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Program for Teenage Fathers Seeks To Nurture Responsibility

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LANCASTER, PA.--When Patricia Kinsey introduces a "Teen Parent Prevention Panel'' at J.P. McCaskey High School here, she often breaks the ice with the following exercise.

First, she points to 10 males in the class and asks them to stand. Then she asks them to pretend they are teenage fathers and to answer this question: "Will I stay with the mother of the baby and will I take responsibility for my children?''

Those who answer "yes'' are instructed to sit down. Inevitably, she said, "all 10 sit down.''

Then, by asking them to stand back up and motioning all but one to sit down, "I show them the real statistic: one in 10,'' said Ms. Kinsey, the coordinator of the Teen Parent Program for the school district here.

A component added to the program four years ago at the suggestion of a male student aims to provide young fathers some of the support they need to beat those odds. (See related story, page 1.)

The goal of the larger Teen Parent Program, launched in 1989, is to help young parents stay in school so they can better their lives, while equipping them to give their children the attention they need.

The project, funded by a combination of local education funds and state and federal welfare funds, is part of a district effort, aided with seed money from the Danforth Foundation, to integrate various youth services and to base agency workers at schools.

Interventions include parenting- and life-skills classes, a school-based child-care center run by the Y.W.C.A., and other assistance from such agencies as Family Service, the Urban League, and the Spanish American Civic Association, or SACA.

The centerpiece of the Teen Father Program is a support group that meets weekly under the guidance of the school psychologist, a male outreach worker from SACA, and a male counselor from a juvenile home.

Over doughnuts and drinks at a recent meeting, eight of about a dozen youths now involved in the group discussed how parenthood has shaken their lives.

They shared stories of the reactions of parents, girlfriends' parents, and other relatives, and noted how "blame'' for the pregnancies seemed to be placed mostly on their shoulders.

They also speculated on how they would respond if their own children were to become teenage parents.

Many said they wanted to be more attentive and accessible to their children than their own parents had been.

But they also voiced frustration over the barriers they faced, from money worries to strained relations with their babies' mothers and their parents.

Many acknowledged the act of fathering a child would clearly have been better delayed.

"If I could have the same baby five years from now, I would,'' 17-year-old Victor Stimmel said.

Wiping Out Stereotypes

The teenage-pregnancy rate in Lancaster County is the fourth highest in the state. Last school year at McCaskey, 184 female students--or one in 12--were identified as either pregnant or already a parent.

Program officials acknowledge that they cannot reach as many of the fathers as they would like. Not all are willing to identify themselves, many are older and out of school, and some are enrolled in a vocational program whose hours conflict with those of the parenting program.

It is also too early to predict the program's effect on fathers.

The school psychologist, Paul Donniker, said only a few of those participating in the program are still linked as a couple with the mother of their child. Others noted that only a handful of fathers are enrolled in the parenting- and life-skills classes or pitch in regularly at the child-care center, which serves 48 children from 3 weeks to 3 years old.

The program's requirement that all parents who use the child-care center take the classes and help out in the center technically does not apply to some of the fathers, whose infants for the moment are being cared for at home by their mothers or other relatives.

Nonetheless, male participation in these activities has steadily risen since the program started, officials said, and it is likely to intensify as the year progresses.

By the end of last school year, 18 young men were in the fathers' support group, eight used the day-care center, five took classes, and seven took part in the Teen Parent Prevention Panels, which address the perils of young parenting at McCaskey and at an alternative school and four junior high schools.

"As they learn more, they seem to really want to be involved,'' Linda Slawinski, the child-care center coordinator, said of the fathers.

The key, said Leo Diaz, the SACA outreach worker who helps run the support group, is to seize on their interest and enthusiasm.

"They care; that's the first thing no one gives them credit for,'' he said. "A lot do make an effort to be responsible.''

"You talk to them, and it wipes out any stereotypes you could have,'' added Dawn Bear, a case manager with Family Service, a private agency in Lancaster, who works in the schools helping mothers on welfare set and complete educational goals.

'Just Trying To Help'

At a recent Teen Parent Prevention Panel presentation, Demond London said he was scared but also happy when his girlfriend got pregnant, because "I had always wanted a little brother or sister.''

But he admitted it has been hard to concentrate on school or sports with parenthood on his mind, and he has been worried about finding a new job since he lost his last one.

While he has high hopes for his son, Orlando Rivera also described how fatherhood has stalled his career and athletic aspirations and created friction in his family and his girlfriend's.

Defying stereotypes, both youths claim their girlfriends have jilted them, at least for now.

Many of the fathers agreed, though, that the program has eased their path by helping them air their concerns and make decisions. They also said it might help to have more classes geared toward fathers.

While a key goal is to help fathers "survive in the mainstream,'' noted Timi Kirchner, the district's coordinator of federal programs, officials are also seeking ways to offer more help with employment and training.

But the idea of school-based services for teenage parents has sparked controversy from the start.

"People I greatly respected were completely opposed, and the board was sharply divided,'' Ms. Kirchner recalled. But some earlier opponents now believe that "we're saving two generations.''

While the national dropout rate for teenage parents is 50 percent, officials say the program has helped pare it to 19 percent at McCaskey.

Reducing the dropout rate further is the project's overriding goal.

"We're just trying to provide for our kids every possible avenue to make them responsible citizens,'' said Loida Esbri-Amor, a community liaison for the district.

"They're just trying to help the kids who have babies,'' Mr. Stimmel said. "They're not telling you it's O.K. to have a baby.''

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