District's child care helps young parents juggle life, family needs


School program paying off as teens with children stay in class

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Omar Salazar, 17, wakes up early with his baby, Aleyna, who turns 1 next month. Omar juggles his jobs as student, busser, father, boyfriend, and musician in the school band. 
When the school day lets out at Madison High School, Omar Salazar has no time to waste.

A perpetual smile on his face, the 17-year-old junior makes a beeline from his last class of the day to a place that’s little-known to his peers, much less the Portland Public Schools ’ and larger communities.

It’s the child care center at Madison, one of the two in the school district that serve the growing number of teen parents so they can continue their education rather than drop out.

“I was really scared; I thought my life was ruined,” Omar recalls thinking when his girlfriend of three years told him she was pregnant. “I told her I wasn’t sure if I was going to stick around or not.”

Then he thought about his own family — how his parents are immigrants from Oaxaca, Mexico, and how he would be the first in his family to graduate from high school.

“I have to go to college,” he says. “I want to make my parents proud.”

Omar resolved to graduate from high school on time — as well as to be a full-time father to his daughter, Aleyna, who turns 1 next month.

He is in fact a poster child for the school district’s burgeoning Teen Parent Services program, which served about half of the district’s 330 pregnant and parenting students last year with a mix of on-site child care, child care referrals, mentoring and tutoring help and social service support.

“We don’t look at the individual student, we look at the families,” says program manager Korinna Wolf, in her fifth year of leading the 10-year-old program.

A quarter of the students the program serves are young fathers, like Omar, up from 15 percent a few years ago.

Nationally, half of teen mothers don’t graduate high school. There are no such statistics for teen fathers, because it’s nearly impossible to track.

While teen pregnancy rates in the nation and in Oregon have declined in recent years, it’s still a dilemma with enormous social, health and economic implications.

Teen pregnancy is also a political minefield, as controversies about sex education and birth control often dominate the conversation.

PPS has handled the issue by taking care of one essential ingredient for any parent: child care.

Since 2007, Teen Parent Services has provided child care at two district high schools. Last year at Madison and Roosevelt High, there were a combined 28 slots for infants and toddlers 6 weeks to 35 months.

At an annual cost of $168,000 (two thirds paid by PPS and a third from the Oregon Department of Education), the care is free during the school day to the teen parents, and always at full capacity.

Apparently, it makes a big difference.

Consider the numbers:

Last year, the graduation rate for PPS seniors with on-site child care was 92 percent (12 of 13 students), compared to 55 percent for their counterparts without on-site child care. Two years ago, all 11 seniors with child care graduated on time.

That 55 percent graduation rate for those without child care reflects 49 of 89 students. Of those 40 students who did not graduate with their class: seven moved from the district; six turned 21 and were no longer PPS students; 16 are enrolled and projected to graduate in their fifth year; and three are teenage fathers who’ve chosen to work full time to support their families.

That leaves 12 students whom the Teen Parent Services staff are actively working to locate and encourage to return to school.

If they do graduate, and the other factors like aging out are taken into consideration, the five-year graduation rate would jump from 55 percent to 86 percent.

One of the obvious conclusions from the data: “We know that providing child care works,” Wolf says.

Why such a difference between those with child care and those without?

In exchange for free child care, Teen Parent Services requires something in return. Each student must sign an agreement to attend a parent education class at least once a week, attend tutoring when possible and meet a minimum of 85 percent attendance at school.

The boys in the program, including Omar, meet with an adult male mentor whom they contact day or night for social as well as academic support.

Sometimes, those extras make all the difference, because a quarter of the students participating are missing less than four credits they need to graduate.

“I don’t have a computer at home,” Omar says. “The (tutors) open the lab for me so I can type my paper.”

Another of his program’s social workers will retrieve his homework from teachers if he has to take the baby to a doctor’s appointment.

“It’s the relationships,” Wolf says. “We know their family, their friends, their employers. ... When they’re not in tutoring or parenting class we’re going to find out why.”

Although the child care centers are at Madison and Roosevelt, they serve all of the comprehensive and alternative high schools.

The eastside center had been at the Marshall Campus until it closed last year, so it relocated to Madison.

The passage of Title IX 40 years ago made it illegal to discriminate against pregnant or parenting teens. In PPS, Wolf sees the child care piece as part of the continuum of the state’s “Cradle to Career” education focus.

“We have to look at babies, and little ones who turn 3, 4 and 5,” she says.

Of the 194 children who’ve been served at the child care sites since 2007, she says: “Our little people are going to come to kindergarten ready to learn.”

Holding down the fort

For Omar and his girlfriend, Vanesa Mendoza, the past year has been a big blur.

Vanesa, who turns 21 on Sept. 20, graduated from Madison three years ago. She and Omar met at Madison, became a couple and were using the pill for birth control when she got pregnant.

“I had an ovarian cyst and had to take antibiotics,” she says. “I wasn’t informed it would cancel out.”

Since the baby was born, Vanesa has been grateful that day care at Madison is available while she works full time as a cashier at Burger King, the only job she could find.

As soon as the school day lets out, Omar picks up the baby, walks her the few blocks home in her stroller, hands her to Vanesa and changes for his own work shift. He hops a TriMet bus to the Taco House on Southeast Powell, where he works as a busser nearly 40 hours a week.

Omar comes home about 10 p.m. most nights, does his homework into the wee hours and then wakes up for school to do it all over again. Each morning, he walks Aleyna to school, checks her into day care, gives her good-bye kisses and goes about his school business, managing to squeeze in a quick visit to the day care center during his lunch time.

“I told him I’ll do most of the work (with the baby), as long as you’re getting good grades,” says Vanesa, who met Omar while she was a senior at Madison and he was a freshman. After he graduates, she wants to find a way for them to both attend college while juggling care of Aleyna. After a summer internship at Portland Parks & Recreation Youth Conservation Crew, Omar is eager to pursue a career in forestry; Vanesa might study cosmetology.

Until then, they’re just holding down the fort, trying to make ends meet, because the cost of diapers, formula, clothing and other baby supplies adds up.

Vanesa says she realizes that some young girls might think being a teen parent is glamorous, or fun, or easy, but she quickly tells them it’s anything but.

“Your needs don’t come first anymore, your child does,” she says. “My younger cousins, I tell them ‘Don’t get pregnant.’ I’m going to be 21 and the most exciting thing I’m going to do is go to dinner with Omar and order a drink. That’s my life now, and I accept it.”