Textbooks and Toddlers
There are strollers in the halls and moms in the classroom at ODSS, thanks to an innovative program that gives young parents a chance to complete their secondary school education.…
There are strollers in the halls and moms in the classroom at ODSS, thanks to an innovative program that gives young parents a chance to complete their secondary school education.
High school gives Rae Hiltz a break from her children and the demands of motherhood. “All mothers need that time,” she says. “And my time is at school.”
Confident, articulate and energetic, Rae looks like any other bright young high-school student. “When people first see me, they don’t realize I have children,” she says. “They expect me to hang out, party, and do things that regular teens get to do. But it’s really not that simple. I rarely ever do things without my children.”
A new program at Orangeville District Secondary School gives her that chance. Called the Young Parents Education Program, it aims to help young parents complete their secondary school education.
Rae, 20, has two children with her fiancé, Ben. Noah is two-and-a-half, just eleven months older than his sister Isabelle. Rae and the children live with Ben’s parents, while he lives nearby. Her parents aren’t really in the picture. “They’re going through their own drama right now,” she explains. “Ben’s parents are picking up the reins. They’re doing enough for everybody. They’re amazing.”
Rae left home and dropped out of school when she was sixteen. “I was going down a long road that included drug and alcohol abuse and eating disorders.”
It was the birth of her children and the responsibilities of motherhood that made her realize the importance of an education. She tried to complete some courses on her own, but her children weren’t in daycare and it wasn’t working.
“I thought it was hopeless,” she says. “I didn’t think I’d be able to finish.”
Now Rae is on track to become the first member of her family to graduate from high school. And she has set her sights on a post-secondary degree.
Rae is among sixteen young mothers from Dufferin County who attend the program five afternoons a week. Three afternoons are dedicated to in-class work, while parenting and fitness classes fill the other two. The students also pursue other academic courses independently.
Their babies are cared for by early childhood educators in the converted classroom next door, while older children attend nearby Jean Hamlyn Daycare Centre.
The innovative program was spearheaded by Susie Chamberlain, head of the English department at ODSS. Her classroom overlooked a smoking area where she often noticed a young mother with a stroller. She learned that the mother attended classes while her friends took turns skipping to watch the baby.
Susie, who had just returned from maternity leave herself, knew the school needed to do something for this young woman and others like her.
The idea took shape in February last year, after Ian Main, head of guidance at ODSS, met with some young mothers at a parenting program at the Ontario Early Years Centre to discuss college options. Many of them were interested, but lacked the requisite high-school diploma.
“ODSS is continually looking for ways to encourage students who aren’t attending on a regular basis,” says principal Darryl Kirkland. The solution in this case seemed obvious. “These students weren’t attending classes because they had no child care, so we brought the child care to the school.”
The program launched in September, just six months after the initial discussions. In that short time, ODSS not only obtained school board and county approval and funding, but also underwent renovations to accommodate the students and their children.
“Never underestimate the power of a group of like-minded people,” Susie says. She credits the Upper Grand District School Board, local community service agencies, contractors who went out of their way to ensure the renovations for the day-care room were completed on time (such as the plumber who drove to Windsor to pick up a triple sink he knew wouldn’t arrive in time for the final inspection), and community generosity. A private citizen donated laptop computers for the classroom, the student council purchased Christmas hampers and wrapped gifts for the students and their children, and local businesses provided books and other items.
It is often said that it takes a village to raise a child. For the children of these young parents, YPEP is that village. The students share more than a classroom. They help each other with assignments, parenting concerns and daily challenges. When one child is sick, they worry along with the mother. They motivate and learn from each other.
“It’s family,” Susie says. “There have been fights, but it’s never personal. It’s about what’s happening outside the classroom, in their sometimes complicated and stressful lives.” She encourages the students to work things out without drama. But, as Rae says, “It’s high school. There’s going to be drama!”
There have also been growing pains and adjustments along the way. During the first semester, for example, infants were permitted in the classroom, but they proved to be too distracting. In addition, it meant that the early childcare educators in the daycare room did not always have enough children in their care. Susie says, “It breaks my heart to make the rule, because I’m a firm believer that babies belong with their mothers.”
Some of the students welcomed the change, but others struggled with it. The result was conflict between the students over the semester break and a charged atmosphere in the classroom. One student has not yet returned.
Susie is learning not to take it personally. Like others in caring professions, she’s finding the balance between being compassionate and being crushed by the setbacks. She straddles the line between helping parents toward independence and being a crutch. She worries that she’s making mistakes, especially because she created the program without a blueprint to work from – it’s the only one of its kind in the board district. Susie had visited an alternative program for young parents in Peel, but that program did not offer daycare, a significant barrier for young parents wanting to return to school.
With the combination of in-class and independent studies, the program gives students the opportunity to complete four credits a semester, the same number as most full-time students. But Camille Brown, another YPEP participant, had other ideas. She wanted to complete as many credits as possible. Camille achieved six credits in the first semester with an 82.3 average – honour roll marks – and will complete six more this semester, including a dual-credit course that will count toward both her high school and college diplomas. And she’s pulled together the information for other students who also want to accelerate their studies.
“I’m here to finish,” Camille says. “I came in with twenty credits and I thought it would take me a longer time than it has, but I’ve also worked my butt off to get where I am today.”
The demands of school, her five-night-a-week job, and caring for her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Ayla, are starting to catch up with her, and Camille is considering cutting back on her hours at work if she can. “Graduating is my priority,” she says.
Like other young parents, she’s caught between needing money to pay for her post-secondary education and needing to be there for her child. She’s hoping to fund at least part of the cost through bursaries and scholarships. “Either way, I’m going to do it,” she says with a determination that leaves no doubt.
Camille wasn’t always this focused on her education. She dropped out of school in grade 10, more interested in partying and working to sustain that lifestyle. “I lived my life,” she says. “I didn’t go to school. I partied. I did whatever the hell I liked.”
That all changed when she discovered she was pregnant with Ayla. “My child probably saved my life.” Her priorities changed, and giving her daughter the best life possible became most important. That meant her education became a priority too. She’s now been accepted to Humber College where she will study early childhood education in the fall. After that, she plans to get a degree in child psychology, but not until Ayla is older. It would be too time-consuming to do it now, she believes, and wouldn’t be fair to her daughter. It would also be too expensive, especially since she and her fiancé, Christopher, plan to buy a house within five years.
The same shift occurred for Rae. She’ll finish up her last two credits at summer school this year and hopes to attend university in the fall.
Not all the students are as driven to obtain their credits, but Susie believes they will get there. The courses they are taking in child development and healthy living will help them make better parenting and lifestyle choices along the way, and so will the supportive atmosphere in the classroom.
“If we bring them in in a non-judgmental way and build their trust,” Susie says, “Then we can help them.”
“It keeps young mothers focused and motivated, and teaches them that they are worth investing in,” Camille adds.
Many of these young parents have so much more to worry about than school work, and so many obstacles to overcome in order to graduate. School attendance rules are black and white, but their lives are not.
Few of the students live with their parents, and many are on welfare. Most of them are struggling to make ends meet to feed themselves and their children. Some of them don’t have permanent homes, making communication with them difficult outside of the classroom. Often they are juggling jobs, relationships and the raising of their children along with school work. Some are single parents, shouldering all the responsibility on their own.
Because few students own their own cars, transportation is one of the biggest barriers, especially in the dead of winter when they have to walk to school in frigid temperatures while pushing a stroller through the snow.
Even through these struggles, the seventeen students who completed the first semester attempted sixty-five credits toward their high school diplomas. They earned forty of these, with final marks as high as the mid-nineties, with another twenty-two near completion.
Susie is quick to credit the students’ commitment and motivation, but Camille says that “Ms. C” plays the biggest part in the program’s success. “She’s a great teacher. She does anything she can to help the students.”
That “anything” can go well beyond the scope of the average teacher, including delivering groceries to students who can’t afford them and securing donations of clothing, diapers and grocery store gift cards. The students come to her with issues that are beyond her expertise, and then she acts as a liaison between them and the resources they need, such as social workers. “If you get in touch with the right people and services, it can get better quickly.”
And that, really, is why the program exists. “It’s not about how they got here,” Susie says. “It’s about their potential and how to help them reach it.” She knows the odds are stacked against young parents, especially mothers, without a program such as YPEP.
In its 2006 community health status update, Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health reported that approximately one in a hundred teenage girls will have a baby in Dufferin County (lower than the provincial average of four per hundred). According to the Ontario Ministry of Health, early mother-hood “can be a significant predictor of other social, educational and employment barriers in later life.”
In addition, children of teens are more likely to become teen parents themselves, resulting in a setback for another generation. In fact, many of the parents of the YPEP students were young parents themselves.
But in this program, in Susie Chamberlain’s classroom, there is hope. Rae and Camille look forward to sharing their stories with their children when they are older, how they were able to graduate while still caring for them. “And let her know that it’s not easy and hopefully prevent her from becoming a teen parent,” Camille adds. “I don’t want that for my child. An education should definitely come before children.”
Susie looks forward too. She envisions the future successes of her students, confident that when she sees them again in twenty years, they will have achieved their goals and will be helping their children reach for their dreams as well.
A freelance writer and mother of five, Laura LaRocca lives in Laurel.
The Young Parents Education Program is open to young mothers or fathers, age 14 to 19, by self-referral or through a Dufferin health or social service agency.
Donations to the program are appreciated. Grocery store gift cards are especially useful. Items such as used clothing and toys can be dropped off at As We Grow, 113 Broadway, Orangeville, where the YPEP has an account.
Additional resources related to this story:
Report: Teenage pregnancy and birth rates are on page 25
2006 Health Status Report prepared by the Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Health Unit
Report: Comparative teen pregnancy rates in Ontario by Health Unit region
(Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, 2009)
Initial Report: Public Health and Teen Pregnancy
(Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care)