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Parenting Program Encourages Teen-Age Mothers To Finish Schooling

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Groveton, Va--Dana Deck, the 19-year-old mother of 11-month-old Calvin, got up in the middle of her adolescent-parenting class, opened the door separating the classroom from the nursery, and announced that the infants on the other side were "laughing, and playing, and having a good time."

The other teen-age mothers smiled.

In a short while, they moved from the classroom into the adjoining nursery.

The second half of their fourth-period parenting class was set aside to give the young mothers time, before their next academic class, to play with their infants, change their diapers, feed them, and put them to sleep.

In all, 15 teenagers are participating this year in the adolescent-parenting program at Groveton High School in suburban Fairfax County, Va. Three other teen-agers are on "homebound instruction" until their chidren reach six weeks of age, the age at which they become eligible to participate in the on-campus day-care program. Two others are pregnant.

Support for Young Mothers

The 15-month-old program, which accepts young mothers from the county's 22 other regular high schools, is an attempt to encourage such students to complete their high-school education by mainstreaming them into a regular school environment.

The program is also an attempt, said Joan Hartman, the home economics teacher who directs it, to give the young mothers support, teach them how to care for their children, and help them understand what to expect in the years of motherhood ahead.

For the young mothers, a typical day at Groveton High begins when they drop off their babies at the licensed day-care nursery on campus. Then they attend their regular academic classes.

During their required fourth-period class in adolescent-parenting, the mothers spend about 35 minutes in the classroom and about 15 minutes in the nursery applying their parenting skills under the supervision of child-care workers and Gunnel Hansen, a registered nurse.

"I think I'm a role model," Ms. Hansen said. "For instance, I think I really show the mothers, through my way of being with the children, that you don't have to slap a child when he screams. You can handle the discipline in different ways."

"Our feeling," Ms. Hartman said, "is that if we provide only child care, we don't do any more for the mothers than a babysitter could. If we provide training, then they will become better parents."

As for the infants, who are "constantly stimulated and worked with,'' Ms. Hartman said, "there's no way of telling what impact" the attention will have on their development.

But we know, she added, that "we're talking about [affecting] generations."

A Controversial Concept

The concept of providing child-care in school remains controversial, despite the rising incidence of out-of-wedlock births among adolescents.

Some opponents of the strategy argue that it encourages teen-age pregnancy. In a time of fiscal decline, they say, budget dollars would be more appropriately spent on programs for students "who don't put barriers up" in the way of their education.

Researchers say there is no comprehensive information on the number of school-based programs for teen-age mothers.

But Gail L. Zellman, a research psychologist with the Rand Corporation, said the Groveton program is part of a "growing trend" and an example of "the latest in enlightened approaches in dealing with teen-age parents."

Paul G. Douglas, principal of Groveton High School, said the adolescent-parenting program is controversial with parents.

"Some of them really feel this promotes promiscuity," he said. "I don't think it at all encourages promiscuity. I think it's the other way around."

Instead of encouraging students to get pregnant, Ms. Hartman argued, the on-campus adolescent-parenting program enables the childless students to "see the realism" of teen-age parenthood, "that these mothers are having to do a lot of work and that babies are crying, screaming, and demanding little people, and not just someone to dress in fancy dresses."

Groveton's adolescent-parenting program operates under the school's Child Development Center, a day-care facility open to the community, which is licensed to accommodate 60 children, 15 of whom are in the adolescent-parenting project.

Ms. Hartman said it took five years to establish the program for young mothers at Groveton.

The March of Dimes provided a $10,000 grant for start-up money, and this year provided another, and final, grant of $5,000.

Program Self-Sufficiency

Next year, the program is a line item in the school system's budget, but, according to Ms. Hartman, said it should "technically be self-sufficient" because the teen-age mothers, if they are eligible for welfare, will also be eligible for Title XX funds for child care under the Social Security Act.

Each year, according to one recent estimate, about 1.1 million teenagers in the United States become pregnant. About half of them give birth.

Carolyn Harris, 19, contributed to both statistics. She is also among the 96 percent of young women who decide to keep their babies instead of putting them up for adoption.

But there is one statistic Ms. Harris is trying to beat: the dropout rate. She credits the Groveton program with keeping her from becoming one of about 670,000 teen mothers who have not finished high school.

"If [the program] wasn't here, I don't know what I would do," said Ms. Harris, the mother of a 14-month-old son. "I don't know who I would leave my baby with because there's no one at home. If the school wasn't here, I probably wouldn't be in school."

That, program proponents say, is its primary goal: to provide the mother with an opportunity to achieve the educational skills necessary to enable her to get a job and become self-sufficient, and, in so doing, to break the dependency of teen-age mothers and their children on welfare.

Welfare Costs

In 1975, according to The Alan Guttmacher Institute, which is affiliated with Planned Parenthood, about half of the $9.4 billion in Aid-to-Families-with-Dependent-Children payments went to families in which the mother had given birth as a teen-ager.

The Urban Institute further estimated that in 1975, about $8.55 billion in afdc benefits, Food Stamps, Medicaid, and prenatal care and delivery of infants was spent on afdc households in which the mother was a teen-ager when she bore her first child.

"Schools are a major societal institution, and teen-age pregnancy is a very strong predictor that a young woman will drop out of school, become dependent on afdc, and have children who become parents at an early age and also become dependent on afdc," said Margaret Dunkle, co-director of the Equality Center, a nonprofit organization concerned with human and civil rights. "Schools can play a big role in breaking that all-too-common cycle of long-term dependency."

To Be a Parent

Schools can also play a big role, Ms. Hartman said, in helping teen-age mothers, who are in the process of growing up themselves, to become better parents.

"You can't learn too much to be a good parent. You really can't," said Ann Blakey, the 19-year-old mother of a two-year-old son. "The more you learn, the better you are."

Ms. Blakey, who graduated from Groveton High School in 1983, did not attend the adolescent-parenting program. Today, however, she is a paid assistant child-care provider on the staff.

"This program is really good for the girls because they get a chance to talk amongst themselves and they're able to compare notes," Ms. Blakey said. "They don't have to feel like they're alone.

"I just felt very isolated [when I got pregnant]," she said. "I think the biggest difficulty was that I lost a lot of friends. I got married, and then I had Jason, and my friends just dropped off like flies. I ended up with no friends because we didn't have anything in common.

"Once you get pregnant," Ms. Blakey added, "you have to think of your child first, and you don't think of yourself first; whereas when you're a teen-ager, that's all you think about. I had to grow up fast and that's sort of sad. The minute you have a baby, you're an adult, immediately."

Programs Inadequate

According to Ms. Zellman, "the issue of parenthood has not been viewed as a problem, really. The real problem is generally perceived as having to do with pregnancy, so the programs that the schools offer generally are oriented toward the period of pregnancy."

Today, however, with the overwhelming majority of teen-age mothers opting for child-rearing instead of adoption, the practice of offering classes in parenting skills before birth, researchers say, needs to be re-examined.

"Providing parenting education during pregnancy seems ineffective and inefficient," Shelby H. Miller wrote in a 1983 report, Children as Parents, for the Child Welfare League of America. "At that time, the pregnant adolescent is more concerned with the developing fetus and her reactions to the pregnancy, not how she will toilet train her baby two years later. Emphasis during pregnancy should be placed on nutrition, exercise, and preparation for delivery. After the baby is born, new needs for information and services appear, but this is typically when most comprehensive programs end."

Accepting Responsibility

Besides parenting skills, the Groveton program--which soon could include services for grandparents and fathers--enables teen-age mothers to "take responsibility" for their children and to take responsibility for themselves, Ms. Hartman said.

"You know, they have so much growing up to do, and it's growing up that in many cases just won't happen because they're not going to have the time."

Sarah Persil, 17, the mother of a 4-month-old, Mellissa, said she is "very happy" with the Groveton program. "It's given me a lot of time for myself. The first time I went out alone, when [Mellissa] was two weeks old, I rushed back home because I had left her with my parents and I was really nervous. Until I started school I was like that, really paranoid to go out."

The Groveton program, Ms. Hartman said, gives teen-age mothers "a chance, for six hours a day, to be students like all the other students. They're going to have to pick up their baby at the end of the day, but at least they can be a real student for a few hours."

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