Accessibility links

Teen Moms Learn Academics and Parenting at Alternative High School

  • Sarah Elzas

Each year, about 450,000 American teenagers become mothers. Teen moms don't have it easy. They have to raise children while they are still kids themselves. As they try to balance diapers and homework, it's not surprising that fewer than half of teen parents graduate from high school with their peers. But there are special programs designed to help teen moms beat those odds… in schools that accommodate their needs as students, and as mothers, such as The Maine Children's Home For Little Wanderers, in Waterville, Maine.

The 2 story building on the town's main street looks more like a house than a school. Downstairs, the building houses an alternative school for students with behavioral problems. Upstairs is the teen parent school program. The dozen or so girls who take classes here each year are mothers, or about to be mothers.

Jana Burgoyne teaches various subjects: social studies, art - and parenting. In that class, the girls learn about good nutrition for their children and ways to get their kids to go to bed. Today, Ms. Burgoyne hears a typical problem from one of her students: "I can't get her to go to bed by herself anymore."

But perhaps even more important than getting answers, says Ms. Burgoyne, is that these girls get to talk. "A big thing about parenting class is just talking to other teen moms," she explains, "(being able to) say, 'This is what's really hard about being a teen parent.' You know, trying to do homework, or being judged as a teen parent, all those kinds of issues that they face without a lot of support."

Discipline is an especially challenging aspect of parenting for these young mothers. Many of them have experienced some sort of abuse or trauma themselves, and don't necessarily have responsible role models at home. The teachers here spend a great deal of time discussing appropriate ways to get over the inevitable rough spots of parenting, generating what Jana Burgoyne calls "coping skills" for dealing with the stresses that they're under. "That's a huge part of parenting," she emphasizes. "So to have some strategies to say if you're there [about to lose control], put the child in a safe place… take a deep breath and get away from the situation."

Those lessons have been valuable, according to one young mom, who says she loves parenting class. "All this about toddlers, you know… when James is sitting there screaming, I just want to take him and shake him so bad." She takes a deep breath. "You know, I'll sit there and I'll just fume… and I'll clench myself, and I'll be like, 'He's little, he's little, he doesn't understand, he's frustrated he can't talk about it, he's little.' Ugh! And then I'm like, 'James, you gotta go play.'"

Through her close work with teen moms, Ms. Burgoyne has gotten a unique perspective on the complexities of these students' lives. She says many of the girls got pregnant by accident, but many others wanted to have a baby. "I think that's a real tough one to look at, but it's the truth," she says. "Many of them will be the first to say, 'I wanted to get pregnant.' Take a look at that, you know, they want the family. That's what they want more than anything. And I think that's hard to face." The teacher admits it's been hard for her to face, but adds, "after you get into their heads, you kind of understand why they want it."

The Maine Children's Home for Little Wanderers is partnered with the Waterville public school system. The Teen Parent School Program was the first of its kind in northern New England when it started 30 years ago. Today, there are 2 other programs around the state that provide specialized instruction for teen parents. But throughout the country, these kinds of schools are few and far between, and education advocates say they tend to be under-funded. Instead, school districts try to meet the needs of teen mothers through day care programs at regular high schools, where children are cared for while their moms attend class. By law, school officials may not force girls to leave school once they get pregnant… though some do choose to attend special programs like the one at the Maine Children's home.

Here, they learn lessons that they may not get in regular school. Jana Burgoyne says that taking just 1 parenting class can transform a young mother's approach to raising her children. She says that's important for her students, even if many of them don't make it all the way through the program to graduation. "I've never met any of my students who don't want to be really good parents. In fact, I think … in some ways - not all ways - they are better equipped to handle some parenting issues than some adults that I know," she laughs. Then, she gets serious. "I know college-educated parents who've never taken a parenting class in their life… it's the most important and the hardest job that you'll ever do. And it needs to be valued. And I think our society does a bad job valuing it, which is part of why these girls are where they are. … they weren't parented."

Jana Burgoyne and her colleagues recognize that they're fighting an uphill battle against high rates of high school dropouts and poverty. But by taking on parental roles in the lives of the teen moms at The Maine Children's Home for Little Wanderers, they are making a difference.