Teenage Parents Earn a Living Wage
MONTROSE – Hanna Starling and Carmen Rodriguez were typical high school teenagers before their unexpected pregnancies.
Now, faced with the psychological changes and the responsibility of raising a child, the two new mothers – former classmates at Centennial Middle School – are saying no to the social stigma that’s too often attendant on teenage motherhood, and working on higher education and the promise of a better future.
Once on track to graduate with the class of 2014, they both will but graduate next month, a full six months ahead of their classmates.
Starling and Rodriguez started nursing classes this week at the Delta-Montrose Technical College, under the direction of the Passage Charter School, an alternative school for teen parents determined to get their high school diplomas.
At 15, Starling, a freshman and a gymnast on the Montrose High School cheerleading team, found out she was pregnant.
"I didn't find out until I was six months pregnant until the second trimester," she said. "I wasn't even showing at the time.”
She said she felt like "that stereotypical cheerleader," pregnant and labeled a "whore and slut" by her peers.
"I had only had sex once," she said.
When she refused to participate in gym class because of her “condition,” she was made “an example” of, by a teacher. She dropped out of school a few days later, although with – she remembers gratefully – the cheerleading squad offering her moral support.
Starling’s son Jase, born prematurely at 32 weeks, is now a healthy, curious 2-½-year old. Starling stayed out of school for the first five months following Jase's birth. Upon her return to her “regular life, she says, there was no time to hang out with her friends. She felt guilty.
"I was really depressed, I had very bad postpartum, and they didn't understand that," she said.
Her depression grew and with it, the number of classes she ditched each day.
"I wanted to be a kid,” she said. “I would go and get high and play video games and go be an irresponsible kid.”
After childbirth, the challenge of refocusing on education is a struggle for many teen parents; for teen parents lacking strong family structure and/or support services, it can be overwhelming. Teen mothers lag about two years behind their peer group in completing their education; they are also at higher risk for living in poverty and for substance abuse; those with a history of substance abuse are likely to start abusing again, roughly six months after delivery, which leaves them statistically susceptible to having another child within two years.
Amber Bray, the head teacher at Passage Charter School, says 2.9 percent of teenage girls will become teenage mothers, and that, according to the National Institute of Health, 40 percent of those young mothers will drop out of school.
In May 2012, Rodriguez discovered she was pregnant; her son, Enrique, was born nine months ago. "I was going to school, and people were judging me, saying why was I pregnant and still here," Rodriguez remembers.
She also recalls feeling stigmatized, and feeling left out when no one would pick her to be their partner on class projects. "Nobody wanted to be with me because I was a the pregnant chick," she said.
Rodriguez says the Passage Charter school has been a lifesaver, offering daycare for children up to 3 years old, with breakfast and lunch every day funded by the Montrose County School District and prepared by the Montrose High School cafeteria.
The two young mothers say the school, founded in 1998, allows them to learn at their own pace, and is flexible with their schedules. To date, it has helped 112 teen parents graduate, says Bray.
That number could seem low, she acknowledged, but not all of its students finish the program, some due to unstable living situations and others because they participate for only a short while before moving away. "Some come and go within two weeks, because they’re homeless,” said Bray; other students stop coming because “they get kicked out of their house.
"We want to see young parents be able to graduate from high school and improve their parenting skills so they can achieve success," Bray said. "Without a high school diploma, they’re just stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder.”
The school is now offering four $1,000 nursing scholarships annually to the Delta-Montrose Technical College near Delta.
Starling and Rodriguez are both recipients of the nursing scholarships; they began their training this week.
"We want them to earn a living wage, not just the minimum wage," Bray said.
Starling, who is, she says proudly, clean and sober, says the program allowed her to progress at her own pace, while holding onto her job A&W. Having taken summer classes, she’s now proud to be graduating six months ahead of some of the classmates who ridiculed her.
"It is a great opportunity to get help with parenting,” she said of the school, “and to be supported by positive influences – to not be judged, but to be understood.”
Starling’s plans for the future include attending the University of Colorado, in either Boulder or Denver, for a bachelor degree in biochemistry, and pursuing a\career as a naturopathic doctor.
Rodriguez plans to continue on to Colorado Mesa University to become a registered nurse, working in pediatrics.
"They are very motivated students,” said Bray. “I'm very proud of these young ladies."
Last year the school, which can handle just 24 students, had a waiting list, although at present, Bray reports, there are six openings. Plans are afoot to additional scholarships for students who want to study business.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez and Starling are flourishing. Now, "instead of graduating behind your class, you’re praised because you are graduating, and because you never gave up," Starling said, happily.
For more information visit: www.passagecharter.org or call 970/249-8066.