The first few months after her baby was born, 17-year-old Willie Mae Hayes frequently didn’t get to school until second period because she had to wait for her mother to get home from the night shift to stay with baby.

Then a School Board program called Cradle to Classroom solved the problem for the Englewood High School junior. It helped her find a babysitter. Now, Willie Mae, who has dreams of becoming a lawyer or a math teacher, is rarely tardy.

Launched in 1997 at 20 high schools, Cradle to Classroom now provides 41 schools with a family advocate to help teen moms stay in school and raise healthy babies. Pregnancy is the No. 1 reason teenage girls drop out of school in Chicago.

Next school year, the board plans to expand the program to 60 high schools, increasing funding to $2.9 million from $2.5 million. It also plans to open Head Start centers at 10 schools with Cradle programs; they will be funded through the board’s capital improvement program and the Chicago Department of Human Services.

“Family advocates are the foundation of the program,” says program coordinator Virginia York.

Recruited from each school’s neighborhood and stationed in the schools, advocates are available for counseling and referrals to resources such as public aid, prenatal care and child care. Advocates, who are trained in 16-week phases over three years, also make weekly home visits to help the young moms with a board-provided curriculum to improve their children’s cognitive and motor skills.

Currently, about 1,600 infants and 444 pregnant teens are being served.

The Cradle program has also forged loose partnerships with four area hospitals and a host of community agencies. The hospitals provide Cradle clients with discounted prenatal care and refer pregnant teens that are under 19 to schools with Cradle programs. Advocates direct clients to the community agency partners for resources such as daycare and infant clothes.

As helpful as the program has been for many girls, recruitment remains an issue. Some observers note that Cradle tends to attract determined teens like Austin High’s Talonda Collins, 18, who says it never even occurred to her to drop out because of pregnancy. “The girls that drop out don’t go to teen pregnancy support programs in the first place,” says Susan Dalessandro, who runs an alternative to Cradle at Wells High called School Nurse Adolescent Pregnancy Project (SNAPP).

“Some girls don’t know about it,” adds Stovall, a 17-year-old mother at Austin High. “If they did, they would come because they work with you here.”

Other teens simply have no interest in the program. “Some won’t come,” says Gage Park advocate Juanita Johnson. “I try to get them to sign up, but they think I’m trying to get in their business. There’s one girl who has a baby, and now she’s pregnant again. I told her about Cradle, but she kept putting me off.”

York stresses that the program was meant to be voluntary. “They need to buy into it,” she says of the teens.

According to the School Board, Cradle has been a complete success, keeping every student in school during its first year. As the program’s second year draws to a close, a program summary states that all 321 of Cradle seniors will graduate, and that no dropouts are expected. Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas says none of the mothers has become pregnant a second time.

Still some dropouts

While Cradle has produced a number of success stories, family advocates and even some teens in the program say that dropouts still occur—sometimes because the school itself drops students for excessive absences.

“We’re up against a stone wall,” says Barbara Spencer, the advocate at Tilden High. “They want us to try and keep these girls in, but they’ve got this [attendance] policy. The schools don’t know the real reason [social problems] these kids aren’t in school.” Spencer is referring to a policy that allows schools to drop students with 20 consecutive absences.

In an informal survey of 27 of the 41 schools with Cradle programs, Catalystfound that 24 moms had stopped going to school this year. According to their advocates, some withdrew on their own, some decided to pursue a GED, and others supposedly transferred but did not leave forwarding information.

Cradle client Elizabeth Balbuena, 17, was dropped by Tilden High in December 1998 because she had 67 absences. But Elizabeth says she couldn’t find daycare that she trusted. “I’ve seen on TV that some babysitters mistreat the babies,” she says. “I don’t want something like that to happen to my baby.”

“Whenever a teen says that, we raise an eyebrow—it sounds like an excuse,” says Spencer. “We tell them that there are licensed daycare [centers], and we give them a list, and they have their choice,” she says.

Elizabeth, who is now attempting to enroll at Daley College, says she was “frustrated” by being pushed out. “I didn’t want to leave,” she says. “I wanted to graduate.”

Monique Whitaker, Elizabeth’s advocate at Tilden, says she had another client dropped for missing 40 days of school even though 30 were due to being homebound because of pregnancy.

Similarly, Loristina Carter, an advocate at Englewood High, said the school dropped an 18-year-old mom in April for excessive absences even though she had to stay home with a sick baby.

Some slip through the cracks. Austin High advocate Norma Rollins has had one client disappear. “I can’t find her,” says Rollins, who still attempts to make home visits, despite the fact that the missing teen is never there. “But I’m looking for her. I want to get her into an alternative school or a GED program.”

Gage Park advocate Johnson says at least two of her clients have dropped out of school, though she has offered both teens information on getting a GED. Johnson says she is still following the teens’ babies. “You lose some, you gain some,” she says. “So many are doing well. I’ve got a couple of girls on the honor roll.”

Tilden’s Spencer has seen about four clients drop out, but she tries to keep in touch. Parenting complications are not the only reason some of these fail to attend school, she notes.”They’re home-based problems, not something to do with Cradle,” she says.

Even some teens say attitude is more important than the availability of daycare. “She had made up her mind that she wasn’t going to stay in school,” Austin student Collins says of a 16-year-old friend who has dropped out of several schools. “She just used the baby as an excuse.”

“We’re not going to give up on them,” says Whitaker, Elizabeth’s advocate. “We get attached. It’s easy to say, Drop them from your rolls,’ but we’ve been in the client’s house, and with their baby, and sometimes even in the hospitals when they were in labor.”

Moms need cheerleader

Family advocates are discovering it takes more than a reliable babysitter to keep teen mothers in school. In many cases, advocates play the role of academic cheerleader. “You can tell the ones that really want to go back to school, and they just need someone to stand behind them,” says Tamela Ray, an advocate at Austin High.

At times, says Tilden advocate Spencer, her job requires her to lobby school officials on behalf of a teen mom dropout who wants to return to school. “We are truly their advocates and their spokespersons,” Spencer says. “If they’re dropped by the school because of poor attendance, sometimes they’ll call us, crying. We try to help. We’re the ones begging the school for a second chance.”

Tamela Ray, a teen mother-turned-family advocate at Austin High, says some girls just need a personal coach. “Ones with a strong support network stay in school, and those without usually drop,” she says. “What I needed most [when I was in their situation] was somebody to be there, saying, ‘Don’t let this stop you.’ We help build a support system. If they don’t have one, they can find it here.”

Despite its promising track record, Cradle to Classroom has sparked some debate over the merits of teen pregnancy support programs. Some schools, such as Englewood High, have embraced the program and devoted generous amounts of space and resources. But other schools are more lukewarm on Cradle, not giving the program so much as a telephone line.

Principal Misael Alonso says Cradle would not help students at Juarez High. “I truly believe that there is a need for [Cradle], but personally, I don’t want it in my school,” Alonso says. “It’s against what we should be shooting for. I prefer to view the help they need as abstinence. If we emphasize [teen pregnancy], then the rate may go up instead of down.”

Instead of setting up an office in the school, Alonso moved Juarez’ Cradle program to a nearby community agency, El Valor. Teens must walk for 15 minutes from Juarez to meet with their advocates, though some come directly from homes, which sometimes takes even longer.

An educator who wished to remain anonymous disagrees that Cradle promotes teen pregnancy. “[Cradle] is a reality check. If you move it out of the building and send kids to other schools, it remains a hidden problem.”

CPS’ York says Cradle encourages teens to practice abstinence or use contraceptives to prevent pregnancy. But infants are part of the program, too. “We give as much support to the girl as possible, but once the baby comes, we see it as a 0-3 program, and we support infants in their development,” she says. “There were people opposed to us working with teen mothers, but we see it as making sure we have healthy infants.”

Infants vs. moms

Family advocates for Kelly and Juarez High, however, warn more attention for infants could mean less for teen mothers. “We can work with the child all day but then that child goes home to a teen mother,” says advocate Sylvia Pamela Muralles. “If there is no emotional stability at home, it doesn’t matter how much we stimulate the baby.” Muralles also notes that Cradle discontinues healthcare benefits for the teen mothers after the baby is born.

In time, Cradle will be more widely accepted, York predicts. She recalls one principal who initially put Cradle staff in a closet-size office. Then, the principal’s favorite student became pregnant. With the help from Cradle, the pregnant teen not only stayed in school, but also recorded the school’s highest score on the IGAP. “When we came back the next year, the principal gave us a huge room for an office and has been supportive ever since,” York says.

For motivated teen mothers like Austin’s Tolanda Collins, Cradle has worked exactly as the CPS brochure promised. Tolanda will graduate on time in June and plans to attend Truman College in the fall.

Ericka Stovall, 17, credits Cradle for keeping her on track. “My baby is counting on me,” says the Austin High junior. “Some teenagers don’t want to finish school, but I don’t want to be one of them. Without Cradle, I would still pursue my dreams, but I’m glad Cradle is here to help me.”

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