AURORA | In all 50 states, teen pregnancy rates have plummeted in recent years. But even as fewer teens are having children before they graduate, a problem persists: Most teen moms drop out, and less than 40 percent of them get their diploma before turning 22.
“They are, for the most part, dropping out because they can’t afford child care and can’t get child care while they are in school,” said Anita Walker, director of Aurora Public Schools’ Jamaica Child Development Center.
At the start of this school year, Aurora Public Schools launched a new program aimed at helping those teen moms stay in school, and making sure their children get the type of early-childhood education that proves so crucial when they start elementary school.
The new APS Early Beginnings center on the Jamaica campus opened at the start of the school year and provides free daycare for children of APS students, as well as daycare for some qualifying families in the neighborhood.
The facility has a capacity of 72 children from as young as three weeks old through preschool.
So far, there are 21 teen parents with their children enrolled in the program, Walker said, but there are likely many more teen parents in APS who aren’t using it. Walker said that as of a few years ago, the district had about 200 teen moms.
Walker said the district’s Young Parent Support program has offered some daycare in the past, but it was limited to a facility at William Smith High School, and that proved to be a tough place for many parents to get to.
“There just weren’t a lot of options for them,” she said.
The bulk of the teens who have enrolled their children at Early Beginnings dropped out of school already and re-enrolled when they learned about the program, Walker said. The hope going forward is that district officials can reach pregnant teens and get them enrolled before they drop out, she said.
Clarissa Carbajal, 16, enrolled her 7-month-old son, Elias, at Early Beginnings this year.
Carbajal said that when she had her son in January, she fell behind her classmates at the New America School because she had to miss class to care for her son.
The program means Carbajal can send her son to a safe place, and make up those missed classes so she can graduate on time.
“Now I know my son is in a good place, and I don’t have to worry about his babysitter,” she said.
Still, for Carbajal, who wants to go to college and become a social worker, juggling an infant and a hefty academic load is tough.
“I’m doing everything I can,” she said.
Bill Albert, a spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, said that no matter the student, having a child before graduation is a huge hurdle to finishing school.
“Common sense and research say having a kid as a teen and trying to complete an education is exceedingly hard for even the most stout and dedicated young mothers,” he said.
That’s why programs like Early Beginnings are so important, Albert said, because they provide child care, which helps parents stay in school.
According to Albert’s organization, only 38 percent of teen girls who have a child before age 18 get a high school diploma by age 22, and another 19 percent get their GED. Among teen girls who drop out, 30 percent cite pregnancy as one of the reasons they quit school.
Albert said that while programs like Early Beginnings are crucial, it is important that they don’t send a message to other teens that if they have a child, things will be easy.
Even with programs like Early Beginnings active in various communities around the country, the organization’s shows a bleak economic picture for teen parents, with 48 percent of all mothers age 15 to 19 living below the poverty line.
Still, Albert said, step one to helping those mothers is making sure they can finish school.
“In this day and age and in this economy, an education is increasingly critical,” he said. “We don’t want to send any young people forward without a high school education, at a minimum.”
For APS, the new program has largely been funded by private donations. So far, more than $2 million has been donated, with the bulk coming from The Belay Fund at the Denver Foundation. Other donors include the Foundation for Education Excellence, Gates Family Foundation, Temple Hoyne Buell Foundation and Qualistar Colorado.
Walker said outside groups rallying to support the program shows not only that people realize teen moms need support, but that getting their children into school early is vital.
“People are beginning to recognize that early childhood education can impact student achievement,” she said. “If we can get students and families early on advocating for themselves and understanding what their rights are to an education, they are going to be way more successful.”