Alarmed at an increasing number of teen pregnancies, the Paramount school board voted last week to expand a program designed to help young parents become graduates instead of dropouts.
"It was unacceptable to us, losing all these teen mothers," said Richard Benavides, the teacher who helped inaugurate the program for the Paramount Unified School District. "Their problem is simply being poor. They can't afford child care and transportation."
A recent study found 117 Paramount students who became mothers, then dropouts, in 1988 alone. Earlier this year, the district set up its Young Parents Program to help teen-agers like these continue their educations. The expanded program serves a consortium of school districts, including Downey Unified, Lynwood Unified and Bellflower Unified. Among other steps, Paramount board members voted to hire four aides, five teachers and a counselor, and to purchase two vans.
The program, housed at the Paramount Adult and Alternative Education Center on Contreras Avenue, also serves North Long Beach and part of Compton. Referrals from the county Department of Children's Services will be accepted, too.
The program provides classes, transportation to and from school, child care during school hours and lunch for parent and child--all free of charge.
Since it began in February, three Paramount students have graduated, and more than 100 parents who have resumed school plan to stay for the fall. Teen-age fathers are as welcome as the mothers, and 20 have enrolled.
The idea is to give teen-age parents a chance to concentrate on their studies, an opportunity many of them lost when they became pregnant.
"What we're finding is that to help them, to establish them here academically, we have to stabilize their home life," Benavides said. "Most of these girls, because they got pregnant, have been kicked out of (their) home. They have no birth certificates (for themselves), no Social Security cards."
Some of the young mothers live in garages, in the back of businesses or in apartment complexes plagued by gang activity and drug users, Benavides said.
For some students, the psychological hurdles are as great as other impediments. Victoria Marquez returned to school after she had her baby but stopped going because "I felt uncomfortable around all the girls who didn't have kids and all the freedom they had."
Marquez, 19, describes herself as an average student who was troubled and insecure, a person who needed more understanding than teachers in a regular school setting could provide.
"You go to the regular school, and some of the teachers don't know you're there half the time. They treat you like you're supposed to have your homework no matter what," even if your baby gets sick, she said.
"Back then, if you asked me if I liked school, I would have said I hated it."
Now she goes to class with other teen-agers who mix discussions of factoring binomials with talk of changing diapers.
"I'm in this program with these girls experiencing the same things I have. It makes me feel normal. Now if you ask me if I like school, I say, 'Yeah, I like it a lot.'
"I want to go to college. I want to do something with my life. Before, I would think, 'What could I become?' "
The Young Parent Program began Feb. 13 with Benavides, two blankets, a slow cooker and 17 young moms who, like Marquez, wanted to make something of themselves. Almost from the start, community volunteers signed on to help.
Pediatric nurse Stacy Bousema volunteered her services for prenatal education, and was later hired. Emily Moreno, a 28-year-old district parent, offered to watch the children. She, too, has since been formally hired. Moreno, who begins studies at Cerritos College tomorrow, hopes that these young parents can avoid her struggles to get an education.
"I had my daughter at 18. There was nothing around for me to get an education. I just barely got my diploma last year," she said.
The state and county foot much of the program's costs through funds set aside to help high-risk students. The rest of the money comes from state funding based on student attendance. Bringing the dropouts back returns to the district much of the money needed to educate them.
In addition to basic academic subjects, the curriculum includes health instruction geared to child-rearing and job-training classes. A child-development component will be added this fall.
Parent Ana Torresillas, 17, admits she needed such help. "I didn't know how to give my baby a bath when she was born. Or after she got bigger, what kind of foods to feed her."
Project administrator Luther Martinez said the expanded program can accommodate more than 200 students this fall, and there are more than enough potential candidates to fill the classes. In 1989 alone, 220 teen-agers became mothers in Paramount. The number was 241 for North Long Beach, 172 for Downey, 323 for Lynwood. The numbers have been rising for several years.
Well-established young parent programs already exist in other districts, including Long Beach Unified, ABC Unified, Montebello Unified and Compton Unified.
Benavides said that Paramount and other school systems should have begun helping young parents much earlier, but were stymied by critics who believed such programs promoted "promiscuity and teen pregnancy. But we're doing just the opposite. We're breaking the cycle."
The recent graduates include Torresillas, who has now begun word-processing classes at the Paramount adult school. "It feels good," she said. "I know a lot of people who didn't graduate from high school, and they have no responsibilities. I have a big responsibility."
Teen-Age Pregnancy in Areas Served by Paramount's New Program
BIRTHS TO MOTHERS 19 OR YOUNGER, BY YEAR*
City 1987 1988 1989 Paramount 163 170 220 Downey 123 138 172 Lynwood 264 306 323 North Long Beach 238 238 241
*Figures unavailable for 1990
Source: Paramount Unified School District and the California Department of Education
Los Angeles Times