Hartford Public High School Teen Mothers Graduate, with Help from City's Only In-School Nursery
By JESSE RIFKIN
June 06, 2012
Mary Truong is 18, unemployed and has a one-year-old daughter Jadylee Cruz.
Her residence changes day-to-day – sometimes living with her mother, sometimes with the father of her child, sometimes even she doesn't know.
"I took the pregnancy test and started crying," Truong recalls. "My parents are from Vietnam, so they don't believe in having a child at that age. My mom didn't talk to me for weeks. I thought for sure I would have to drop out."
Instead, Truong will graduate next Thursday from Hartford Public High School with the help of Little Owls Learning Center, the city's only in-school nursery and daycare center caring exclusively for children of Hartford Public teen mothers. Dropping her daughter off before classes and picking her up after, Truong has childcare provided at no personal charge while completing her high school education.
According to the nonpartisan research center Child Trends, about 50% of teen mothers receive a high school diploma, compared to about 90% for women who did not give birth during adolescence. But Hartford Public tells a different story.
"Every senior mother in the program this year is graduating," says Little Owls Director and Administrator of Nursing Deb Blazys. "Same thing last year, too." Over the last two years, 13 teen mothers received diplomas.
One such senior is Evette Smith, 18, whose two-year-old daughter Amaya Feliciano is enrolled.
"When I realized I was pregnant, I was so scared that I didn't tell anybody for four months," recounts Smith. "The first year, it was real tough. My family took care of Amaya."
She paused before adding, "Well, my mother did. My father is in jail."
For her daughter's second year, Smith enrolled her in Little Owls. "Now she's reading," Smith says proudly, "and she's only two."
Still, the stress has taken its toll.
"It's hard. [Before having a child], I used to make honor roll," Smith says, who now balances school, motherhood, and a job at Panera Bread in West Hartford. "I still try."
Little Owls was created in 1997, and continues despite receiving no city funding increase in three years. The program landed on the chopping block for 2009 budgetary cuts, but then-Superintendent Steven Adamowski saved the program, among the factors a student petition.
The program will likely face greater financial tension in future years. Hartford teen birth rates remain much higher than all other Connecticut municipalities, and even higher than any other state in the nation.
The 2010 Hartford teen birth rate (live births per 1,000 females aged 15-19) was 72.6, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. By comparison, the Connecticut average was 18.9, and the highest state average was Mississippi at 55.0.
Due to increased need, Little Owls will be operating a summer session for the first time.
"For students unable to graduate in June, many take summer courses and graduate in August," Blazys explains. "Enough are doing this that we decided to stay open during summer."
This extension entails more work for the four-person staff, which includes two certified child development associates and two paraprofessionals.
These increased hours arrive as Hartford cuts funds for education by 0.85% this fiscal year.
Outside Hartford, the general teen birth rate trend has headed in the opposite direction. Connecticut's 18.9 teen birth rate, down from 23.0 in 2007, was ranked fourth-lowest nationally behind only New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Vermont.
The national rate was a historic low 34.3, down from the most recent peak of 44.0 in 1991. According to the National Vital Statistics System, fewer babies were born to teenagers in 2010 than in any year since 1946.
"If the rate is decreasing nationally and decreasing in Connecticut, why is it not decreasing in Hartford?" Blazys asks. "I don't know. I just don't know."
The Connecticut Health I-Team recently reported that 84 percent of teen births in the state in 2009 were to mothers enrolled in publicly subsidized Medicaid or HUSKY health plans, according to data from the state Department of Public Health.
Hartford is the Connecticut town with the highest percentage of births to teen mothers, at 18.7% of all births. Following Hartford are New Britain at 16.4%, Windham at 15.0%, Waterbury at 14.9%, and New London at 14.6%, according to a 2008 analysis by the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UConn Health Center. All five towns fall in the state's bottom seven for median income, with Hartford in last place.
The Hartford school curriculum does teach sex education from an early age, including contraception and protection, says Blazys.
Although Truong claims she used condoms "every time," Smith admits she was not practicing safe sex when she became pregnant. Neither of the fathers attended Hartford Public, although Smith and Truong both agree most fathers are fellow classmates.
The city's health and human services department and Office for Youth Services last year received a five-year, $4.5 million grant to reduce teen pregnancy. An additional $1.9 million is spread throughout five cities, including Hartford, through the federal Support Pregnant and Parenting Teens program.
"I was a teen mom myself," says Sierra Willis, a child development associate at Little Owls, "and my mom was a teen mom."
Most of the mothers with children in Little Owls are themselves products of teenage mothers, Willis says. "I'd bet on it."
If the Hartford teen birth rate seems high, it still falls below the teen pregnancy rate. Pregnancy is "common" around the school, says Smith, "and some girls who get pregnant don't even have the kid."
In fact, according to Blazys, one Hartford Public student is pregnant with her second child due this July. Her first child was born last August, only 11 months earlier.
While the future of Little Owls may be murky, the immediate future of its participants is clear: high school graduation. Truong will attend Manchester Community College this fall to earn her degree in social work. Smith is off to Capital Community College, undecided though considering nursing.
Blazys gets paid nothing extra for managing Little Owls, but calls it the best job she has ever had.
"For these mothers there should be no barrier to getting an education," says Blazys. "No barrier except themselves."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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