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From Teen To Parent: Program Helps Students Navigate Motherhood

Nick de la Canal / WFAE

High school seniors will don caps and gowns at commencement ceremonies in the next few weeks. For many students, this month has been consumed by finals, Advanced Placement exams, and deciding which college to attend in the fall.  But there are also students who are dealing with the added challenges of pregnancy and motherhood.  WFAE’s Nick de la Canal reports on one program that’s helping teen moms in CMS earn their diplomas.

About 20 young women stand in a clump in the back room of a special event venue in Dilworth. Not only are these young women graduating seniors, they’re also mothers.

Kelly Williamson is a case manager for the Safe Journey program, of which all these teen moms belong. Safe Journey's focus has always been on finishing high school, says Williamson. The program is in its 15th year, and so far it’s helped almost 300 student mothers graduate from high school. Williamson holds weekly meetings at the schools, and she makes monthly home visits for moms in the program.

Today is a graduation rehearsal for the seniors. As a CD player pumps out "Pomp and Circumstance," the young women rehearse filing into the room, taking their seats, and then walking across the stage one by one as their names are called. One of them is Christian Jones. She’s graduating from West Charlotte.

“I’ve been in this program since the 10th grade," she says, "They help you out with school, day care, and basically they stay on your case to make sure that you do everything you need to do to stay in the program.”

Christian became pregnant near the end of her Freshman year. She told her mom, who told school counselors, who told the Safe Journey program about the pregnancy, and Christian was invited to attend meetings at the start of 10th grade. She says she's glad she went.

“I was kind of nervous. But at the same time I was overjoyed that I had help throughout school, so I won’t have to worry about nobody watching my son. It was very helpful. And they make sure your child goes to five-star day care, so.”

Safe Journey provides parents with childcare subsidy vouchers. And case managers like Williamson help the moms pick out quality day care centers.

“It’s not just about leaving your baby just anyway so you can go to school," Williamson says, "We try to really work with them on finding a center where there’s child development happening and things like that.”

At their weekly school meetings, the program will teach moms a variety of parenting skills like child discipline, child proofing a home, and following a budget. Then, during monthly home visits, case managers will help moms teach their kids games and activities that foster critical thinking and brain development.

“One of the ones I love - we have this tennis ball puzzle," Williamson says, "So you give the kid a muffin tin. So it has seven tennis balls in a little bag. The muffin tin only has six holes. So it’s a problem solving activity. The kid’s playing but through that playing they’re getting fine motor development. You’re counting with them so they’re getting that one-to-one correspondence that kids need for early math skills, and then you’re coaching the mom on what to do if the child gets frustrated, or how to praise the child once they figure out,‘Oh! I can just put this ball here. I can shift things around,’ and then being okay when they dump them out on the floor because that’s part of the game too.”

At her Charlotte home, Christian and her two-year-old Amari sit on the couch playing patty-cake together. Christian plans to attend UNC Charlotte in the fall, where she hopes to study for two years, then transfer to her dream school, UNC Chapel Hill. She dreams of being a pediatrician. But first things first:

“I got 19 something days left - school days. Like, I’m ready,” she says with a smile.

Safe Journey operates under the national dropout prevention network Communities in Schools, though the Safe Journey program currently serves 13 local high schools in CMS.