Paquin School's Rosetta Stith nurtures 'her babies' and their offspring


November 11, 1990|By Holly Selby

Something about Rosetta Stith suggests determination, ego, passion and theatrics rolled into one -- as though she were a grand dame of the opera or a Shakespearean actress.

And perhaps in another life she would be. "My whole upbringinwas to go into the theater. My parents always thought I would be on stage," she says with a sweeping gesture.

Almost all her gestures are.

Nonetheless, the West Baltimore native is neither diva noactress: She is in her 10th year as the principal of Baltimore's Laurence G. Paquin Junior-Senior High School for pregnant teen-agers and new mothers.

The Paquin School is one of five in the United States featured ia National Education Association report, "Solutions That Work," says Karen Bogart, a social psychologist in Great Falls, Va., who conducted the research.

"The Paquin model may be the school of the future," Ms. Bogart says. She cites as exemplary the on-site health clinic, its courses on family life and parenting and, most of all, its focus on one-to-one interaction.

And although life in a school office may seem a far cry from thaon a stage, Ms. Stith says she is where she was meant to be. "I am here because by nature I also am an elementary school teacher," she says. "I had a principal who once said, 'You have flair. You are a teacher. You are a principal, too.' "

But as Ms. Stith's blond hair -- swept to one side in aasymmetrical style -- fuchsia rose pinned against a black dress, high heels, ankle bracelet and long orange and black fingernails suggest, this headmistress doesn't allow stereotypes to stand in her way.

Nor in the way of her students.

"Being a pregnant teen, society tends to make you feel degraded. Like you're going to end up on welfare," says Melissa Erwin, a former Paquin student, a mother and a math major at Coppin State University.

"Ms. Stith, now, she said, 'You made one mistake, don't makanother. Stay in school.' "

Directness of that sort is a Stith trademark. "The Doc," as she'called, has earned the reputation of thinking big and fighting hard for "her babies" -- whether they're adolescent mothers or their tiny offspring.

"When she gets an idea that she thinks is going to work angoing to benefit her school, she doesn't wait around. She goes out and gets it. It doesn't matter if it's new or if we have no money -- she goes out and finds money to bring these services in for her students," says Arthur Pierce, director of adult and alternative education for Baltimore -- and he chuckles as though in amazement.

More simply put, "When the Doc gets an idea in her head thashe wants something, she gets it," explains a 15-year-old Paquin student. "Everything has to be perfect for her girls."

To Ms. Stith, who is unmarried, that tenacity is merely a %J outgrowth of realism. "This school's mission is realistic," she says. "If pregnancy does occur, then let us give these girls and these babies the best start in life we can. . . .

"As long as no solution, no way to stop [adolescent pregnancyhas been found, then I say, 'I will do what it takes to keep these girls in school.' "

Sometimes it takes working till 9 p.m., filling out granapplications to garner additional funds, only to return to work at 7 a.m.

And by 8:40 a.m., Ms. Stith already may have comforted a weeping teen-age mother -- whose own mother was angry at her -- doctored a student's irritated eye, conducted a newspaper interview, made the school announcements (with admonishments: "Ladies don't litter!") and hugged dozens of babies.

The Paquin School is one of Baltimore City's alternative schoolswhich means pregnant city teen-agers may choose to attend it. This school quarter, 200 girls are attending Paquin, at a yearly cost of an estimated $9,122 per student. An estimated $4,600 is spent per student in regular public schools, says Doug Neilson, spokesman for Baltimore City Schools.

For example, some girls may enroll during their first trimesterAfter delivery, they may return for parenting classes and continued health care and support -- as well as academic courses. "Usually girls will stay for a year because they come during the first trimester, which is good for us because it helps us to get them early for prenatal care," says Ms. Stith. "After the baby is born, usually there's a period in which we put parenting within a framework of reality -- what has to happen now that they have a baby. And we plug them into where the services are."

Thus to enter Paquin is to enter more than an academic institution: This is a haven for mothers and babies. Offices and halls are lined with exhibitions of work done by students -- or their babies. In the library, there are bookshelves at the regular level and one at toddler height. Signs admonish students, "Aim at nothing and you will hit it."

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