Teenager Michelle Zamora has big dreams to become a civil engineer.
“Since 4th grade,” Zamora says, “I told myself I want to go to Stanford University.”
Zamora would be the first in her family to go to college, and as a self-described “smart kid,” Stanford never seemed too far-fetched an idea.
But at age 15, Michelle Zamora made a mistake: she got pregnant. And her dreams of college seemed to vanish.
Like thousands of other California teens, Zamora dropped out of high school.
She is among the majority of the state's teen moms --83%-- that come from low-income households. According to the California Department of Education, the state ranks number one nationwide with its rate of pregnancy among teens.
The worst part, she said, was the way most people assumed she was condemned to future that she didn’t want. People told her “well, you’re just going to be another teenager on welfare,” or “you’re not going to make it.” Zamora started to believe them.
And then she found out about a program in Baldwin Park that has given her renewed hope.
In the late 1990s, officials in the Baldwin Park Unified School District worried that they were losing too many students due to pregnancy. Using federal Early Head Start funds, the district launched an innovative program to ensure teen moms could stay in school.
When Zamora’s daughter was born in 2011, a friend told her about North Park high school which provides on-site daycare so teen moms and dads can complete coursework.
A Continuation high school, North Park enrolls students who failed or dropped out, but now want to finish high school. Its child care program is one of 18 at high schools across Los Angeles county that cater to teen parents. Since 1999, about 60% of North Park students have graduated and gone on to higher education.
Principal Sergio Canal plans his student’s schedules to include in a parenting class -- not required to graduate, but required to qualify for free childcare-- as well as what is known as a “practicum” period. Canal says the practicum, which occurs with their child in the nursery, is critical for a young parent to “practice what they actually learn in the classroom alongside the other teacher and their child.”
Zamora and other teen parents get something many adult parents would enjoy: the chance to eat lunch and reading a naptime story to their child.
The staff of the childcare centers at North Park high school each have a Bachelor’s degree. According to Jeanette Peinado, a teacher in the infant room, staff members guide new parents as well as care for the children.
“We make sure that the parents are aware of the progressions that their children are making,” Peinado says. Teenage parents don’t know many things about parenting a new born, Peinado adds, and that can lead to frustration. The staff tries to help the teens understand what their children are doing.
It might seem unusual for a K-12 school district to provide infant and toddler childcare programs. But Deborah Staveley, who runs the Early Childhood programs for the Baldwin Park school district, says the do it because the children are “our future kindergartners” and they want to make sure they are prepared for that challenge.
Because it's funded in part from federal Early Head Start grants, the program is facing a 5-8% cut due to federal sequestration. Ricardo Rivera, Director for early childhood education programs, said the school district will absorb the immediate cuts in areas such as professional development for staff and basic supplies.
But he's worried that will “dilute some of the quality” of the programs. Worse, he says, the district may have to consider additional cuts, “whether its staffing cuts, cutting in terms of the number of children served or just offering less services to the students.”
Zamora is worried. If she loses services, she will have to drop out of school right when she was beginning to believe that her 4th grade dream of going to college might still happen.