Teen pregnancy at the high school
Teen Parent Program tries to keep moms in school
Denia Candela, with her 18-month-old son, Damiann, plans on attending college after graduation.
Fewer than half of Sonoma Valley High School seniors will be enrolled in a four-year college next fall. But among those who will be is Denia Candela, with her 18-month-old son, Damiann, in tow. Candela’s success, despite the challenge of getting pregnant sophomore year, is a testament to her determination and the support provided by a team of counselors and teachers at Sonoma High.
But Candela, as a teenage mother, may be the exception to the rule. And despite what is arguably the most comprehensive sex education program in the county, a ninth-grade girl arrived at Sonoma High this fall with a newborn. Two seniors with babies found themselves pregnant again this winter.
In light of that reality, Tracy Dorrance, head of the Sonoma Valley Teen Parent Program, suggested that perhaps the only answer is to push the sex ed curriculum down into the middle schools. “If students arrive at the high school pregnant, it is obvious that this information is coming too late.”
California state law, which Dorrance strongly agrees with and takes seriously, mandates that pregnant students have every educational option available to them. In Sonoma, that means either staying at the high school or switching to Creekside High, which offers a shorter day and more flexible schedule. “While it can be tough to weather the stigma of having a baby in high school, I hope they choose to stay in college prep classes,” said Dorrance.
All Sonoma High freshmen take a required semester-long Living Skills course that meets three times a week, the same as their academic subjects. Students talk about issues ranging from self-esteem to suicide prevention to eating disorders to pregnancy to sexual disease. The teacher, Erica Chapin, aligns the curriculum with California state standards, while most other Sonoma County schools exercise their right to waive the requirement to teach it at all.
Part of that program generates startled second takes from onlookers, and more than one car crash has almost resulted from rubber-necking the day Sonoma High freshmen are issued their “babies.”
In a program unique to the region, Sonoma owns more than 30 of them. “The purpose is to give our students the most realistic experience of the responsibilities and stigma associated with teen pregnancy,” said Chapin. All freshmen students care for a baby for two school days and a complete weekend. “Some schools use an egg, but this seven-pound baby looks and acts real until you are five feet away.” She explained. “Students come into class exhausted, having fought with their family over help with the baby. They endure stares from tourists.”
In class, Chapin does not share her personal views or experiences although she laughed, “The students always ask.” She explained, “We have blunt discussions, perhaps ones they would not feel comfortable having with their family.”
So how best can families tackle these subjects at home? Planned Parenthood suggests lots of little talks are more effective than one momentous sit-down, and taking advantage of “teachable moments.” Ask your children what they are learning, use what they tell you as a chance to reinforce your own values, and to start an ongoing dialogue. Studies show children want to hear from their parents about sex, and when they do it helps them delay first sexual contact and make better decisions when they become sexually active.
“Freshmen arrive with a lot of misinformation from their friends, and most of our time is spent laying the facts out and explaining where they can get more information if they need it,” said Chapin. Senior Denia Candela spoke to the freshmen this fall about her experiences being a teen parent.
Candela’s English is flawless, despite less than six years in America. With the knowledge that her son was being well cared for, she was able to finish last semester with a 3.5 GPA in honors and AP classes. “My fear, when I learned that I was pregnant, was that I wouldn’t be able to realize my dreams,” said Candela. “There is no way that I would have been able to stay in school, if it weren’t for the childcare at school and the help of my teachers, my counselor Ms. Chavez, our principal Mr. Battaglini, my social worker and my college mentor, Mary Poppic-Reeves.”
Poppic-Reeves has worked with Denia closely for two years. “Denia,” she says, “is an inspiration. She works so hard in school and at the same time, is an amazing mother who is managing to raise a wonderful little boy. She set her sights on college and has never hesitated to do everything it takes to get there – even when this meant doing homework while nursing Damiann and taking tests at home while recuperating from a C-section.”
Right now there are five students’ babies cared for daily on the grounds of the high school.
Each year, there are between 15 and 29 teen parents enrolled in the Teen Parent Program. Four seniors who have children at the Teen Parent Center now are poised to graduate, including the two who recently found themselves pregnant again.
Candela is lucky in that her parents and her boyfriend have been supportive, as have her close friends at school. “I have great friends who have been there for me … and the rest of the school can think what they want. If my aid comes through, I’m off to college, despite two really tough years. My future is still ahead of me.”
Candela’s senior project is, “Parenting As a College Bound Student” and creating a resource guide for teen parents. She spends a lot of time with the freshman who arrived at the high school with a newborn. “Meeting Denia and being in the Teen Parent program has helped me believe I can stay in high school until I graduate,” said the freshman. “I hope to go to the JC and study nursing. I heard that they have really good childcare there. I look forward to coming back one day and helping out other teen moms.”
The United States continues to have one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world, more than twice that of Canada or Sweden. A school like Sonoma Valley High can have the most comprehensive sex ed program in the area, and there will still be babies in its childcare center. “The key is to do everything we can to help these girls to stay in school and to still have every college and career option available to them in the future,” said Principal Dino Battaglini.