Parents making the grade

Program: The county works to help pregnant girls and young mothers and fathers stay in school until they can graduate.

March 27, 2002|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Jessica Oquendo didn't think she would graduate from high school. Her family lived in North Carolina, where programs for teen parents such as Oquendo are scarce.

Then, in August, a job brought her family to Maryland. For the 18-year-old, an unexpected benefit resulted from the move: Howard County's Teen Parent and Outreach Program.

Oquendo attends Wilde Lake High School, where the program is based. While she is in class, her 2-year-old son receives child care.

"Being a teen parent is hard," she said. "Without this [program], I couldn't have been a good parent. Ms. Jones makes sure we get it done as far as schoolwork."

Gerry Maxwell-Jones has been the program's facilitator since its inception in 1985. A collaborative effort of the county's departments of Education, Social Services and Health, the program aims to keep pregnant teens and young parents in school until they graduate. The graduation rate is 97 percent, equivalent to that of students countywide.

"The key component to keep them in school was the day care," Jones said. "Day care in Howard County has skyrocketed. It's unaffordable for a teen parent."

Rachael Wilson, 17, who has a 1-year-old, said: "If the day care wasn't cheap, I'd have to go somewhere else. I wouldn't be able to go to school. I'd have to find a full-time job."

The program includes students from all over the county. High-schoolers whose babies are at the Wilde Lake day care take their classes at the school, regardless of where they live. For the 10 students using the day care center, monthly tuition for their children is $50. Funding for the program is from the departments of Social Services and Education.

The teen parent center moved from the Application and Research Lab School in Ellicott City to Wilde Lake when the school's new building opened five years ago.

"It's just part of Wilde Lake," Principal John Quinn said. "It's not something that people look at as an outside program. It's part of what we are."

Helping the students with parental skills is one of many areas in which the program assists teens. Jones also offers academic support, acting as an advocate for her students by finding them tutors and monitoring their progress in school.

"I don't make any demands, but I help the [teen] parent to negotiate with the teacher or the administration," Jones said.

The outreach component of the teen parent program has Jones in touch with 25 additional students in other schools.

She does outreach once a week, including prenatal education, parental skills and counseling. Not all high school students who have children take their babies to Wilde Lake. If they have family to care for the children or choose private child care, Jones is in contact with the teens.

At Long Reach High School, she meets with a group of teen parents and pregnant students. She also leads weekly discussions with a teen fathers support group.

"We're talking about realistic expectations, how to deal with our children in an effective manner," Jones said.

Yaminah Shareef of Columbia is 14 and has a son who is almost 2.

"It gives you some extra insights on child care, let's you see opportunities for your future, like college," she said.

The Teen Parent program is not just for young parents, but for all teen-agers.

Many of the adults involved with the program are part of the Coalition for Adolescent Pregnancy and Parenting, or CAPP. The state group is committed to prevention of teen pregnancy. Through CAPP, professionals such as Jones conduct workshops in area schools.

Jones said CAPP's goal is "to teach young people not to engage in unprotected sex and, certainly, most definitely, to abstain from having sex until they ... are financially and emotionally ready to take on that responsibility."

Quinn sees the program as a benefit to his school. "I think the kids who are part of the program are inspiring ... they're persevering with their education," he said. "In some ways, they serve as models for other kids because they take school very seriously."

Jones agreed.

"I applaud them for being in school," she said. "They could be sitting at home ... not being productive with their life, not getting their education. However, they are coming to school. ... They have to do it not only for themselves, but for their child."

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