Center provides hope for teen-age mothers Moms take babies to school with them

September 04, 1993|By Gary Gately | By Gary Gately,Staff Writer

At 15, her world changed forever. Somebody came to her classroom to tell her the test results. She had sex just once, LaQuisha Davis said, but that was enough to make her a mom.

"I cried and cried and cried," she said. "I wasn't ready for a baby -- a baby. I wanted to go out and have fun. Sometimes I still think I'm not ready for a baby. I don't have time for anything, seems like."

She's cried many times since. She's spent sleepless nights trying to calm little TreShawn, her 21-month-old daughter. She juggles baby and books and bus rides and a 20-hour-a-week job at a steakhouse. She helps out at her mom's house in Edmondson Village, where she lives with her baby daughter.

The odds would suggest LaQuisha would have dropped out of school and onto the welfare rolls by now. She came close.

Last year, the Southwestern High junior said she often missed school more than she attended because she couldn't get a baby sitter.

Now, she goes to school every day and takes advanced math classes to prepare for college and an engineering career.

She takes her books, her bottles, her bag full of diapers and toys -- and her baby.

LaQuisha drops her daughter in a big, bright yellow room on the first floor with "Southwestern Family Center" on the door.

There, TreShawn plays and naps and sings with other babies while her mother attends class. Both eagerly await their daily lunch together.

At a school where 200 of the 1,200 students are parents in a city where 70 percent of the girls who have babies before 16 drop out of school, the center attempts to deliver girls and their babies from a life of despair, desperation and poverty.

By all appearances, the center has made an impressive start since opening in late April. It's kept about 20 teen-agers girls in school. Without it, many of them say, they would have dropped out by now.

Yesterday, the girls and their babies got a visit from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. He cooed at crying infants and tousled toddlers' hair.

With good day care hard to come by and so many of their friends dropping out, Mr. Schmoke said, "A lot of these kids would never finish high school [without the center]. This really is looking to break the cycle of poverty."

The center, the first of its kind in the city, provides 24 slots for babies, 12 for those ages 6 weeks to 20 months, 12 for those 21 months to 3 years.

A Head Start center is next door, so 3-year-old children of students can "graduate" to that.

Federal grant money covered the $150,000 cost of converting classroom space into what resembles a big playroom.

Another $75,000 from private donors covers salaries of the director, three teachers and three aides.

The center is filled with educational toys such as plastic workbenches and games designed to teach colors and ABCs.

The center also includes a miniature easel for four, tiny tables, 2-foot-high water fountains and a squeaky clean changing table in back (directions for the uninitiated included).

Most important, says Bonnie Elward, center director, the upbeat environment provides hope and reassurance to teen-agers who desperately need both.

"The disease is now lack of education and so many of these young girls come from families where their parents never finished school," she said.

"All these problems -- teen pregnancy, substance abuse, dropouts -- they come from hopelessness. When I was coming up, we had some hope for the future. Now, with the violence, lack of jobs, drugs, unemployment, they don't have an opportunity to ever be children."

But it only gets tougher, Mrs. Elward says, and the lessons, however hard for already overwhelmed kids, must be taught.

"This is not a free ride," she said. "They have to learn there are choices and there are consequences" -- and they better show up for school because they get only two excused absences a month or risk their slot in the center.

Stephanie Holbrook, a 17-year-old junior who wants to be a chef, is determined not to lose hers. She's seen too many of her friends give up and drop out. She shudders when she thinks where they may end up. Besides, she loves the place and so does her son, Deonta Reed, 2.

But, she says, "Seeing I have two children, people just think, 'Well, she gonna drop out.' But I'm not. It's not true of all of us, the stereotypes about pregnant girls."

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