Teen-age parents program makes room for dads, too

March 20, 1994|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Sun Staff Writer

Before Michael Landeros, 18, takes his carpentry classes at the Howard County School of Technology, he leaves a bundle in the nearby nursery: his 8-month-old daughter, Rhea Simone.

"I go there and I drop my daughter off," said Mr. Landeros, a junior who unexpectedly became a father last year, despite, he said, the use of birth control. "Then I go to class."

Mr. Landeros is one of 25 parents between the ages of 14 and 19 -- and the only father -- in the Howard County school system's Teen-age Parenting and Child Care Program, based at the vocational school on Route 108.

Begun in 1985 with backing from the Howard County Health Department, the Department of Social Services and the school system, the program has graduated 108 students, with only three dropouts in that time.

With a budget of $134,850 for fiscal year 1994, the program offers young parents career and family counseling, child-care education, job training and academics.

There also is the nursery at the school of technology center, a clinic, an outdoor playground, and buses equipped with infant seats to transport the parents and children.

"Our primary purpose is to help them stay in school," said the program's facilitator, Gerry Maxwell-Jones.

Before the parenting program began, pregnant teen-agers in the county received limited information on being a parent. The limited program moved to the vocational school because of its central location, said Peggy Schultz, coordinator of home instruction.

Believing that wasn't enough, Ms. Schultz became chairwoman of a task force that pushed for a comprehensive program for teen-agers. After receiving two grants totaling $40,000 in 1984 as seed money, she started the program the next year.

A decade later, the parenting center continues to provide support for young parents and their children.

"The babies are the ones who really benefit the most. They're off to a really good start," Ms. Schultz said.

The rate of teen-agers giving birth in Howard County ranks among the lowest statewide, according to a 1993 report by Maryland KIDS COUNT, a partnership which tracks the well-being of children in Maryland.

The report found that between 1988 and 1990, there were 315 teen-age births in Howard County, or 3.5 percent of all county births, compared with 339 between 1985 and 1987, or 4.6 percent of all births.

Baltimore City topped Maryland in teen-age births between 1988 and 1990 with 9,176, or 22 percent of all city births, and 8,948 between 1985 and 1987, or 22.4 percent of all births.

Statewide, between 1988 and 1990, there were 25,357 teen-age births, or 10.8 percent of all births in the state. From 1985 to 1987, there were 24,648 teen-age births, or 11.7 percent of all births.

"Our teens cover the economic ladder -- from students who are on AFDC [Aid to Families With Dependent Children] to the students whose parents are financially fortunate," Ms. Maxwell-Jones said. "It's not exclusive to any economic level or racial group."

There are many reasons that teen-agers become pregnant, Ms. Maxwell-Jones said.

"I think most of it is low self-esteem, and improper use of birth control," she said.

Ms. Maxwell-Jones tries to combat that by telling young mothers about abstinence and other birth control methods so they won't become pregnant again.

Berlyn Bennett, one of the program's four child-care providers, said she reinforces that idea. She said she tells them to "break the cycle" of teen-agers having babies.

At the Howard County center, the teen-age parents' school day begins at about 7:30 a.m. During breaks, they check on their children, feeding them and changing their diapers. They leave school at 1:40 p.m.

On a recent visit to the center, Jennifer Nibbana, 18, comforted her 5 1/2 -month-old daughter, Ashley, in the nursery, which was filled with 18 cribs, toys and wall characters.

The senior said she became pregnant in January 1993 when she had sex with her fiance while he was home on military leave.

"We did know about birth control [methods]. We just didn't use them, I guess," said Mrs. Nibbana.

Mrs. Nibbana at first considered dropping out and getting her high school equivalency diploma. But her mother told her about the school system's program, and she enrolled in April 1993.

"Now I can actually graduate with my class and I can go to the prom," she said. "I can do schoolwork and know my daughter is in good hands."

Sophomore Cassandra Costley, 16, said her pregnancy was planned.

"I just wanted to have a baby," she said. "I don't know why."

Cassandra said she doesn't regret having 3-month-old Jasmine. She plans to marry her baby's father after they graduate, and then go to college. But she concedes that being a teen-age mother is difficult.

Mr. Landeros, meanwhile, is only the second father in the program's nine-year history.

"I feel pretty comfortable in it," he said.

His involvement wins praise from Ms. Maxwell-Jones, who said that many teen-age fathers don't get involved with their children because they are busy working, don't feel involved or are simply absent.

"He's a wonderful mentor for other fathers," she said.

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