Sept. 21: "Left Behind"].

For a pregnant teenager, the obstacles to high school graduation are formidable. There's a two- to four-week period after the birth when most teen moms can't make it to classes at all. Although SFHS has a Presbyterian Medical Services Head Start child care facility on site, leaving a newborn there can be difficult when the mother is breastfeeding, and since it closes at 4 pm, after-school tutoring is out of the question unless the moms can make other babysitting arrangements. Infant medical complications—especially common if the moms didn't get prenatal care—can cause teen mothers to miss school and fall behind in their work. To top it off, many girls who become pregnant in high school were already struggling academically to begin with, Gervers says.

The TPC owes some of its success to an online academic program called Education2020, which uses
certified teachers for each subject. The girls still come to school and use computers in a designated facility, but they can borrow laptops and internet cards if they have to make up some work at home. Although some girls continue to learn in the regular classroom during and after pregnancy, most use the Education2020 system because it gives them the chance to make up lessons they miss due to any of the many issues that arise during pregnancy and parenthood.

In addition, TPC provides parenting classes, counseling, one-on-one case management, support from peers and legal assistance if needed. Staff members also take the girls to SFCC to check out classes and talk to teen parents who have already made the college leap.

Capital High School doesn't yet have a full-fledged TPC, however. Capital has child care and parenting classes but no central classroom for teen moms. Instead of Education2020, Capital uses a general program for students with attendance problems, called Second Chance, which uses a single teacher, rather than multiple teachers certified in each subject. Often, pregnant Capital students will transfer to SFHS to take advantage of the TPC, but if they live far from SFHS, it's a problem. The district doesn't provide transportation for moms traveling with their babies.

But the biggest challenge Capital and SFHS face is in ensuring on-site childcare spots for students' babies. Both campuses have federally funded Head Start facilities that operate under strict regulations. In order to make sure families get off lengthy waiting lists as quickly as possible, Head Start facilities can only keep a spot vacant for 30 days. So even if a TPC participant plans to give birth a little more than 30 days after a spot opens up, Head Start has to fill that spot with a child from the waiting list instead.

Until the 2008-2009 school year, a grant from the state Children Youth and Families Department allowed SFPS to run its own childcare center, which was both highly accredited under a national system and flexible enough to hold a spot open for the TPC's expectant moms. When the district lost that funding, Head Start stepped in—but the TPC is still looking for a better solution.

SFHS and Capital hope to combine their teen parenting resources at a new, separate space at the SER Career Academy. That school currently helps kids who dropped out of high school earn General Educational Development diploma substitutes. If the teen pregnancy center could get funding to create its own childcare center at SER, it could relocate all the teen moms there and put them all on an online education program with a high success rate.

"The district has always been a supporter of the Teen Parent Center, and if we make the transition, I think we will get support from the district," Aboytes says.

SFPS Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez didn't respond to SFR's inquiry about the possible move before press time.

The cost to the district of supporting such a move would save the state money in the end, Aboytes says, citing New Mexico Department of Health data showing that teen pregnancy costs the state $590 million per year. Teen parents who don't get special help often end up on public assistance, and start their children off on the road to similarly deprived lives.

"It's very difficult to come to school with a baby on top of everything else going on in their life," Aboytes says. "They have multiple struggles—relationships, family, reality setting in that they don't get to live the life they used to live...but there's no reason why they can't be successful. That's the one thing we tell them, 'Just come to school every day and everything else will fall in place.'"

The Teen Parent Center is currently seeking donors who can provide laptop computers to college-bound graduating moms. Contact TPC at 467-2827 to help.
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