By Emily Tate | 5-15-2019
This School Was Failing at Its Mission to Graduate Every Student. Then It Opened a Day Care.
Ana Ayala, director of the Bell Teen Parent and Child Development Center, at mealtime with kids in the day care.
WASHINGTON, D.C — Inside a high school in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, down several hallways lined with student artwork and college acceptance letters, is a doorway marked “day care.”
Flanked by two baby cribs, the door itself is covered with laminated guides promoting breastfeeding—one in English, another in Spanish—and behind it is a 3,360-square-foot, multi-room center filled with personalized cubbies, half a dozen cribs, baby bouncers, play sets, early learning tools and a pumping station.
The Bell Teen Parent and Child Development Center, housed in the high school wing of the Columbia Heights Education Campus (CHEC), accommodates 44 infants and toddlers, from six weeks to 3.5 years old. Today, the parents of those children are a combination of high school students at CHEC—who get to take advantage of the facility at no cost—and teachers, staff and community members, who pay for the service.
This year, just five of the 44 spots are filled by students’ kids. But it hasn’t always been that way. Twenty years ago, when the day care had just opened, the student population could fill every spot available today.
The dramatic decline in pregnant and parenting students at this bilingual high school did not happen by chance. In 1993, the school launched a coordinated, concentrated effort to curb teen pregnancy and to ensure that it was prepared to support any students who did become pregnant before graduating.
A School Responds to Young Mothers Dropping Out
Founded in 1989 with support from a community nonprofit, CHEC was designed by Maria Tukeva—still the principal of the campus three decades later—to serve a diverse student population, including immigrants and refugees in the District of Columbia. Today, the CHEC student body is about 63 percent Hispanic, 33 percent black and 2 percent Asian.
From the beginning, the core mission of the school was to graduate every student and set each one up for success in college. But in the early 1990s, just a few years after opening, Tukeva noticed that wasn’t happening. At the time, the school was experiencing up to 50 student pregnancies per year, out of about 700 students in the high school. And few who became pregnant returned after giving birth.
“Before, they wouldn't have anyone to take care of the baby, so maybe only 20 percent would come back to school,” Tukeva recalls.
If she wanted to see them graduate high school, Tukeva realized, these young mothers needed childcare—and it needed to be accessible and affordable, if not free. So she made a decision: CHEC would open a day care on site.
“It was a clear decision that had to be made,” Tukeva explains, “because we didn't want to see all these young women losing their opportunity for education.”
If the decision to open a day care center was easy, securing funding for it was not, she adds. The plan was for the center to be 100 percent grant-supported, but many potential funders were skeptical that it would be effective at slowing teen pregnancy rates. Some thought it might even incentivize irresponsible sexual behavior.
To address these concerns, school officials baked in three parameters for students using the day care facility: They had to attend a regular teen parenting class provided by the school, they had to maintain a 2.5 GPA and they could not have a repeat pregnancy.
In the end, the assurances were enough for the ExxonMobil Foundation to provide a $35,000 pilot grant for the program. Later, a Washington-area foundation stepped in to provide support.
In just a few years, the number of new pregnancies CHEC saw annually declined sharply, leaving open spots in the day care.
“At a certain point,” Tukeva says, “we started being able to take in non-students. The income generated by the non-student parents helped to make it sustainable.”
Graduation Rates Increase, Pregnancies Decline
In 1995—two years after the CHEC day care opened, and the year the school launched a pregnancy prevention program—the U.S. birth rate for females aged 15-19 was about 56 out of every 1,000, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Given that half of CHEC’s 700-student population was female, that would put CHEC’s birth rate at about three times the national average.
It’s impossible to assess how much the drop in new pregnancies at CHEC can be attributed to the opening of the day care, as the national teen pregnancy rate was declining around that time, too. The D.C. school also hired a full-time pregnancy prevention coordinator two years after the day care opened.
Causation aside, officials at CHEC can see for themselves the merits of having the day care situated inside the school building and available to students for free. Where previously, most new parents would stop showing up to school and eventually drop out to care for their child, now “a lot of the teen mothers end up being really outstanding students and qualify for scholarships,” Tukeva says.
She adds: “I think it really has increased their motivation to do well and to make sure they not only graduate from high school but go to college and get a good career to support their child.”
Ana Ayala, director of CHEC's Bell Teen Parent and Child Development Center, which is run by certified early childhood educators and is nationally accredited, says the graduation rate among mothers in the high school is upward of 95 percent.
That’s because Ayala supports CHEC’s student mothers at every step of the process, with help from Lucy Trejo, an on-site coordinator from New Heights, a D.C. Public Schools program that provides a wealth of supportive services for pregnant and parenting teens.
“We're working with Lucy to make sure these students finish high school,” says Ayala, who is Peruvian and speaks fluent Spanish, which is helpful for communicating with the school's English learners who are parents. “Then we can push them to go to college. This is our goal.”
The New Heights program is another example of how CHEC is able to provide its teen mothers with guidance and resources from all angles. DCPS launched the program in two Washington-area high schools in the ‘90s, then expanded it to 10 others, including CHEC, in 2011. That’s when Trejo moved into the CHEC school building.
When Trejo started her position, the school had 47 students who were either pregnant or parenting. Today she counts eight: three pregnant, five parenting. “We had one of the highest numbers in the district at that time,” she says. “We’re one of the lowest now.”
The numbers have declined at other DC schools, too, but not quite like they have at CHEC. Trejo attributes this to the day care, which is unique to CHEC.
Learning to Parent at School
The typical intake process for the New Heights program goes something like this: Trejo receives a referral (often from a teacher, a peer or a school social worker) for a student who is pregnant. She reaches out to the student and interviews her, asking how she’s doing in school, what her home situation is like, whether her parents know about the pregnancy and whether the father will be around. Then she talks to each student about the goals of the New Heights program: to stay in school, attend class regularly and graduate—along with preventing a second pregnancy (which has only happened once in the last 25 years, Tukeva says).
“We go over a list of needs they have,” Trejo explains. “We check that they’re getting prenatal care, which clinic they’re going to, do they have a due date yet, do they have health insurance, do they live with their parents or at a sibling or partner’s house?” She also lets them know about social services available that can provide help with formula, diapers and food.
During this time, the expecting mothers are invited to sit in on the teen parenting class that is mandatory for parents using the day care. From week to week, the topics cover everything from the developmental stages of a child to feeding to nutrition and stress.
Most mothers wait until they’ve delivered to seek out many of the resources offered by New Heights, Trejo says.
“It’s not that they were in denial before,” she explains, “but they can still kind of live their life [while they’re pregnant]. Once they have the child, it completely changes their life.”
While a student is on maternity leave, CHEC provides home instruction. Tutors visit the mother’s house once a week to assist with their core subjects and ensure they aren’t falling behind. (Tutoring services are also available to parents after this period.)
This Louisiana charter school relies on its unique “homebound” program to support pregnant and parenting students
When maternity leave is over and the student must return to school, Ayala steps in to help with the day care intake.
Mothers can begin using the day care when their baby is six weeks old. Most drop off their babies before class and pick them up after, stopping by the center throughout the day to pump, as needed, in a designated room.
Bilingual signs promoting breastfeeding cover a door near the lactation room for young mothers. Image credit: Emily Tate
During that time, Ayala and her staff of eight feed the children breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack. They have naptime, playtime and several learning activities, such as working on vocabulary or reading, depending on what is developmentally appropriate.
The teachers, staff and DC residents who use the Bell Teen Parent and Child Development Center pay $1400 per month to use the facility—an affordable rate, compared to other options in the area, Ayala explains.
“Our students are so lucky,” she says, “because they are paying nothing.”
Now a self-sustaining center with only a handful of students’ children enrolled each year, the day care remains a linchpin of the Columbia Heights Education Campus.
“Our teen mothers tend to excel once they’re in the center,” Tukeva says. “So I think that it turns a difficult situation into one that's very positive.”