Bearing a child, beating the odds

Pregnancy: Though many teen parents in the U.S. drop out of school, a city mom defies the trend, seeking her diploma.

April 15, 2003|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

She was 17 when she got pregnant.

Her boyfriend had already dropped out of high school. Her troubled mother had sent her to live with her grandmother five years earlier. She was attending a school where some juniors and seniors struggle to read.

Statistically speaking, Channel Maye was doomed.

Nationally, more than two-thirds of teen-agers who start families before 18 do not graduate from high school. And with more than 2,000 babies a year born to girls and women under 20, Baltimore has the country's highest rate of births to teen moms and is bucking a trend of declining teen pregnancies.

FOR THE RECORD - Photo captions accompanying a story yesterday about Channel Maye, a teen-age mother and high school student, incorrectly stated the class she failed last semester. It was travel and tourism. The Sun regrets the error

Channel could have easily become just another number. She didn't.

Today, she is 19 and less than two months away from a diploma at Southwestern High School. She is getting ready to start cosmetology school. And she is making ends meet for her and her 11-month-old daughter, Dayona Barnes, styling hair in her spare time.

It is not the future that she had in mind growing up, when she thought April 2003 would be the month she culled through acceptance letters and financial aid packages and chose a college.

But it is a future.

Raising a child and living without her parents while going to school seems so ordinary to Channel.

Her daily routine starts about 6 a.m., whenever she hears Dayona stir in bed next to her. She tries to keep the baby quiet in their upstairs room on a well-kept stretch of Lauretta Avenue in West Baltimore so as not to wake her grandmother across the hall or the uncle who sometimes stays at the house.

Just after 7 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, Channel frets over dry skin on Dayona's legs before dressing her in a vest, Velcro sneakers, bib and coat, all in the same shade of red. She insists on buying all of Dayona's clothes new, though it means spending next to nothing on herself.

Channel is wearing jeans and a Partridge Family T-shirt that says, "C'mon get happy."

After slicking down Dayona's little puff of hair, Channel holds her still to put in thick gold hoop earrings to make sure no one mistakes her for a boy.

Channel's uncle gives them a ride to school.

They arrive at 8:05 a.m. at the Southwestern Family Support Center. Though school started 20 minutes ago, they are the second family in the infant room. A handful more trickle in. The licensed day care center can hold 12 infants and 10 toddlers, but enrollment fluctuates. It is highest in the fall, lowest in the spring as mothers drop out. Most, including Channel, receive vouchers that cover the cost.

The center's enrollment does not reflect the extent of teen pregnancies in Channel's community. Of the 1,508 students at Southwestern, she says, "every last one of them" is sexually active. She counts her closest friends off on her fingers. One, pregnant. Two, baby. Three, abortion. Four, abortion again.

Channel, pronounced Sha-nel, gets class credit for spending first period at the center with Dayona. She feeds her mashed pancakes and applesauce but skips breakfast. Today, she will skip lunch, too, spending her break with other moms filling Easter baskets for their babies with donated books, toys and candy.

At 9:20 a.m., Channel leaves Dayona for the rest of her classes: business economics, advanced travel and tourism, and gym. Security guards are at every turn as she makes her way through the building, which has had a dozen arsons this year.

When Channel was in the eighth grade, she was chosen on the basis of good grades and behavior to participate throughout high school in the Academy of Travel, Tourism and Hospitality. She remains in the program, designed to train students for careers in those fields, though none especially interests her.

Of the 18 girls in the academy who have made it to senior year, seven have babies or are pregnant, said Ed Seidick, Channel's teacher for the business and travel classes.

(School system officials said they could not readily determine the number of mothers in city schools.)

Channel praises Seidick's teaching, but she calls his classroom "the dungeon." There are neither windows nor heat nor enough textbooks to go around. It has no computer, and a wall shakes when the bell rings.

Channel arrives in business class ready to turn in "the easiest project in the world." Since the beginning of the semester in January, students were to keep track of all the money they spent, with extra credit for turning in receipts.

Channel is the only one who did the assignment correctly.

As punishment for the class, Seidick assigns a 360-page book to be read by June, only to be barraged with complaints. Channel plans to ask for an exemption.

When Channel took Seidick's history class freshman year, he thought she was headed for college and a professional career. Becoming a mother "definitely set her back," he said. "She could've gone much further than she's going to go." Nonetheless, he said, she is "actually trying to do the right thing."

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