During her sophomore year of high school, Leslie Belmontes found out she was pregnant. Not feeling like she could continue at her traditional high school, Northglenn High, Belmontes transferred to …
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During her sophomore year of high school, Leslie Belmontes found out she was pregnant.
Not feeling like she could continue at her traditional high school, Northglenn High, Belmontes transferred to New American School in Thornton for her junior year. She thought the non-traditional school would be a better choice for her to continue her education while she prepared to become a mother.
But after giving birth to her son, Aaron, during winter break, a lack of support from school staff, babysitting needs and additional medical attention for her son, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome and a heart murmur, made Belmontes feel that she couldn’t go to school anymore.
She became part of the 90 percent of pregnant and parenting teens to drop out of school, according to the National Dropout Prevention Center.
The center, a nonprofit based in South Carolina dedicated to increasing graduation rates, also published a self-reported study that said 28 percent of female dropouts cited pregnancy and the health concerns associated with it as the reason for dropping out of school. Another 25 percent cited becoming a mother. Lack of childcare is one of the biggest reasons for this.
But some school districts in the Denver metro area are trying to cut down this percentage by providing resources for pregnant and parenting students to continue their education.
Jeffco offers program
In Jefferson County Public Schools, the Adolescent Pregnancy and Parenting Program is based at McLain Community High School in Lakewood. The program provides wraparound services, which include mental health support, allowing students to earn their high school diploma while also receiving parenting and child-development education. On-site day care is also provided.
“It’s about removing the barriers of what am I going to do with my child and how am I going to keep going to school,” said Sara Killian, JCAPPP district nurse based at McLain.
As Jeffco schools’ only teen parenting program, JCAPPP has been around for 45 years — housed in Arvada until the McLain campus opened in 2000. The program ended the 2017-18 school year with 11 active students. The nontraditional enrollment program accepts and graduates students throughout the year based on need. About 20 students utilized the program throughout the year, four of whom were young fathers.
One struggle the program has is that some people within the district aren’t aware of what is offered.
“We’re continuously reaching out to counselors so they know where to bring students for support,” said Holly Davidson, director of the early learning center at McLain. “Some girls want to stay in their home school, but we need to not just meet them as students but also as parents.”
Davidson said the peer support from other pregnant and parenting teens is something the program at McLain offers that they don’t have in a traditional high school environment. The program staff also act as mentors for the students.
“Parenting is a unique experience but we still find there are similar worries,” said Katy Waskey, JCAPPP director. “I think having a mentor to work through the process gives you more confidence moving forward.”
The goal of the program is to both create confident, capable parents and break barriers in teen moms earning their high school diplomas.
Englewood provides support
Englewood Schools offers a similar program. With a district of about 3,000 — significantly smaller than Jeffco’s 86,000 students — Englewood did not need to utilize its pregnant and parenting program this past school year.
“We haven’t had that many students use the program in recent years, but the graduation rate has increased because they have the support,” said Callan Clark, executive director of student services for Englewood Schools.
Unlike Jeffco, the Englewood program is run at each of the two high schools in the district, Englewood High and Colorado’s Finest High School of Choice. District nurses take the lead teaching health and skills needed to prepare to be a mom — including parenting and first aid.
“We want to support all our kids no matter what they’re going through, and if it’s pregnancy, we want to support it,” Clark said, adding that some pregnant students throughout the years have chosen to attend Denver’s Florence Crittenton, a school specializing in education for teen moms.
Florence Crittenton, a nonprofit, has a public-private partnership with Denver Public Schools for its high school, which is celebrating 35 years. The high school provides wraparound services for pregnant and parenting students ages 14 to 21 from throughout the metro area. Services include academics, post-secondary support, parenting and nutrition classes, an early childhood education center and a Denver Health center on campus.
“The number one reason a teen girl drops out of school is pregnancy, so we are here to serve that population,” said Julia Goodman, marketing and communications coordinator for Florence Crittenton Services.
The school, which also has open and rotating enrollment, serves about 200 students throughout the year.
“We’re teaching them to be well-rounded, responsible, thoughtful members of the community here on our campus,” Goodman said. “We really are focused on that two-generation approach helping the young mother to succeed but also her child.”
Focused on success
One young mom who was able to create a cycle of success is Dakota McGrath, now 20.
McGrath initially dropped out of high school after giving birth to her son, P.J., the first week of her junior year.
“It was really hard to be at school and have him at home,” McGrath explained. “I wanted to be there, but I couldn’t.”
Lack of adequate and safe childcare kept McGrath out of school for four months. But with the help of her son’s father’s family, McGrath was able to go back to her school, Denver Center for 21st Century Learning, and earn her high school diploma.
“I wanted to finish school,” McGrath said. “I love school. I like to learn and take notes. I missed my son every day. But it was worth it.”
McGrath said that she wants to teach her son to value education.
“I want him to be a good person,” she said. “I need to put priority on things like education and being a good influence for him.”
To continue her education and get support on being a teen mom, McGrath turned to Hope House, a nonprofit based in Arvada that empowers teen moms and moves them toward self-sufficiency.
“For me, Hope House is a place that I can go and I can just be a mom,” McGrath said.
At Hope House, she participates in fellowship nights with other young mothers and is part of the college program, in which she is studying for a career in legal office administration.
Belmontes has also found love and support at Hope House. After dropping out of high school, the young mom learned of the nonprofit that also facilitates GED classes.
Now, she’s one test away from completing her GED.
“It means that I will be able to work and save money to go to college,” Belmontes said of earning her GED. “I want to be a nurse and then eventually a doctor.”
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