The majority of teenagers who become pregnant never graduate from high school. This month Jim Hummel goes inside a Rhode Island charter school aimed squarely at pregnant/parenting teens - and those who may have dropped out of other high schools for a variety of other reasons - giving them a support system to work toward graduation. We hear from faculty, staff, a graduate of the Nowell Leadership Academy, and several students who say they now don’t want to stop at a high school diploma.
For more information about the Nowell Leadership Academy, click here.
On a Friday afternoon, at the end of the school day, Gioconda Ruiz and Krissia Barraza head out the back door, ready to start their weekend. Before heading home, though, they have a stop to make.
The two walk 50 feet into an adjacent building and down the hall - where Gioconda’s 6-month-old daughter is taking a nap and Krissia’s 9-month-old son is getting one last diaper change.
The young women are two of the 80 high school students who attend the Nowell Leadership Academy just off Manton Avenue in Providence. Another 80 go to Nowell’s Central Falls near the Pawtucket line.
Nowell is a public charter school, founded by the YWCA of Rhode Island in 2013, with a primary mission of helping pregnant and parenting students to graduate from high school. And others who may have washed out at another school.
Rosemary: ``A lot of our students have been, on average, to two or three other high schools in the state of Rhode Island. So Nowell is very unique in that we really try to hold onto to these kids.’’
Rosemary Miner is a science teacher at the Central Falls campus. A graduate of the Brown University Medical School, who became a flight surgeon in the Army, Rosemary was looking to get back into the work force after spending 22 years raising three children of her own. She said Nowell appealed to her because she gets to teach - and affect two generations at the same time.
Rosemary: ``Nowell is a challenge, Nowell is unique, but in many ways Nowell is like any place trying to give young people the very best education and the best opportunities to go forward.’’
Johanny: ``It’s complicated and it’s hard when you’re a parent at a young age and you’re on your own.’’
Johanny Toribio knows. She was having a child at age 19 just as Nowell was opening four years ago.
Johanny: ``It’s tough when you have to walk here and you don’t have no type of transportation to get to school. If you have a job because you’re the only parent to support your kid and provide for them. It’s tough in every single way, because sometimes you’ve got to choose: should I finish school or do I take care of my kid?’’
Johanny, who graduated from Nowell, now works as the parent coordinator at the school’s Central Falls campus.
Johanny: ``I tell them that all the time, it’s like okay, I was just like you. Trust me, I was probably worse at your age, sometimes you got to think what do I really want in life?’’
The school has four teachers at each site - in English, History Math and Science. The curriculum is flexible, allowing students to work if they need to while going to school. It runs year-round and on Saturdays. And the staff works to arrange childcare and transportation - two major obstacles for many of the young parents. A bus that picks up students from the Woonsocket area arrives every morning at 8:30 outside the Central Falls campus.
Some gets rides, others come by taxi and one mother is dropped off by the van for the daycare where her own children stay while she’s at school a mile away.
Over the past several weeks we saw both campuses in action - including special programs earlier this month during an arts weeks.
Rebeca: ``We have tried lots of different things. We have tried to remain really flexible so that we are meeting the students where they need us to.’’
Rebecca Filomena-Nason is Nowell’s dean of students. A teenage mom herself growing up in Pawtucket, she eventually went on to earn a master’s degree in school counseling.
Rebeca: ``The thing about my students is that while my experience gives me great perspective, the truth is we have our own lives and support systems, or lack of support systems, so I try not to feel like I’m the voice for every single teen mom that we experience here because some of our teen moms have what I had, which is a lot of family support and some live in group homes. and some of our teen moms have family members that are incarcerated, some have great support from their partner, some don’t. I think I can also empathize - and remember - what it felt like to come to school after your baby didn’t sleep at night, or come to school when your child had strep throat, or come to school after you woke up too late and didn’t get the baby to childcare on time and you’re 20 minutes late to school, what does that feel like?’’
And it’s not just teen parents. Some students have had problems at other high schools, or may have dropped out when they became a parent and were too old to go back. Nowell enrolls students 15 to 20 years old. Eighty percent of the student body is female, about 50 percent pregnant or parenting. There is a lottery for those on the waiting list.
Rebecca: ``We have students that come to us that are 3 or six months away from graduating and something happened in their life that didn’t allow them to finish at their previous school so they see Nowell as an opportunity to get their diploma and move on with their life.’’
We found that many of the students here never dreamed of going to college, but have been encouraged by the faculty not to stop at a high school diploma. And some we spoke with are hoping to go on to CCRI when they graduate from Nowell.
Alicia: ``I feel like a lot of people come here not wanting to go to college and leave actually wanting to go to college. Because that was me. I didn’t think I’d ever want to go to college.’’
Maciel: ``This school is the best school I’ve ever been to - our team is a really good team of people, our teachers our administrator staff, our principals I’ve never had such a close communication with anybody than I have in this school. They’re like my second family
Wilson: ``I always wanted to finish but something but always just held me back. There was home problems, I had to take care of my daughter, go to work. I like the teachers, that they always try to help you, they never let you give up. Always there to push you and to finish.’’
Alicia: ``The teachers really want us to succeed and they do whatever they can to help us. It touches my heart because they care so much about our future, more than some of us care about our future.’’
Johanny: ``I’m proud of all the kids that have made it and thought that they couldn’t.’’
Hummel: ``What runs through your mind as you see some of these young women coming in day by day and you see some of the challenges that they face?’’
Rosemary: ``Well, I mean being a parent at such a young age. Having to worry about getting to class, but even before that, getting your child up, getting your child to daycare, feeding your child. I think it’s a huge challenge for these young kids. But it’s also grounding in that they know what they’re working for. They’re not only working for themselves, they’re working to give their child a future, a brighter future, the brightest future that they can And everyone has great obstacles to overcome. But I show up in the morning, and they show up in the morning and we know we share this goal of getting this done. Of learning this material, of getting these kids through graduation, of realizing their goals and dreams and that common goal really propels us through the day, come what may.’’
Johanny: ``Now that I have a kid I have to make sure I’m responsible and probably in future get a good job and provide for my kids. That’s the first thing that came to my mind: after having a kid now you have somebody depending on you.’’
In Providence, Jim Hummel, for The Rhode Island Spotlight.