PALMDALE — The classroom at Learn4Life’s Antelope Valley Learning Academy in Palmdale looks a bit different from those at most other high schools. It may have desks and computers, but it also features a brightly colored play area set off by a low fence, filled with toys and stuffed animals. A colorful alphabet adorns a wall, and the adjacent room is filled with supplies for babies’ needs.
This is home to the Helping Our Parenting-teens Excel, or HOPE program, which provides support and mentorship to teenage parents as they finish their education, providing a safe space to bring their children with them to school.
Although students with babies have been allowed to bring them to school in the past, this is the first time the Palmdale site has had a classroom specifically for them. A play area filled with toys is at the center for children to use while their parents study, and the area is equipped with a changing table and quiet room for nursing or otherwise soothing a baby.
“It’s a child-friendly classroom,” HOPE Program Coordinator Stacy Roth said. The Palmdale site has 70 students who are raising children while working to finish their high school education, Roth said. While most are mothers, the program caters to all parents.
In addition to the educational instruction, the program offers these student parents help through support groups, therapy and connection to outside resources. Child supplies, from diapers to car seats, are available for those who need them.
“They’re on their educational path, but we want to help their parenting path as well,” Roth said.
The goal is to help these students complete their schooling and to avoid being among the 70% of teenage mothers who drop out of high school, she said.
The child-friendly classroom not only provides a place for parents to bring their children while they study, but also removes some of the uneasiness they have felt even if they brought children before and kept them in a stroller, say, while they studied in the regular classrooms.
The HOPE program has a dedicated teacher as well, one who can directly relate to her students.
Vanessa Alvarez gave birth to her son at age 15. She attended Learn4Life herself, graduating with her high school diploma at 16 with the support of her parents. She then attended Antelope Valley College and California State University Bakersfield, earning her degree by age 20. After teaching in grades kindergarten through third in the Palmdale School District for two years, Alvarez returned to Learn4Life as a teacher.
“I knew instantly I wanted to work with teen moms,” she said. When HOPE was started, “It was exactly what I was interested in.”
Alvarez said she hopes she can help keep her students motivated by providing an example of what their lives can be, and share her own experiences of how to make it work. “I know what they’re going through,” she said.
Learn4Life, which has schools across the state, has utilized the HOPE program at its Panorama City site for three years, Roth said. One benefit is the interaction between the mothers, who can support each other and help alleviate the common problem of isolation for teenage mothers, she said. Additionally, their children have the opportunity for socialization while they are in the classroom.
Sarai Vargas, 20, just graduated from Learn4Life with her 4-year-old daughter Danytza. Although the HOPE classroom was not yet available for her, the ability to bring her daughter to school “helped me a lot.”
Teachers would print out coloring sheets to entertain Danytza while Sarai studied or took tests, and the parenting groups helped her to learn from others going through the same experiences. Her high school education complete, Sarai is looking ahead to further schooling to become a dental assistant.