Stephanie Williams was a high school sophomore when she found out she was going to become a young mother.
"It was stressful and I didn’t have a lot of people there with me," she said. "It was too much on my mind. I couldn’t think straight."
Williams said a strict, religious home life and bullying in her Long Beach school contributed to her sense of isolation.
"I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about being pregnant," she said, "so I didn’t know what I was getting myself into."
She dropped out. And a couple of years passed.
Then a counselor at the Department of Social Services told her about Project NATEEN, run by Children’s Hospital LA. The program gave her counseling and classes on health and parenting. It also paired her with an independent studies teacher to work toward her high school diploma.
"I saw tremendous growth with her, particularly in our writing program," said Sally Bird, Williams' teacher at the L.A. County’s Office of Education. "She was always willing to learn and eager to learn and open to learning."
Bird said that as an independent studies teacher, she typically gets students to take two classes at a time: one core subject and an elective, which takes about 5 weeks. She and the student meet once a week to go over the material and assign new homework.
Bird said the flexibility of the program is critical for young women, like Williams, who face big obstacles to learning, such as unstable home lives, lack of family support and the sudden responsibilities of young motherhood.
"These are girls that have made some poor choices in their past, and once they had a child it almost saved them," she said. "It turned them around to realize, now [they] have to take responsibility."
'Sometimes, you need that first success'
Teen pregnancy has been on a steady decline in L.A. County, but it's not gone. Of every 1,000 teens, 25 become mothers. And only half of those teen moms will finish school by age 22, compared to a 90 percent graduation rate for young women who are not parents, according 2014 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The lack of a diploma is a major determination in what the mother – and her children – will earn for years to come.
Programs helping teen parents recognize that the biggest chance for success comes when both the child and the parent join the education process.
Project NATEEN has been around for 30 years. This year alone, it served 250 teens, according to Carla Hill, program manager at Project NATEEN. Most of the young parents study for a high school diploma through the independent study program, like Williams.
"For some of our teens, this is the first real accomplishment they've had," Hill said. Even though many plan to go on to college or could opt for a high school equivalent certificate, like the GED, the diploma is an important step, said Hill. "Sometimes you need that first success to be able to do that."
Teens in the program often get help with housing, transportation or job training. Project NATEEN even offers weekly workshops for dads. It's all designed to directly address the factors that typically hinder teen parents from completing their education.
"The fight for them to get that high school diploma is that much harder," Hill said.
Family support key to success
Williams was so determined to finish school, she would finish her schoolwork after she put her two daughters – Kylee, 2, and Rieley, 9 months old – to bed.
"It wouldn’t matter what time of the night it was, I would still stay up until I did my homework," she said. "I couldn’t go to sleep knowing that I still had homework left, that wasn’t me."
It took more than two years, but class by class and assignment by assignment, she made gains toward her diploma. She credits her husband, Robert Lewis, with supporting her studies. He stepped in not just with key childcare duties, but moral support.
"I would ask her, are you OK? Do you need anything? Do you need me to get you your books? Anything for you?" said Lewis. "And then my full focus would go to the kids."
Still, there were lots of tough nights. Basic things, like getting dinner together or changing diapers, could derail her studying schedule.
"It was challenging, very challenging," Lewis said. "I’d be like, 'Baby relax, calm down, you got this. You have this.' You know how stress can take a toll on you."
Last month, Williams joined 16 other young mothers who went through Project NATEEN at a modest ceremony on the first floor of Children's Hospital LA. Graduates at last, they took turns posing for pictures by a column of balloons. They shared a single black cap and gown, taking it off after a photo to give to the next young mom.
Williams, now 20, starts L.A. Trade-Tech College in the fall. She said she wants to be an engineer and, one day, run her own business.
And she's thinking not only about her future, but that of her children.
"I want to be a good role model for them," she said. "I want them to know that whatever they put their mind to, they can do it. And whatever they want to be, they can be it."