Keturah Saunders can attend classes at Wilde Lake High School without worrying about her 2-year-old daughter.
Maliyah is attending school with Saunders, one of 12 young mothers enrolled in the Howard County school system's teen parent and outreach program based at the Columbia school.
"It makes it easier for me to stay in school," said Saunders, 18, a senior. "I feel a little bit safer having her here."
For 20 years, the countywide program has helped several hundred mothers and fathers stay in school by providing child care for their babies while they are in classes nearby. The mothers and fathers are drawn from the county's 11 high schools.
An outreach component provides support to pregnant girls and teen mothers and fathers not enrolled in the day care portion of the program. Gerry Maxwell-Jones, the program's longtime coordinator, keeps in touch with 37 students weekly, providing prenatal and parent education, as well as counseling and encouragement.
"We try to make sure we really encourage them to go to school," said Maxwell-Jones, noting that the program has a graduation rate of 96 percent.
The teen parent and outreach program was created in 1985 with the support of the county's social services and health departments. Its goals have been to help young parents complete high school, eliminate repeat pregnancies and provide access to social services, Maxwell-Jones said.
"Howard County has the unique opportunity to meet the needs of both male and female teen parents," Maxwell-Jones said.
The county's teen birthrate has declined in recent years. The 2004 Maryland Kids Count, which tracks children's well-being, showed that the county ranked lowest among jurisdictions in 2002 with 13.7 births per 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19.
In the 20 years she has overseen the program, Maxwell-Jones has watched her students make the honor roll, attend and graduate from four-year universities and successfully raise their children. She has attended a few high school graduations of her students' children.
"I've watched mothers and fathers blossom," she said. "They are like tight rosebuds when they come in. I really enjoy my job."
Maxwell-Jones' responsibilities include teaching a parents class for the 12 teen mothers whose babies are enrolled in day care.
Throughout the year, Maxwell-Jones touches on issues ranging from infant nutrition to building self-esteem in children to finding age-appropriate toys. During class, the mothers also spend time with their babies.
They also drop by the nursery during their lunchtime to feed their children or change them.
With a contribution of funds from county social services, the mothers pay a monthly tuition of $50 for child care. Because the maximum enrollment is 12 babies, there was a waiting list this year and one expected next school year.
On a recent visit, Saunders read to Maliyah as they lay on a colorful mat. Maliyah followed along, looking at the pictures in the book, Where Is Baby Natasha?
Saunders was a sophomore at Oakland Mills High School when she gave birth to Maliyah. The next year, she enrolled in the teen parent program.
At first, it was difficult because Saunders had to leave behind her friends at her former school, but over time, she said she bonded with other mothers.
"I like the interaction with other moms and children," said Saunders, who will graduate in June with her classmates at Oakland Mills High School.
Nearby, Jennifer Stazenski, 18, a senior, watched as her 9-month-old daughter, Alexis, easily smiled at a visitor. Stazenski joined the program this year and said, "There would be no way I could go to school without this."
Besides learning about child safety and other parent skills, Stazenski said Alexis likes being with other babies.
"I wish they had the program at all the schools," she said. "I didn't like leaving Reservoir [High School] during my senior year."
That was the only complaint the young mothers had about the parents program, which moved to Wilde Lake in 1996.
"I love that I see her throughout the day," said Valerie Nodine, 17, mother of 6-month-old Madison. "I could eat lunch with her. With regular day care, I wouldn't be able to do that."