Helping teen parents to graduate

While most girls were worrying about final exams or getting asked to prom, three years ago, Mariah Ochoa's 15-year-old mind was consumed with questions of how she would finish high school with a newborn baby boy. Now, at 18, she is working to finish her degree with the help of a unique school program aimed at supporting teen parents.

"It really helps to know that you're not the only one going through all that," said Ochoa, explaining the camaraderie she finds in the teen parent program at San Antonio High School.

While about half of teen parents do not graduate high school, the school works to challenge that statistic.

"Other programs in Rohnert Park have opened and closed. But ours really makes all the difference in these kid's lives," said Victoria Dutton, childcare director at SAHS, since the program began in a trailer in the school's parking lot in August 1995.

Dutton works alongside Tiana Griffin who teaches the mothers hands on childcare as well as behavioral child development concepts and nutrition.

"It's a pretty young crowd currently. They're 14 to 18, which is rare. Normally they're 15 to 18," said Dutton of the program's current group of 13 students. Although traditional SAHS students must be 16 to attend, exceptions are made for the teen parent program because, all too often, it is the only way these students can graduate.

"We've had very few actually dropout. They might transfer to adult classes, or another program but they really need to finish school and they understand that," said Dutton.

Ochoa credits the program for making it possible for her to graduate next year, just a few months behind her peers. Ochoa was already 6 months to term with her son, Giovanni, when she realized she was pregnant, which caused her to abruptly stop going to school.

"I just left. I didn't think I was ever going back. I thought it was impossible," said Ochoa.

Perhaps the hardest part of Ochoa's experience as a teen mother was feeling alienated from loved ones during her pregnancy.

"My mom cried for a week straight before we even talked about it," she said of telling her family about her pregnancy. Her baby's father "wasn't there when I was pregnant. I was alone," said Ochoa. "I was really scared and emotional. I wasn't sure about anything. All my cousins have had babies at young ages, but it's a lot different when it's yours."

Life for Ochoa has grown more rhythmic as she and her son get older. When he was an infant, Ochoa had a difficult time keeping up on her homework while also taking care of her son. But she eventually got help from her mother and brother, and the father has recently become more involved in his son's life, giving her more time to focus on her own graduation day.

But the challenges of being a young mother will remain a constant struggle for Ochoa. At SAHS, students' children are only allowed to attend day care on campus until the age of 2 years, 9 months, after which the parent must seek alternative childcare. Traditional day cares aren't financially feasible for many, and Dutton said that while there is subsidized childcare in Petaluma, the competition is fierce, making it extremely difficult to secure.

The Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) campus in Santa Rosa offers childcare for its students, giving the teen parents an alternative option to paid day care, as well as further incentive to continue their education.

"Eventually they finish school," said Dutton, "But not until they get their childcare in order. That's the priority."

Giovanni is fast approaching his cutoff age and Ochoa said Dutton suggested she apply for subsidized local day care. However, she hopes to pursue a degree in nursing or attend beauty school at SRJC, where she can continue to utilize free childcare.

While Griffin said there are certainly rocky days, overall seeing students graduate who thought they never would is exactly what the teen parent program strives for.

"It's that one moment all year that makes it all worth it," said Griffin.

(Contact Kaitlin Zitelli at argus@arguscourier.com)