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GAUTIER, Miss. — It’s a Monday morning at Gautier High School, and three teenage girls are talking about their weekends. Instead of discussing Taylor Swift’s latest song or what they posted to Instagram, though, they are immersed in another topic: their children.
That means potty-training and first words, first steps and other milestones. It also means plenty of talk about upcoming tests, grades and graduation goals.
Kids are a common subject at the bimonthly meetings of the Early Beginnings Program, launched eight years ago by the Pascagoula School District to help teen moms graduate. Nationally, just 40 percent of teens who give birth during high school earn a diploma, and less than 2 percent of girls who give birth before they turn 18 earn a college degree by the time they are 30.
The conversations and support make being a parent and going to high school at the same time seem less daunting. “It’s really hard to balance between being a mom and getting good grades and doing activities,” said junior Cecilia Cox, 16, mother of a 2-year-old boy.
Pascagoula schools have developed a successful program aimed at improving outcomes for teen mothers and their children in a state that devotes scant attention and few resources to that population. Instead, legislators, educators and advocates focus on pregnancy prevention in Mississippi, where in 2012 53 out of every 1,000 teenage girls became pregnant — the second-highest rate in the nation.
The Pascagoula program focuses on the girls who do have children. Program director Connie Jo Williams said Early Beginnings tries to stress how important the girls’ education is not just for them, but for their babies, too.
“These girls have to get it in their heads that high school is the minimum thing they have to achieve,” said Williams, noting that 100 percent of the students in the program have graduated over the last eight years. “Without a high school or GED diploma, you can’t do anything.”
Nationwide, teen pregnancies have a profound and often negative impact on the mothers and their babies. Both mother and child are far less likely to be successful in school, and most teen mothers drop out, according to the nonprofit National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Children born to teen moms typically post low scores on standardized tests, and are twice as likely to repeat a grade.
In Mississippi, the situation is especially dire. Although the state’s teen birth rate has declined over the past two decades, today, one out of three births is to a teen mother. This year, the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation named Mississippi as the worst state in the nation for a child’s overall well being.
In Pascagoula, the economic challenges faced by teen parents are often compounded by community-wide financial instability. Almost 77 percent of students in this district qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches. Although census data shows that the median income for Pascagoula is $39,363, which is slightly higher than the rest of the state, nearly a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. Many who live in this Gulf Coast town work in shipyards — the Port of Pascagoula is the largest in the state — but the unemployment rate is 9.7 percent.
Teen pregnancy isn’t just a burden on families and schools: In 2010, $137 million in Mississippi taxes went toward costs related to children born to teen mothers, according to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. These costs included health care, public assistance and child welfare expenses. Nationally these same expenses cost the country $9.4 billion a year, according to the group.
The Early Beginnings Program, which currently serves 13 teen mothers at Gautier and the other high school in the district, Pascagoula High, is one of the few programs in Mississippi that is trying to get more teen mothers to graduate and pursue higher education or a career. In McComb, a small town northwest of Pascagoula, the Kennedy Early Childhood Center provides childcare for the children of the district’s teen mothers, but doesn’t have the same supports as the Pascagoula program.
Early Beginnings requires all participants to create and track goals related to both school and motherhood. Williams said their success is due to the wealth of resources available through the program, made possible by grants and donations from local businesses and organizations.
Every week, Williams visits one of the high schools for an hour-long meeting with program members who attend that school. They usually discuss parenting techniques, give each other advice, and confide about their concerns. Once a student joins the program, she has access to the school district’s Family Interactive Center, which offers gently used books and maternity clothes donated by members of the community. The center also offers a “toy lending library” where students can check out two toys for up to two weeks at a time.
Most of the girls are single mothers, and live with family members who watch their children during the day. Each week, the mothers receive free diapers funded by the Kiwanis Club of Vancleave.
The program’s participants say every bit helps. “We don’t have jobs, and it’s stressful financially when you don’t have the funds,” said 15-year-old Olandria Rayner, mother of 21-month-old boy.
Rayner said she joined the program because she wanted a support group that she could talk to about balancing the many responsibilities involved in being a teen parent. “I’ve learned that even though I’m a teen mother, I can still graduate and get a good job and make a nice living for me and my child,” Rayner said.
At a recent Monday meeting at Gautier High School, Williams and the girls discussed progress toward meeting some of the goals they’d set at the beginning of the school year.
Some of the goals included “potty-train my son,” “get good grades” and “deliver a healthy baby.” Williams pulled out a large binder filled with each girl’s goals and went over how many of them had been achieved. When a girl mentioned she was having trouble with a specific goal, Williams offered advice based on her own experiences as a mother. At the end of their meeting, the girls each received a $25 gift card from a local church to buy their children presents for Christmas.
Cecilia Cox, who found out she was pregnant while she was attending a different school and moved to Pascagoula with her mother this year, said Williams called her and encouraged her to join the program once she enrolled at Gautier High.
Cox said the program has taught her important lessons about parenting. “I’ve learned that no matter how hard it gets to never give up,” Cox said. “I’ve always heard behind every great child is a parent who thinks they’re doing something wrong … this program has showed me that you’re going to make mistakes, but our children are still going to love us.”
Anne Buffington, director of communications for Mississippi KIDS COUNT, which gathers data on communities, said she was impressed when she first visited the program, but the rest of the state still has work to do.
“They are an example of what a community can do with little funds to do it,” she said. “It’s just a mindset of coming together to support these young women rather than just saying they’ve made a mistake and choosing not to support them.”