Crickets chirp as Junior snores in the corner and a dog howls in the distance.
It's just after noon at Lindsay Summit Child Development Center on Ash Street and the last of eight toddlers is finally asleep. Teacher's assistant Susie Rillera hits the “continue” button on the Sounds of Nature soundtrack before leaving the dark nap room.
Outside, in the larger activity room, fellow teacher's aid Donna Stephenson answers the phone. It's Larry-her current romance.
A graduate of the program for young mothers, Stephenson was a student a little more than a year ago. She'll soon be 21 years old; her daughter, Mia, recently turned 2.
“I'm not telling you where they are,” she says to Larry.
“When?” She repeats his question with a roll of the eyes. “I'll tell you when I'm good and ready to tell you.”
A copper-skinned Cuban-Caucasian amalgam, Stephenson's soft countenance flattens into an attractive broad face with dark brown eyes that shift with ease from mischief to seriousness. She thought she was African-American-as were her foster mother, brothers and sisters-until several years ago.
Though she describes herself as “shy at first,” her confident voice, self-presence and gregarious sense of humor lend 10 years to her presumed age. She handles adult crises and 2-year-old tantrums with the same graceful patience and nonchalance-an attribute picked up along a twisted path that found her on the run for the first time, after the death of her foster mother, Estelle, at age 11.
In Stephenson's small North Park apartment, Estelle's picture sits proudly on a shelf-it's the first thing she sees when she gets home. A dark woman, bedecked in a smart, large-collared '70s get up, Estelle stares at the camera with a confident grin. In it is a certain elegance, an esoteric knowledge exhibited by people who have struggled with oppression.
“I really loved her,” Stephenson says with a smile. “She was such a good person. It took me four or five years to get over it. I ran away right after she died-I didn't know how to deal with it.... I couldn't accept it.”
The following years found her mired in the ways of her environment. In and out of Bay Area schools, she lived with an assortment of friends and relatives before ending up in San Diego and the house of her newly discovered biological mother. The story went much the same here, until she met Jerry Grinston almost three years ago.
“Every female in the neighborhood wanted Jerry,” she says with a sly smile, while fanning her face. “He had three girlfriends when I met him.”
The two weren't cautious, she says, for no other reason than that they were young and apparently not concerned. She figures she was pregnant within two weeks; she was 17, Grinston wasn't yet 20. He was gone soon after, with another woman-he's now in San Diego's Central Jail.
The fast life-one that Stephenson recognizes for its inherent danger, yet somehow takes for normal-continued through half her pregnancy and into Lindsay Summit and it's new funding under the Cal-SAFE program.
The statewide Cal-SAFE program funds schools like Lindsay Summit to make high school education available to teenage mothers. It provides on-site childcare, meals and child-health programs.
Stephenson started at the site midway through her pregnancy, studied till she went in the hospital and returned two weeks after birthing Mia through a cesarean section.
She grew up quick.
“I worked hard,” she says. “I was a young mother without a high school diploma-I had to do something.”
In a little more than a year, she knocked out enough material to earn her diploma, after leaving public school in the 10th grade. Unlike in public schools, motivated individuals can accelerate-or decelerate-their program depending on the time and effort they're willing to put in. Stephenson started as a teacher's aid at Lindsay as soon as her fingerprint work and application cleared.
Sitting now in the large toddler room, the walls covered in every manner of 2-year-old artwork, with crickets chirping in the adjoining room, she talks to Larry. There are things about him that give her pause-in some ways his track record is as suspect as Grinston's.
At the same time, she says, she wants a man around for companionship, for security and for a father figure.
Now he's threatened to leave again. Stephenson, proactive by nature, has hidden all his clothes. She knows he can't leave with the t-shirt and boxer shorts he has on. “I'll tell you later,” she tells him. “Maybe.”
Leo, halfway between 2 and 3 years old, ambles out of the nap room, rubbing his eyes. He goes straight for Stephenson. She lifts him quickly into her lap, and his head falls straight to her shoulder. She rubs his back and he's asleep in seconds.
“Let me tell you something about appreciating a woman,” she says to Larry, flipping open the romance novel lying on the table in front of her and launching into a rousing diatribe about the book's protagonist and the nuances of tough love.
By the mid-1990s, California relied on three aging programs to provide care-often the last line of support-for pregnant and parenting public-school students. Those programs, the Pregnant Minors Program (PMP), the School Age Parenting and Infant Development (SAPID) program and the Pregnant and Lactating Students (PALS) program, were in many cases fragmentary and overlapping. A growing group of advocates, aware of the limitations of the system, began a push for a streamlined scheme that would cover more of the state's young mothers.
“We did have overlapping programs,” says Karen French, staff director of the state Senate Appropriations Committee. “There were statistics that showed that the parts of the state with the highest rates of teen pregnancy were unserved or under-served by the existing programs. Part of that had to do with [a system] that harkened back to the days when serving teen mothers was handled through special education.”
Under the old system, counties collected revenue and were awarded state money according to the property taxes they levied to pay for program costs. “There was essentially an entitlement program,” French says. “The funding level was based not so much on needs as on the history of the program.”
After 1978 and through the 1990s some counties had lavish programs-others had scant levels of funding. It would later be those prospering counties that fought against implementation of the 1998 Senate Bill 1064, the California School Age Families Education (Cal-SAFE) program. The bill was sponsored by state Sen. Patrick Johnston, who was termed out of office in 2000, after 10 years in the Assembly and another 10 years in the Senate.
“In a former life I was a juvenile probation officer,” Johnston says. “[I saw that] a pregnancy often resulted in a girl leaving high school never to return. Consequently, the young mother would often depend on welfare and have a difficult time creating a career or becoming self-supporting at all.”
Willing to sponsor the bill, but not familiar enough with the intricacies of the California Department of Education (CDE), Johnston leaned heavily on French. She, in turn, depended on Terry Anderson, who was in charge of education policy for powerful Sen. John Burton.
Anderson had tried unsuccessfully for years to get legislation through that would change the system. She fell in eagerly with the French-Johnston team and worked on supplemental report language that was eventually attached to the state's budget bill, calling for the CDE to comprehensively reconsider its program and explore alternatives.
Behind the strength of Johnston's stature in the Senate-and probably the strength of his chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee-the language was pushed through with the bill and the CDE was soon studying other programs.
“[There were] several models we looked at across the country. [Cal-SAFE is] closely based on a model in Florida, but with a California flair,” says Sue Thompson, the state's chief Cal-SAFE administrator.
With the study done and a new model in hand, Johnston again relied on people who had more knowledge of the CDE-French and Anderson among them-to draft SB 1064, which would be pushed through in time to inaugurate the program in 2000.
Under the new program, education agencies (school districts, county offices of education) across the state have had the option to switch to Cal-SAFE; so far 135 of them have. Some have opted out of the Cal-SAFE umbrella and its stricter requirements, while others are on a waiting list to get in.
Two Cal-SAFE requirements set it apart from previous programs. Foremost, the program is achievement-based. Education agencies have to meet requirements-in both what they offer to students and their proven statistical effectiveness-to earn the level of funding they receive.
Secondly, the program taps into existing federal programs, requiring education agencies to work with two other agencies-the Department of Health Services (DHS) and the Department of Social Services (DSS)-that concentrate on the well being of young mothers and their children.
The majority of funding for the DHS Adolescent Family Life program comes from the federal government, with some state support, allowing the CDE to concentrate its financial efforts on other services and eliminate overlapping coverage. It's a continuous case-management program that monitors the crucial developing years of enrolled toddlers.
The federally funded Social Services program provides bonuses and sanctions to the young mothers for staying in school.
Both programs closely monitor the health and well being of the students and their children while providing them with funding from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
“The object is to maximize the numbers that are graduating,” Thompson says. “[We strive] to make [teenage mothers] aware that services are available and get them enrolled.”
In 2001, with a $49-million budget, the program reached 9,100 students. Though the budget crunch will cost Cal-SAFE its statistical analysis component in the coming year, Thompson says the program's basic services won't be compromised.
More like a family
Teenage girls wake every morning, sometimes as early as the break of dawn, to get themselves-and their infant children-ready for the trip to catch the city bus or the trolley. Anybody who's done it knows public transportation is no easy ride with a changing bag strapped across the shoulder, a baby in one arm and a pile of books in the other. It takes a strong disposition-a rare fortitude-and a lot of support.
Accountability and result-based funding are important elements of Cal-SAFE, but they aren't what make recipient schools what they are.
Lindsay Summit is more like a family than an institution. While the girls-through empathetic understanding of other young mothers-commonly bond with the program quickly, their teachers have to be of a certain ilk, as well. Teachers drawn to the program are not after 401k programs or summer vacations.
“I can tell within two days if [new teachers] are going to make it or not,” says Lindsay Summit principal Tracy Thompson. “I can tell by the kids-they just know.”
A large African-American, Thompson is one of the few men directly involved with the program. He comes from a checkered past-one that's both drawn him to Community Schools and given him an understanding of his students' backgrounds.
Growing up on the mean streets of Southeast San Diego, gang affiliations and large gaps of missed school in his teenage years nearly propelled Thompson into the type of lifestyle he says would have long ago cost him his life.
Football got hold of him somewhere, though, and carried him through a scholarship at San Diego State University. It was there he chanced into a teacher's aid position at a court school and found his calling. He's climbed the rungs of the county's Juvenile Court and Community Schools (JCCS) program into the throes of administration, where he now presides over dozens of schools.
Talking with Thompson and the teachers under him, it's clear this is no ordinary teacher-principal relationship. Teachers rave about his support and dedication to the students-he, in turn, talks about the special kind of teacher it takes to work in the JCCS program.
Dawn Miller is an attractive blonde with a wide smile and the physique of a professional volleyball player. After leaving the public school system, she's been teaching the young mothers at Lindsay, across the hall from fellow teacher Angela Gigliotti, for nearly two years.
“I don't want to knock them, but public schools are like a factory,” she says. “I found it difficult to bridge that student-teacher gap, to make personal relationships, to get to know the kids as people. It's just the opposite here-this definitely isn't a job you can leave at work.”
Late-night phone calls from students looking for help in domestic situations, moving students into new houses and filling in as a mother are some of the unwritten parts of the job description. Friend, teacher and mother are aspects involved in the role she plays to the young women in her class-aspects some young mothers are missing in their lives. It's a role Miller says can be daunting but extremely rewarding.
One of the jarring surprises in switching to the county's Community Schools/Cal-SAFE program was that the stigmas associated with young mothers are far from accurate. “These are not cases of young loves, as I thought before coming here,” she says. “In a lot of cases we find young girls who have found themselves in relationships-of whatever kind-with much older men.”
Miller struggles to use the right words. What she can't come right out and say is that though there are girls from all walks of life and a wide range of scenarios in the program, there are a lot of victims, too-girls who have been taken advantage of, to varying degrees, by men who are old enough to know better.
“[Most of] these are not just cases of carelessness, there are a lot of other factors involved-huge issues,” she says. “If you ask most of the girls they'll tell you they'd change a lot about what they've done or what's happened to them. The one thing they'll all tell you though is that they love their babies and they wouldn't change that for anything.”
In a real way, Miller and Gigliotti are society's last line of defense. Without their support, encouragement-and sometimes downright pushing-some of Lindsay's graduates would drop out of school, in many cases to become inveterate wards of the welfare system.
“Goals are so important,” Miller says. “Many of the girls come from backgrounds where they're not shown what they can do, what they can make of themselves. [The best thing we can do is] just let them see their potential and give them a goal. Most of these girls are very tough and smart enough to do great things.”
As a single mother of two, Gigliotti has an innate understanding of the pressures her students face. Her experience is crucial, Miller says. She has the answers to the kinds of dilemmas-a baby's incessant crying, rashes and the availability of cheap medical care-that most teachers wouldn't know.
From her office on Linda Vista Road, Maruta Gardner oversees San Diego County's JCCS division, a program with 180 teachers who serve more than 15,000 kids a year, from the county's school for orphaned children to its Juvenile Court schools. JCCS oversees the county's parenting pupil/Community Schools program, its four teachers and 80 teenage students.
Gardner carries the smile of a woman who started out on the first rung of the education ladder-in the classroom, the ink still fresh on her teaching certificate-and climbed to the top.
“By the nature of the [Community Schools] program we're not much into advertising,” she says. “Most of our girls work very hard for their diplomas, but they aren't seeking recognition for all they do.”
Community Schools are education's closest approximation of guerilla warfare, the last chance to catch those who have fallen through its cracks.
One of the forward-thinking tenets of the JCCS program is to go where the need is. The schools are set up in strip malls and out-of-the-way industrial parks. Schools often consist of a couple rooms and whatever infrastructure-computers, teaching materials-can be mustered. Mothers drop their babies and young children off at the accompanying toddler room before moving on to class.
Back in Sacramento, Sue Thompson is proud that in its two-year history, 77-percent of those who have left the Cal-SAFE program have done so through successful graduation. Nationally, six in 10 teens who become pregnant drop out of school and never return.
For Gardner, the small, emotional JCCS graduation ceremonies are the ultimate reward. The much-anticipated events often celebrate the advancement of one or two JCCS students.
“I told myself I wasn't going to do this,” a recent graduate of the Victoria Summit School in Otay Mesa said before breaking down in tears. Dozens of people in the audience-her parents and grandmother, county education administrators, and her fellow students-followed suit. “I tried so many times to quit, but you wouldn't let me,” she said to [teacher] Joy Wasserman. “I don't know how to thank you.”
Gardner recounts the JCCS graduation of a former gang member. “I'll never forget one young man who, upon being handed his diploma, turned to his teacher and began crying and said ‘Thank you for not giving up on me.... I owe you my life.'
“I never got that kind of thanks in the classroom; it was an amazing thing to see.” ©