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October 3 - 4 | Cedar Rapids

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Staying on track: A handful of Iowa schools offer child care for student parents

    Starr Wheeler (left), 17, of Cedar Rapids holds her son, Alistair Wheeler, 1, as volunteers and educators work with other children at the Metro High School Parent and Child Center in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. At the center, which is housed in the alternative high school, students with children receive free childcare services in return for taking parenting and child development courses alongside their regular high school classes. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
    Education
    Dec 17, 2018 at 5:33 pm

    Starr Wheeler was sneaking out, screaming at her parents and, as she characterized it, being “a bad kid.”
    Kicked out of the house by age 18, she was sleeping on friends’ couches when she discovered she was pregnant.

    “I didn’t really care about my life at that time,” Wheeler recalled. But the pregnancy “was kind of like a focus point. Like, hey, I should probably stop being stupid.”

    She dropped out during her senior year at Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids. She knew she should go back, but when her baby arrived nearly two months early — and 13 days before the school year started — she couldn’t.

    She named the tiny, two-pound, seven-ounce boy Alistair James Ryan — James for her mechanic father and Ryan just because. He was in the neonatal intensive care unit for weeks, and Wheeler thought of little else but the infant, who had contracted an infection in utero. For about a year, her newfound status as a mother kept her away from school.

    This school year, Wheeler, now 20 and mom to a 16-month-old boy, is on track to earn her high school diploma. She’s working quickly through her remaining credit requirements, and she plans to graduate this December from Metro Alternative High School in Cedar Rapids.

    “I had no diapers, no bassinet. I literally had one onesie for him that was like a three-month outfit. And clearly, at two pounds, he’s not going to fit a three-month outfit.”

    - Starr Wheeler

     

     

    The public high school is one of only a handful in Iowa that provides child care for student parents. Its services are free, requiring only that teen parents who enroll their babies take a parenting and child development course.

    Staff at the center also can become de facto caregivers for the teenagers — going with them to search for affordable apartments, driving them to doctor’s appointments and helping them navigate child custody issues — all in an effort to keep their new status as parents from derailing their education.

    And while the number of teen parents in Iowa and throughout the United States has dropped significantly over the past 30 years, the school’s 35-year-old child-care center has remained full of babies born to Cedar Rapids teenagers.

    “Sometimes it’s like, how can it be down? We really haven’t noticed a significant difference,” said Chris Evan-Schwartz, an early childhood education specialist and Metro teacher. “A lot of people are pregnant right now, as many as we’ve had any other year. We haven’t seen any dip.”

    A DROP, FOR SOME

     

    Seven children at the center this fall — two one-year-olds and five newborns — belonged to high school students. Metro staff also can enroll their children at the center, for a fee, and the center cared for 17 babies and toddlers this fall. Evan-Schwartz tries to keep track of student pregnancies among students to predict future child care enrollees. Next spring, she expects five more newborns.

    On average in the United States, women are becoming mothers later in life than they were when Metro Child Care Center opened. The average age of first-time mothers was a little older than 26 in 2016, up from 22, according to an analysis of all birth certificates in the United States since 1985 commissioned by the New York Times.

    But large economic and educational gaps are apparent, the Times found, notably for women who are poorer or less educated. They are more likely to have children earlier.

    About 70 percent of Metro students are considered low-income, according to state data.
    In Linn County, for example — where Metro operates — the average new mother is 26 years old. But women with college degrees there tend to wait until 29 to have children. Women without a degree become mothers closer to 23.

    The timing of motherhood can have dramatic impacts on a woman’s life trajectory and earning potential, said Mary Noonan, a sociologist and associate professor at the University of Iowa. It’s a pattern she’s documented among women in high-power professions — her study on women lawyers who had children before 30 showed an earnings loss of 40 percent to 60 percent compared to their peers who had children later.

    “It’s been shown that if you’re looking at high quality child care, they cost more than what parents can pay,”

    - Chris Evan-Schwartz, early childhood education specialist and Metro teacher

     

     

    The economic burden of becoming a mother before 20, then, makes those young women “by far the worst off” financially, she said. And the costs of early parenthood tend to fall on teenagers who already face economic stress.

    “Teen births don’t just happen randomly across all segments of the population. They tend to be women from lower economic backgrounds, where parents of these women don’t have great careers or high education,” Noonan said.

    Many students who attend Metro Alternative High School grew up in unstable environments, Evan-Schwartz said.
    Some live in low-income households, others were abused or witnessed chronic substance abuse, a few are aging out of the foster care system. Some of the girls, who don’t have ideas about what they’ll do if they do earn a diploma, often tell Evan-Schwartz: “I just want a baby so bad.”

    It’s been one of the most surprising things about the girls she works with at the center. Rarely, she said, do they believe that becoming pregnant was a mistake. Most often, she said, “they really desired that child.”

    “So that’s a great opening for me to have the conversation with them,” Evan-Schwartz said of the students who aren’t yet pregnant.

    She sometimes has them talk to the young mothers about how hard it is to juggle parenting with school, work, dating and other parts of their lives, and to the school’s nurse practitioner about effective methods to prevent a pregnancy.

    But often, the girls who believe becoming a mom at 15, 16 or 17 is their best option aren’t thinking that far ahead.

    “They don’t feel like they have love from anyone else, and the baby would be someone who would love them unconditionally,” Evan-Schwartz said.

    “They don’t have that in their lives, and so they see that as a great solution. It gives their lives meaning and purpose.”

    For girls who grow up planning for careers that require a college education, a pregnancy in high school can feel disastrous, said sociologist Noonan. Girls who don’t have those aspirations can see motherhood as a way of gaining status in their communities and purpose within themselves.

    “For women who don’t have that bright future, they might not be trying to prevent the birth,” Noonan said. “ … Making their future look brighter — by helping them more in school, and helping them with more support, and showing that their future could be one way more than the other — could afford a lower teenage-parent rate.”

    HEARING THE HEARTBEAT

     

    Wheeler had her confirmation ultrasound when she was exactly 14 weeks into her pregnancy. Looking back, she knows she should have been worried. But she wasn’t.

    “Actually, I felt happy,” she said. “I didn’t feel like any type of way at first. When I heard his heartbeat I was like, ‘yes.’  ”

    When she was younger, she always dreamed about having a baby boy and then a baby girl, so she wrote up a list of only boy names. While she knew Alistair would be a boy, the rest was a wash.

    “I knew literally nothing,” Wheeler remembers of the months she had to prepare.

    “I had no diapers, no bassinet. I literally had one onesie for him that was like a three-month outfit. And clearly, at two pounds, he’s not going to fit a three-month outfit.”

    She told her best friend, Alistair’s godfather, about the baby first. She eventually told her family, and they threw her a baby shower — giving her piles of baby clothes, rockers and toys. The boy’s father moved out-of-state, Wheeler said, and she hasn’t heard from him since October of last year.

    She and her parents have a much better relationship now than they did when she was 17, Wheeler said, and she and Alistair spend time at their house nearly every day after school. She rents a room in a house in southwest Cedar Rapids.

    Because of developmental delays, at 14 months old Alistair still hadn’t begun crawling. A hearing disability — “his normal range is like a dog barking or a piano,” Wheeler said — makes him a quiet baby.

    But when Wheeler talks to Alistair, he coos, smiles and “dances” — wiggling his little body and shaking his head. For the students who help staff the child care center, Alistair’s development is a chance to learn.

    Almost every year, at least one of the center’s children has special needs, a benefit for students studying typical and atypical child development there.

    Metro students can take a child-care class, which earns them an elective credit, in the center. Students who have children at the center are required to enroll.

    “They’re learning skills for taking care of infants, they learn about attachment, they learn about how to talk with infants, learn their language and child development,” Evan-Schwartz said.

    “They do that as they work with the babies and the toddlers.”

    This school year, the curriculum was expanded so all students can enroll in some level of child development course. Because the center is licensed by the Department of Human Services, previously only students 16 or older could enroll because all the courses included working at the child-care center.

    Even students who don’t have children often find value in the courses, Evan-Schwartz said.

    “We find that even though they’re not parents, they have a lot of connection with young children and a lot of background because of their family situations,” she said.

    “So it’s really great to be able to offer this because we help answer questions and help them solve problems they’re having with children that are in their lives.”

    In Metro’s course handbook, the curriculum in those classes is listed as including lessons on family dynamics, child abuse, gender roles, the benefits of play for children, and the social, emotional, physical, and mental development of children from newborn to preschool-age. The courses include a “lab portion” working in the Metro Child Care Center.

    ADVOCATING FOR THEMSELVES

     

    The center is nestled in the corner of the school building, which originally opened as an elementary school in 1970 but became an alternative school for teenagers in 1982. Inside, professional staff and students observe, play with and feed the young children.

    “It’s challenging,” Evan-Schwartz said.

    “Often teen parents have a lot of issues other than being new parents, and sometimes that has to do with housing and transportation — and then just adjusting to having a baby. … We help them advocate for themselves. That’s a really important piece.”

    The greatest barriers young parents face are a lack of access to transportation, housing and child-care, said Amy Rechkemmer, a prenatal specialist with YPN, a Cedar Rapids-based not-for-profit, formerly known as Young Parents Network, that provided nearly 2,000 young families with services last year.

    Expectant parents often are referred to YPN from hospitals, other service agencies and schools, including Metro Alternative High. The parents they work with, even those in their mid-20s, still are often “living day-to-day” and don’t yet have parenting skills, Rechkemmer said.

    YPN provides young parents with peer groups — pregnant mothers, moms with as well as access to affordable clothing and other materials.

    Metro Child Care Center relieves its students of at least one of the financial burdens of parenthood by providing free child-care, which on average costs families $9,485, or $790 per month, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.

    After giving birth, Starr Wheeler’s main source of income was a job at Panera Bread.

    “It’s been shown that if you’re looking at high quality child care, they cost more than what parents can pay,” Evan-Schwartz said. “So it has to be subsidized. The best child care centers, with the highest quality, are subsidized either by a company or by government money, such as Head Start.

    “Here it’s subsidized by the school system, but to provide the services that we provide, it would be cost-
    prohibitive. It wouldn’t be possible if the parents paid for this child-care because they wouldn’t be able to afford it.”

    Last year, the center operated on a $390,205 budget from the school district, which had a total budget of $261.3 million in fiscal year 2018.

    The staff of the center said they’re grateful it continues to be a funding priority for the school district, even as its budget grows tighter every year.

    Perhaps, Evan-Schwartz guessed, the number of teen mothers using Metro’s child-care center have remained steady because, while the birthrate among teens has dropped, the number of mothers who stay in school has risen. “Maybe more are deciding to finish school,” she said, “which is wonderful.”

    For Wheeler, becoming a mother brought her education and career aspirations into focus. After her graduation this month, she plans to do advanced individual training with the Army National Guard. She hopes to be an emergency medical technician.

    “I wanted to do something helping people, like a nurse or something,” Wheeler said one day at school, as Alistair played nearby.

    “And then after I had him, I wanted to be either a NICU nurse or someone who helps save people. He’s been in an ambulance three times already in his entire life. So I was like, these people are pretty admirable.”

    She will leave for a training facility in Texas in January for 16 weeks. While she’s away, her sister and her parents will look after her son.

    As Wheeler and Alistair prepare to leave Metro, Evan-Schwartz said she’s seen the teenager’s determination and is sure “it’ll happen” for the pair. “I’ve seen it change the teenagers’ life in a very positive way, I didn’t even think I would ever see that happen,” Evan-Schwartz said.

    “But I’ve seen meaning and purpose and direction.”

    • Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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