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Helping Kids With Kids

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like hundreds of other young mothers in Ventura County, some as young as 12, Natalie Perez has one foot in childhood and one foot in adulthood. While her friends gossip on the phone and go out with boys, she changes her 15-month-old son Israel Medrano’s diapers and tries to find a way to pay for his food.

Every day, she struggles with the financial and emotional pressures of having a child, pressures that often force young parents to quit school. Natalie, 17, said that’s exactly what she would have to do if the county’s Gateway Community School didn’t offer free child care for Israel.

In an aggressive effort to help young people get their diplomas and learn how to be parents, county health and education officials are expanding teen parenting and education programs.

The county Board of Education originally rejected funding because of concerns by conservative members that such programs encourage teen pregnancy. But in December, the board reversed itself and accepted a $370,000 state grant to reach more teen parents and expand child-care services.

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The School Age Parenting and Infant Development grant enables the county to serve about 100 young mothers and fathers and 55 babies, about 50% more than last year, at its three sites--in Ventura, Camarillo and Fillmore. It also makes it possible for the county to improve services for teen parents already in the program.

The Ventura Unified School District also received a $140,000 state grant to start a similar program for 22 of its estimated 55 teen parents.

The grants fund transportation vouchers for teenagers to get to school, meals and diapers at school, and full-time child care at all three sites.

“If their families can’t meet their child-care needs, the girls are out of luck,” said Kathy Auth, Gateway teen pregnancy teacher. “There are no other resources for them. We are giving the babies high-quality care that their families can’t afford to give them.”

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In Natalie’s case, she dropped out of school after one month at Oxnard High. She spent her days smoking pot, drinking and hanging out with friends. And in 1997, she said, she was sent to juvenile hall for a month for missing court dates on petty theft and drug possession charges.

She was three months pregnant at the time.

“It was not a nice place for me to be,” Natalie said. “It made me realize that I didn’t want to be there doing that. I felt that I didn’t belong.”

Natalie also watched the struggles of her four older sisters, who all had been teen moms, and didn’t want to end up like them.

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But she said she doesn’t regret having her son. She said Israel keeps her out of trouble.

Now Natalie is studying to be a nurse.

“I didn’t want to be just another statistic, another teen mother on welfare who doesn’t go to school,” she said. “I knew I was better than that.”

Teenage Pregnancy Rate on Decline

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Teenage pregnancy is declining throughout Ventura County, according to public health records. In 1997, there were 1,058 births to teen mothers between the ages of 15 and 19 in the county, down from 1,113 in 1996.

But even with the decrease, county officials are still worried about the high dropout rate among teen parents. They often can’t afford to pay for baby-sitters or day care for their children--which can cost up to $700 a month--while they go to school. So they quit going.

The county doesn’t keep statistics on teen mothers who drop out of school. But about 70% of the dropouts from El Camino and Pacific high schools in Ventura are young mothers, Principal Trudy Arriaga said.

And state officials say pregnancy and parenting are the reasons teenagers most often cite for dropping out of school.

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Tiffany Conger, 16, said she couldn’t have stayed in school without the free child care she receives at Gateway’s Ventura site for her 17-month-old daughter, Natasha Rowe.

“I don’t know where I’d be if I wasn’t here,” Tiffany said. “I’d have to try to do home study, because there is no way I could afford day care.”

Tiffany said that when she is at school, she can concentrate on her work without worrying if Natasha is OK. But she still wishes that she would have waited until she got out of high school to have a child.

“It’s not worth it to get pregnant,” Tiffany said. “Any teenagers thinking about having babies should just wait and get a good job so they’ll be able to support their babies.”

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Child Care Hours Expand at 2 Sites

Currently, Gateway’s Camarillo site is the only school in the county that offers child care five days a week.

But this month, the Ventura site extended its child care from three to four days a week and will offer five days in September. Fillmore Continuation School will also expand its program from two afternoons a week to five full days in the fall.

Nancy Maxson, who helps administer Fillmore’s program, said she has two challenges: convincing young parents to trust child-care workers outside their immediate family, and reaching teen mothers who speak limited English. In Ventura County in 1997, 74% of teenage parents were Latino, compared to 21% white and 2.5% African American.

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At the end of April, the Ventura Unified School District will start its program for teen mothers from El Camino and Pacific, its two alternative high schools. Arriaga said Ventura’s program will mainly be a dropout-prevention program, but will also require the girls to attend parenting classes and do community service in the child-care center.

County schools Supt. Charles Weis said teenagers who have children before they graduate are almost guaranteed not to finish high school unless they have access to a program like this.

“I’m optimistic that it will get these young people back into school full time and help them get a high school diploma,” he said.

The program will also provide young mothers with life and career skills to make it on their own.

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“It will be an opportunity for them to learn more about nutrition, [and to] take care of their babies and become better parents,” Weis said.

Young Mothers Learn the Basics in Classes

In addition to taking regular high school classes--math, history, English--the young mothers at Gateway also take parenting and pregnancy classes.

The pregnancy class teaches about prenatal care and smoking and alcohol prevention. And the parenting class addresses basic skills--how to feed and bathe babies and how to change their diapers. Teachers also address discipline, nutrition, safety and bonding.

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“We model for them what needs to happen for them to have the connection between mom and child,” said Judi Thomas, who teaches a parenting class at Gateway.

Crystal Elder got pregnant at 11 and had her son, Deshawn Jones, at 12.

“He’s my life,” said Crystal, now 14. “I couldn’t see my life without Deshawn.”

But she has not always found it easy dealing with the 2-foot-tall stocky boy who she says is “strong and has a bad temper.” Before she started going to Gateway, Crystal spanked his legs every time he did something wrong. But she said it didn’t work. Now she gives Deshawn a five-minute timeout every time he misbehaves.

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“It works,” she said. “Now he listens to me a little better.”

Auth said the child-care and parenting classes give young mothers the extra boost they need.

“They’re still teenagers, and because of the life choices they’ve made, they’ve taken on adult responsibilities,” she said. “But the vast majority of the girls we serve want to finish school. They just need the support to do so. They have goals and hopes and dreams.”

During a study skills class, 17-year-old Virginia Gonzalez wrote down her dreams.

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“When I turn 25, I will have a home, two cars, a happy family and a good job helping others,” Virginia wrote. She will also have an 11-year-old daughter, Gabriela.

At lunchtime in Camarillo last week, Natalie Perez carefully cut a microwave pizza in cubes and sat down for lunch with Israel. After she finished feeding him, she reached down to check his diaper and realized that it had slipped down his leg.

“Wait. You’re not wearing a diaper,” she said. “Let’s go. Don’t touch me though!”

And with a quick shout of despair, Natalie rushed Israel back to the changing area and put on a fresh diaper in record time so that she could finish her lunch, rock her baby to sleep and get back to class.

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