Teen birth rates in the United States have been on a steady decline, but there are still more than 200,000 babies born to teen mothers every year, including about 600 born in Maine.
Young mothers are at high risk of dropping out of school because of the pressures they face. According to some national estimates, only 40 percent earn a high school diploma. But there are a few schools in Maine that are designed specifically to help teen parents stay on track, and guide them toward different life trajectory.
For many teen moms, the shock and fear they experience when they learn they are pregnant can be compounded by the kinds of reactions they get at school.
"When I first found out I was pregnant, I was being bullied a lot."
Kayla — who asked that we use only her first name — says she never had any major problems with school before, but after she became pregnant, she says she pretty much stopped going. Her guidance counselor suggested that she enroll at the Sharon Abrams Teen Parent School in Waterville, which was established more than 40-years ago as part of the non-profit Maine Children's Home for Little Wanderers. Kayla's now 19 and been attending for two years.
Nine students currently attend the Teen Parent School. They come from the central Maine area, and while they're here, they're actually registered as students at Waterville High School. The academics are what you'd find in a typical high school, except for classes such as parenting and prenatal care.
There's a daycare on campus, and Judd reminds Kayla that she should take advantage of open study time in the afternoon while her son is being cared for in order to get her homework done. This kind of support, Judd says, is what sets the Teen Parent School apart from a traditional school.
"We’re smaller, we're more direct, and we’re kind of like a family here for them," Judd says.
The Teen Parent School provides diapers and wipes to students. If needed, the staff will them find cribs or even apartments. Judd says many students couch surf because they don't have stable housing.
"So they're coming maybe from a difficult home life where they don’t have whole lot of support and a whole lot of mentoring or parental support to help them through this process," Judd says.
The school has an 83 percent graduation rate, a rate that is more than double the national average for teen mothers. More than half of its graduates go on to earn a college degree, compared to the national average of just two percent.
Alaina Wolman is an alum of the Teen Parents School's class of 2002.
"I got pregnant at the very end of my sophomore year of high school,” she says. “I was 15."
She says was also bullied at school when her peers found out.
"You’re bullied in a way that, students in particular, they think pregnancy is contagious,” Wolman says. “Everybody might be doing the same things, a few of us happen to get pregnant, and then nobody else wants to be around you."
Even so, when Wolman's guidance counselor suggested that she consider the Teen Parent School, she says she wasn't interested. High school was hard enough, she thought, and starting somewhere new would be even worse. But she says she agreed to take a tour, and instantly liked it.
"I'm glad I gave it a shot to come here, because it really helped me to blossom as a person and academically,” she says. “And I did 100 times better than I was ever doing at the public school.”
Wolman says that she went from barely passing grades to earning high honors during the two years she attended, and she's now an administrative assistant at the school. It's her dream job, she says, because she can give back to the school that taught her About the importance of developing grit and resilience.
Newly arrived students, meanwhile, are finding their feet.
"I was pretty scared. I didn’t think I was going to make it.”
But Kelsey, who enrolled this fall after giving birth to a daughter, is already earning high honors.
"I plan on graduating and becoming an RN and giving my daughter the life she deserves,” Kelsey says. “And showing her even though you’re a young mom, you can still be a good mom and graduate and do your job."
In addition to the Sharon Abrams School, there are other schools for teen parents in Camden and Bangor.
Originally published 3:42 p.m. Jan. 18, 2019