HIGH SCHOOL FOR INFANTS Day care in building allows mothers to attend classes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Carolyn Coker has her hands full.

She's the single mother of 9-month-old twin boys. At 18, she's living on her own and trying to finish high school, though probably not this year.

"I barely get any chance to study," she says.

She does, however, get a chance to go to school now without worrying about her sons. While she's in class at Kenwood High, Damion and Avery are climbing and crawling happily nearby in the Kenwood High day-care center.

The boys are among 10 children of students enrolled in the new facility -- the first of its kind in a Baltimore County high school. The infants range in age from 3 months to 18 months, their mothers from 15 to 20 years.

A joint venture of public and private agencies, the center was the brainchild of Kenwood's nurse, Sharon McCaig-Watts. She said only 11 percent of Kenwood students who had babies returned to school, compared with about 50 percent nationally.

"I started looking at how do I get these postpartum girls back into schools. They had no resources; they'd come back for a few months and drop out," she said. While child care for preschoolers is relatively plentiful, infant care is scarce and expensive.

With the help of other staff members and administrators, Ms. McCaig-Watts developed a model for the center, and started looking for money. It took her three years.

Franklin Square Hospital, the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce and Towson State University all chipped in. Towson State received $90,000 in federal child-care funds to renovate and equip the center, located in a former classroom and teachers' lounge.

The center can accommodate 12 infants. It opened eight weeks ago with 11, although enrollment fluctuates.

Next month, Southwestern High School in the city will open an infant-toddler center that can accommodate 24 youngsters of its students. It will open with about 20, says Principal David M. Benson. That center, too, receives federal funds, as well as private donations.

It was the day-care center that brought Ms. Coker back to Kenwood. "I had quit school and I came back because I heard about it. Without it, I wouldn't have had a way to come back," she says.

Ms. Coker's babies were born in June, and she returned to school in September. But "I had a baby-sitter that I didn't like so I basically stayed home. About October, I was absent a lot," she recalls. Shortly after that, she dropped out.

Some of the young mothers come by school bus with their children strapped into infant seats the center provides. The school department equipped the buses with seat belts to secure the infant carriers.

With additional space for six toddlers 18 to 30 months old, the center also hopes to attract students who may have quit school some time ago.

"We want these girls to be employable," says Jeanne Page, executive director of The Open Door, the child-care agency that operates Kenwood. "We have to believe that they got into this [motherhood] in part because of a lack of hope in their productive future. That's the part we're addressing."

When Marie LaChat finished 11th grade, she was pregnant. Even after her son was born, she stayed out of school. In September, she went back, already pregnant with her second son.

This time she stayed in school and brings Douglas, 18 months, and Cody, 4 months, with her. Ms. LaChat, who is 20 and lives with her sons' father, will graduate in June.

"If this hadn't been here, I wouldn't have lasted," she says. "They helped me out a lot."

Indeed, running a child-care center for the children of children produces unique problems -- and solutions. Many of the students were unprepared for the responsibilities of parenthood.

When the center opened, for example, the mothers were supposed to bring food for their children, but they often didn't. Now the center provides solid food, while the mothers must bring formula or milk.

"It's been an education for us," Ms. Page says.

"I'm real optimistic that it's going to work," adds Ms. McCaig-Watts, who would like to start similar centers in other county schools with high pregnancy rates.

To use the child-care center, mothers or fathers must be Kenwood students. They must have a 90 percent attendance record and maintain passing grades.

Two of the mothers who enrolled their babies when the center opened are no longer in school. One was dismissed for a high absentee rate and the other dropped out "because it was too hard to get the child dressed in the morning," Ms. Page recalls.

But there already are two other students who have delivered babies and will return to school soon, infants in tow.

At least 30 Kenwood students give birth each school year, one of the highest rates in the county.

"They generally plan to get pregnant for their own reasons: to hold onto the boy, to get out of school, to get food stamps, whatever," says Ms. McCaig-Watts.

In 1989, the last year for which figures are available, there were 233 children born to mothers 17 or younger in Baltimore County.

Kenwood requires the mothers to spend their lunch hours with their youngsters. They also must have their children immunized and attend weekly parenting sessions. While other students frequently peer in, fascinated by the center's tiny occupants, neither they nor teachers are allowed to visit.

Bulletin boards around the center encourage the young parents to "make their babies feel special" by establishing eye contact, calling their babies by name and talking to them frequently.

"They don't know these things," says Ms. Page.

Because the young mothers qualify for Aid to Families with Dependent Children, their child care is paid for by Department of Social Services subsidies. But the students have to apply and bring vouchers for the care to the center, which then collects its money from Social Services.

This, too, has been a problem, says Ms. Page: "For 11 babies, we have four vouchers."

Despite the hitches, "I really, really give the moms a lot of credit," says Cara Bethke, the center's director. "Most of them are working very, very hard."

Christina Michaels, mother of 6-month-old Timothy, gets up between 4:45 and 5:15 every morning. When she drives, she has to take her husband Karoll to work first. When he's working far from their Chase home, she makes the five- to 10-minute walk to the school bus stop -- with the infant seat, two diaper bags, her book bag and, of course, Timothy.

Her husband, a truck driver, takes care of the baby in the evenings so that she can study. "And he makes sure I do all my homework," says Mrs. Michaels. Still, "it's a real lot of work."

Until this week, Carolyn Coker walked a mile each way to and from Kenwood, pushing her two babies in a stroller. She would leave home most mornings at 6:30. Now, to help Ms. Coker keep up her attendance, Ms. McCaig-Watts has arranged for a school bus to pick her up, even though she technically lives within walking distance.

She and the babies don't really have a routine. "I just go with the flow," she says as she rocks in the center with her sons squirming on her lap. That flow means she usually doesn't go to bed before 11 and is up again at 5 a.m.

Despite a well-equipped facility, a loving staff and happy babies, routines like these are what probably dissuade other girls from becoming pregnant, says Ms. Page. In fact, she says, she wants to make sure that the center doesn't become an incentive to motherhood.

"But these girls don't leave here and say 'Life is so easy.' They say 'I have to get up at 5:30.' The intensive labor is so obvious to other students," she adds.

Christina Michaels agrees.

"I knew it was going to be hard," she says. "But I didn't think it was going to be this hard."

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