Video: Program helps teen mothers stay in school, learn parenting skills

John Hilliard

Little Arielliz pushed the plastic cart across the plush carpet, her purple shirt a match for the bright pastel colors of the childcare center at Milford High School in Milford, Mass. As she reached out her hand to a visitor, her mother, Kiara Lopez, scooped up the 1-year-old girl and smiled.

Lopez, a senior at the high school, will graduate this year and plans to study either criminal justice or culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University.

She said Milford High's "Project Pass" program - which offers free child care so teen parents can stay in class - kept her in school and on track to graduate. Program staff teach students how to be parents, plus help ensure children will be safe while parents stay in school.

"It lets us know... we have a future," said Lopez, who is one of three students with children in the program.

Kathy Segalla, a teen-parent teacher at Milford High, said the program teaches child development and life skills, plus how to get housing assistance and legal services. She said by keeping parents in school, they can complete their education, but also be ready for life in the work force.

"I want them to be prepared," said Segalla.

Segalla, who has been at Milford since 2002, said about 90 percent of Project Pass students graduate and most continue into college or another form of post-secondary education. Other students are brought into the center as part of parenting education classes to show child-rearing first hand.

"This is the reality for some of the choices you make," said Segalla.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, more than 414,000 babies were born to girls ages 15-19 across the country in 2003, and the teen pregnancy rate is the lowest it has been in 30 years.

Schools offer health classes that meet state curriculum requirements. Plus, the state Department of Public Health offers programs to educate teenagers about sex and pregnancy and other concerns, said Dr. Lauren Smith, the department's medical director.

A "substantial number of our youth are sexually active - that's a fact," she said, and teens need education so they can make informed decisions.

But in recent years, some educators and health education advocates are concerned that students may not be getting enough time learning about sex, pregnancy and parenting.

Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, said the emphasis on preparing students for MCAS and other testing requirements has forced limited education budgets to reduce health and pregnancy education in many schools.

"Our general sense is there's a significant lack of sexuality education in the schools," said Quinn, who noted that the state's health education fund hasn't received money since 2003.

"One thing we know we can do is provide good health education, good pregnancy education. And we're not devoting enough resources to that," said Quinn.

According to surveys of Massachusetts high schoolers compiled by the state's health and K-12 education agencies, about 44 percent of students polled reported having sex at least once, and of those, fewer than two-thirds used a condom.

Those surveys reported about half of students said they spoke to their parents or an adult about sex, pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. About half of students learned how to use a condom at school, but 89 percent learned about HIV-AIDS at school.

Gloucester High School made international headlines this year over reports that a group of students got pregnant as part of a so-called "pact." While the claim was later debunked by students and administrators, the city's school board recently took steps to curb teen pregnancy, including handing out birth control to students.

Pam Hennessy, who teaches childhood education courses at Milford High, said while teens are sophisticated about sex, many aren't aware of the risks of a sexually transmitted disease, unplanned pregnancy and the responsibilities of parenthood. On her classroom wall, a handmade sign reads, "Life Is Difficult."

Hennessy has taught for 24 years, and noted that attention to teen pregnancy education comes in waves - years ago, more people focused on it. That same attention is now aimed at standardized testing and school accountability efforts, she said.

In her classes, students can take home an electronic doll that students dubbed "fake baby." A computer inside plays a baby's cries and coos, plus records whether a caretaker properly handles the doll. Students, mostly girls, take the doll home for an assigned three-day stint and discover that parenting is a hard job when the doll plays a baby's cry several times in a single night, she said.

"Only the students who come through my door get the reality of this," said Hennessy.

The school has two such dolls paid for with a state grant, and the course enrolls about 75 students a year, Hennessy said.

"(It makes) you realize how difficult parenting is," said Jackie Bullock, a Milford High junior. "I think it should be a mandatory class."

In Framingham, the high school works with local social service organizations to assist students with children of their own, said Principal Michael Welch, who noted teen pregnancy is an issue that can't be ignored.

Unfortunately, Gov. Deval Patrick's recent statewide budget cuts dropped about half of the funding for the high school's teen pregnancy program, said Welch. The school works to connect trained nurses with young women who may become sexually active or pregnant to get support, he said.

He said communities as a whole, not just schools, must deal with teen pregnancy education, and funding support has to come from the state.

"This does demand (our attention) and our financial support - not to encourage new kids to become pregnant. ... We're trying to educate kids about what not to do," said Welch.

Robert Moro, director of Ashland's youth substance abuse prevention initiative, said teens who abuse alcohol and drugs can end up sexually active. A social worker for 35 years, Moro said that parents need to be more involved in their children's lives, so young people will make good choices in life.

"Kids today think they have all the answers, but they don't know half the questions," he said.

John Hilliard can be reached at 508-626-4449 or John.Hilliard