Tormohlen: Supporting teen mothers and their kids
September 20, 2016
Recently we've devoted this column to individuals working to effect positive change in the Aspen to Parachute region. This week, we're speaking with Leigh McGown, principal of Yampah Mountain High School in Glenwood Springs. A teacher and educator since 1994, McGown has long focused her attention on disadvantaged populations and teen mothers in particular. Yampah Mountain High School serves students from four public school districts in the region and provides its students with personalized learning plans to help them grow academically and develop the career and life skills they need. We've asked Leigh to focus today on the Yampah High teen-parent program.
Aspen Community Foundation: When and why was the teen-parent program created at Yampah Mountain High School, and how does it fit into the overall school environment?
Leigh McGown: Yampah is a public school formed in 1989 in response to the growing need to provide a nontraditional school environment for students. Many of the students we serve, aside from experiencing disengagement in school, struggle with issues outside school such as poverty, homelessness or abuse. Taking care of their basic needs goes hand in hand with a solid education, so we embrace a holistic educational approach. We try first to create a safe, nurturing environment for our students. With that firmly in place, we help each student develop the academic, career and life skills to be successful.
The teen-parent program was added in 1994 to address the needs of students not attending school because of parenting responsibilities. Since then, the Colorado Department of Education has recognized the school for both its overall educational program and the early-childhood program provided for the children of our teen mothers. Specifically, the teen-parent program provides pregnant and parenting teens with education in the best practices of parenting education and early-childhood development. We support these young mothers to become self-reliant, involved citizens in their communities while working towards their high school diploma, and their children are nurtured on-site in high quality infant and toddler programs.
ACF: How do the day-to-day schedule and activities of a teen parent differ from those of a normal student?
LM: The teen-parent program follows a family-literacy educational model that promotes educating the whole family so the mothers become more capable and confident as parents and engage in their children's education. At the same time, the children benefit from early childhood education and intervention.
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For example, each morning, our parents first spend time with their children in the nursery. Along with their core academic classes — math, reading, writing, science and social science — teen parents also have parenting, child-development, personal-finance and nutrition classes. During lunch, they're with their children at a family table eating healthy, home-cooked meals.
They also have access daily to a school social worker and a community liaison, and they receive home visits from school staff members and child-development experts from the Family Visitor Program.
ACF: Is this program a first-of-a-kind in a growing movement, or is it a response to a short-term condition? What do the societal trend lines say?
LM: A U.S. Department of Education study found that teen parenting leads to a host of negative outcomes for the mothers, their children and their families. Often those problems endure for generations and end up imposing costs on society. Nationally, less than one-third of teen parents graduate from high school, which tends to set them back right away. Addressing the social, emotional and economic barriers that cause teen parents to drop out is a primary focus for our program.
Models like Yampah's are long-term solutions to break the cycle of poverty and school failure for teen-parent households. We try to ensure the children of teen parents start school as prepared as other children and give their parents the tools for sufficiency and economic success.
ACF: What would success look like for this initiative? What is your hope for the students?
LM: We want to help these teen mothers become parents who understand child development and parent their children responsively. We want them to be their child's first teacher — supporting their own children's academic success. For us, success looks like teen parents graduating from high school with plans for post-secondary college or career. We want our teen parents to have choices for their future and the ability to be self-sufficient. We also want the children enrolled in our program to experience literacy-rich environments and get the same jump-start for success in school. Ultimately, success looks like breaking the cycle of teen parenting — that the children of teen parents do not become teen parents themselves but instead find academic success and choose to raise families when they can be self-supporting.
Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.