Before school starts at 7:30 a.m., Daunteeka Smith drops her daughter off at the Early Head Start Center on the first floor of Westinghouse High School.
Then, Smith goes to class. She is a senior at Westinghouse.
The Early Head Start centers are in four of Pittsburgh’s secondary schools and free to teen parents. The rooms are filled with rocking chairs and singing toddlers.
Smith said she sometimes goes down to the center during study hall or lunch to play with her 3-year-old, Aunteya Smith. She’s an energetic toddler who is often running in circles, singing songs from Disney’s Moana and laughing, especially around her mom.
At 18, Smith is on track to graduate in May.
“It was very, very hard. It’s still hard,” she said. “I feel like this is the most difficult year.”
Getting To Graduation
Births to mothers aged 15 to 19 in the United States dropped 9 percent in 2016, to 20.3 per 1,000 women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the teen birth rate has dropped 67 percent since it peaked in 1991. A report released last year from the CDC cited access to contraceptives as the leading cause for the drop.
But, according to the CDC, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate is still significantly higher than in other industrialized nations.
Leaders of Early Head Start and Pennsylvania’s ELECT (Education Leading to Employment and Career Training) say the two programs work together to help teen parents succeed. While Early Head Start provides day care, PPS’s branch of ELECT places teen parent advocates in middle and high schools to act as social workers, with the goal of getting teens to graduate.
Lasy year, 231 teen parents were enrolled in the program in Pittsburgh; while there a few young men in the program, the vast majority of participants are young women.
Graduating with a child can be a real challenge. While the U.S. high school graduation rate hit a record high last year at 84 percent, a January 2018 report from the nonprofit Child Trends shows that by their twenties, only 53 percent of women who had children in their teens earned a high school diploma.
Last year, Pittsburgh ELECT boasted a 96 percent graduation rate, according to program coordinator Carolyn Rychcik.
Wanisha Green works as the teen parent advocate at Westinghouse High School. She said her job is to help students like Smith with whatever they need, from finding a job or housing, to making sure they have diapers and formula. Much of her work is helping new parents set a routine.
“They really struggle with that,” she said. “I believe it’s due to the fact that they sometimes don’t have someone at home who are trying to help them in that way or who’s also a role model to show them.”
ELECT uses incentives to encourage the teens; when the students meet with their caseworker or go to a parent support group, they’re given what are called "baby bucks," they can spend at a store in the program’s office filled with diapers and toys.
More graduates, less money
The Early Head Start program is federally funded, and according to Carol Barone-Martin, executive director for Early Childhood at Pittsburgh Public Schools, priority for the spots in the day cares is given to teen parents. She said there hasn’t been any indication that the grant funding will be reduced for the program.
ELECT, meanwhile, is funded by the state of Pennsylvania, and the budget is tied to the total enrollment by Pittsburgh teens. With fewer teens enrolled, the Pittsburgh ELECT saw a 23 percent cut this year, down to a $904,000 budget.
Rychcik says the decline in enrollment is in part due to a reduction in teen pregnancies. But, she said it is also harder to find students, because some are opting for online schools.
“There are students at home that have children, that no one knows have children, or that are pregnant, and no one knows that's pregnant. And they may be in denial,” she said. “So, in part, the numbers are going down because of the decreased rate. But I also think a large part is we're losing them because we can't find them.”
And there are other challenges. Rychick, who has worked with teen parents for 17 years, says a growing homeless student population presents a great need. In 2016, the Pennsylvania Department of Education reported there were about 1,000 homeless teens in the Pittsburgh district.
“I am buying more underwear and deodorant and soap than I used to,” Rychick said, to help the homeless students. “The basic needs are there.”
Eyes on the Future
Daunteeka Smith said she was initially hesitant to bring her daughter to daycare. She often describes herself as an independent person. But she also recognizes the support she has at school and at home. The Early Head Start provides free day care while Smith in school; when she is working at KFC after school, her aunt watches her child.
While having a child in high school has been challenging, Smith said she is motivated to graduate—not in spite of her parenting responsibilities, but because of them.
“My child, she made my life better,” she said. “She’s the reason why I work so hard to do the things I do.”
Green, the case manager in her school has pushed her to think beyond graduation in May.
Smith said being a mother has made her realize she enjoys taking care of others. Her next plan? To go to school to be an EMT or a firefighter.