There are nearly 1,000 babies born to teenagers in Baltimore each year, according to the Kids Count Data Center. And that has led to a lot of students missing more than 20 days of school each year, making them chronically absent.
So officials at Benjamin Franklin High school came up with a way to help teen parents balance school work and child care. They opened the city’s first all-day childcare center within a school.
The center was three years in the making. Principal Chris Battaglia spearheaded a campaign to raise nearly half a million dollars from the city school system, the state department of education, the city health department, the United Way and other donors to renovate unused space in the building. The day care center opened its doors Oct. 30.
“This is not just a day care center and we're not just watching babies,” Battaglia said. “This is a family center where we're going to work with attachment issues between mom and child. It's about support for financial literacy, career development and readiness.”
The center has a playroom filled with toys, a large room furnished with new cribs and soft, leather rocking chairs, a changing station room, a room down the hall for counseling and workshops and an office for the center's 10 professional staff members. They include a child development specialist, a bilingual workforce director and a licensed clinical social worker. The center can accommodate 24 children.
During the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the center, 19-year-old Teiler Kelly told local officials the center “is important to me because my child care is ending this month.”
Kelly missed more than six weeks of school when she had her son at the age of 15. She also has a 17-month-old daughter at the center. She said a friend had been babysitting for her before the center opened. But that friend enrolled in college and is no longer available. “If it wasn't for the center opening this month, I'd fail and wouldn't graduate and be removed from school because of my age and that'd suck because I enrolled hoping to graduate and this is my last chance,” Kelly said.
Kelly is not alone in her predicament. About 25 Benjamin Franklin students are parents. Heather Chapman, who chairs the school's attendance committee, says parenthood and daycare challenges drive the high rate of absenteeism in this group. “Often they have difficulty getting to school because of a lack of resources of those who can watch their child,” Chapman said. “Their parents are working and a lot are in single parent households, so the moms are working.”
And they're not just missing a day or two or classes. “We've had students who've missed months at a time due to child care issues,” Chapman said. “The average last year was 40 to 80 days. We try to do the best we can for them but some of them are barely passing and some are failing.”
Janelly Gonzalez fell in that category. The petite 16-year-old with large round eyes and a confident smile got pregnant at 14 and missed a lot of school. “I have anemia and so it was hard to come to school and walk up the steps. I missed a lot of days and was not able to keep up with my work,” Gonzalez said.
Even after she had her daughter, the absences continued and her grades plunged until one of her teachers helped her get back up to speed. But regular childcare was still a major challenge. When there was talk that the daycare center’s opening was going to be delayed because of a funding shortage, Gonzalez was devastated. “I came home and told my mom that I’d probably be a dropout. I didn’t want to fail or repeat a grade, but get my education straight,” Gonzalez said. “But two days later, they said it would open this week (end of October) and I was so happy that I would have a place to bring my daughter every day.”
While the school’s overall absenteeism rate dropped by 11 percent over the past three years, Chapman said they could not make a dent in the teen parents’ absenteeism. One couple took turns attending classes because they had no one to take care of their baby.
Battaglia said it was cases like that inspired him and his staff to try to create the center.
With her baby in her arms, Gonzalez said the center makes possible for her to stay in school and work toward her dream of studying architecture in college. She said it's not easy but advises other teen parents to do what it takes to graduate. “Your education is important because you'll be able to give your child a sense of responsibility,” Gonzalez said as she hugged her daughter. “My daughter will be able to say I'm proud of my mom. She got an education with a child.”
School officials hope with the center in place, they will soon see improvements in their teen parents’ attendance rates.