Bringing up baby at school

Southwest High daycare helps teen moms stay in school while they learn the ABCs of motherhood

Running an excellent daycare is an accomplishment, but for Peggy Anderson, that's just the beginning. Anderson coordinates Southwest High School's Teenage Pregnancy and Parenting Program (TAPPP), which provides in-school daycare and education to the school's teen parents from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. every school day.

"I think it's a necessary program. We have helped students get their high school degree," Anderson said, adding that her current class "is probably the most poverty-stricken group I've worked with, and I've been doing this for 20 years."

But the program isn't just a place for teen mothers to leave their kids while they study. A main goal is to help the children, ages 6 weeks to 33 months, become "school-ready." Children of teen parents are two and a half times more likely to drop out of school, and more likely to become parents themselves; TAPPP aims to reduce the risks for these kids.

Cedar-Isles-Dean resident Dana Gross, a St. Olaf College child-psychology professor says TAPPP can have a more lasting impact on poor kids because they arrive far younger than at programs such as Head Start.

"They are getting a really good foundation at a really important time," said Gross, who has studied TAPPP kids' language development, a key marker of school readiness.

While some claim programs like TAPPP encourage teen parents to have children, or additional kids, program backers say the opposite is true.

According to citywide TAPPP Director Barbara Kyle, "A couple of years ago, 28 percent of kids under 19 would have a repeat pregnancy before they became an adult. If they stay in our TAPPP programs they only have an 8 percent repeat pregnancy rate."

Southwest High, 3414 W. 47th St., is one of three high school-based TAPPP sites in Minneapolis. Because of Southwest's extensive English Language Learner programs, its TAPPP program serves mainly Latina mothers referred there through outreach programs and social workers.

On a typical morning, a dozen or so parents begin arriving with their babies at 8:15 a.m. Most arrive by school buses that offer door-to-school service; one late winter morning, the mothers stepped off the buses with their babies triple-bundled against the freezing air that drifts in from Lake Harriet.

They come in a side door, near a bank of windows that allows a good measure of natural light into the large open room housing both infant and toddler areas. On one end rests the domestic accoutrements of childcare -- kitchen, laundry, bathroom and changing area -- and at the other end, the place where the kids live and play while their mothers study. A step into the hall reveals a large-muscle area where the kids, especially the toddlers, can blow off some steam during the winter months.

The mothers with infants hand them over to Sarah Dowsett, a bright-eyed Minnesota blond with an easy laugh, who takes frequent delight in her charges. She tends to their basic needs as a matter of course so that she can address the real reason she and they are there -- helping kids develop cognitively, emotionally and socially.

"I know that they like to be busy and to learn new things, and I like to be busy," Dowsett said. "Reading three books a day is one of my main focuses, as is singing songs. These are all really important things for babies' socialization."

Along with her assistant, Edward Carter, Dowsett models this focus to the mothers, who are encouraged to talk to their babies frequently and to understand the nonverbal cues that they receive from them.

By 8:30 a.m., the babies are settled with Dowsett and Carter, and the toddlers are settled with Janelle Hill; the mothers gather in the kitchen to eat a quick breakfast before going to class. Call it brain food; many of these girls are getting straight A's. Their average attendance rates are 85 percent, about a quarter of them meet the 95 percent standard set by Minneapolis Public Schools.

With doctors' appointments, as well as WIC and other aid appointments occurring during class time, administrators don't fret over 85 percent attendance. "These kids have a different life than when you're a teenager living at home with your parents," Anderson said.

The young women, mostly from Mexico, have come to the program for the same reason that they came to the country -- to improve their lot in life. The stark reality is that most of these mothers are undocumented, meaning that their legal status will limit their prospects for college and beyond.

Maria Lopez, a 20-year-old senior whose 2-year-old son Isaiah is in Janelle's toddler class, left her family in Los Angeles to come with Isaiah's father to Minneapolis. When she graduates, she would like to go to college to study child development. Having come to the U.S. when she was 6 years old, she speaks unaccented English.

"The program has helped me a lot, especially with my school. It's like the best thing that could happen to me. It feels like my family."

In the kitchen, she and the other young women speak mainly Spanish, trading tips on vital community resources.

Said Anderson, "It's not such a sad thing in a way; they are really good at using their resources. They use their families; they're willing to take used clothes, which a lot of teenagers won't. And yet they're so generous about stuff."

During the school day, each mother can be seen caring not just for her child, but also for any other child who might need her. They are required to spend one period here each day, and they, along with teens that attend the program for practicum credit, give the program its primary edge over other daycares: low child-to-adult ratios, usually around 2-to-1. That creates a relaxed social atmosphere conducive to learning.

The Southwest program owes much of its success to its staff. Hill and Dowsett have been with the school district for over a decade, and both took a year off early in their careers to try something different before returning to what they felt was their call to serve.

Looking up from where she's guiding a group of infants exploring a texture table filled with rice cereal, Dowsett said, "I give my whole self over when I walk in the door. I love the parents and I love the kids. I want to be supportive and help the parents feel relaxed, so they can go to class and not worry about their babies."

Anderson said it is easy to be a boss. "I think that Sarah and Janelle have really gotten good at doing it themselves. Their trainings have been fabulous the last few years. They've really taken the ball and run with it."

Said Hill, "This group that we have now really support each other. It feels like a community."

Community is ephemeral and, amid education cuts, TAPPP has already suffered setbacks. A year in the program costs $7,350 per mom and child. Minneapolis Public Schools supplies only a full-time director position, forcing TAPPP to rely instead on grants and Hennepin County Childcare Assistance dollars for the $125,000 it takes to run the program. It lost a large part of its funding when the State Adolescent Parent Grant was cut at the end of 2003.

Barbara Kyle said, "Everything is very tenuous. We could definitely lose so much and so quickly."

Lopez, sitting with her son Isiah, isn't worrying about the future so much as enjoying the present. "The best opportunity that you could have in life is to finish your school and to see your kids while you're at school. There's really nothing I could say except that it's a great program."