Cambridge, Mass. — Babies will be going to high school this fall in several American cities. They will be there, not because they are prodigies, but because their parents are high school students.
Helping these students complete their high school education and be better parents are the goals of day-care programs in Albuquerque, N.M.; Austin, Texas; and Cambridge, Mass.
Every year more than 1 million American teen-agers become pregnant, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. And ''more and more young parents are keeping their children,'' according to Candice Ayres, program director for the Austin Independent School District. While many public schools have courses in child care and parenting, these three cities have developed programs to meet the specific needs of their student parents.
''Lack of day care was the No. 1 deterrent to returning to school'' for teen-age parents, according to Ms. Ayres. Since the city introduced day care at three public high schools, Austin's 60 percent dropout rate for student parents has plummeted to 15 percent.
The school day-care and parenting programs all strive to enable young parents eventually to support themselves and their children.
Carolyn Gaston, program coordinator of New Futures, Albuquerque's public high school for parents, says ''research shows that the main reason people go on welfare is lack of secondary education.''
In Cambridge, where student mothers lobbied for the day-care program that begins this fall, child-care specialist Jeannie Funk says statistics show that if a teen-age mother drops out of school, her chances of having two or three children by age 20 are ''greatly increased.'' In Albuquerque this ''repeat-pregnancy rate'' among New Futures students is ''less than one-third of the national average,'' according to Mrs. Gaston.
Teaching the high school students how to be better parents includes helping them ''understand how serious the responsibility of having children is,'' says Ms. Ayres. ''If you don't know what to expect of a child, then you tend to become abusive or disinterested.''
The first time Ms. Ayres saw one 14-year-old mother, she was slumped in a chair and shyly softspoken. Her baby was listless, unwashed, and not yet sitting up. After visiting the mother's home and watching her and the infant in school, Ms. Ayres learned why: not realizing milk would spoil, the young mother had been offering her child unrefrigerated milk. After three months in the program, the baby was reportedly ''running all over,'' and the mother was the first student employee of the day-care center.
Austin's school day-care centers have taught such parenting skills since 1976 . Most of the enrolled infants and toddlers have student parents.
To counter suspicion that a day-care program condones teen-age pregnancy, Ms. Ayres contrasts Austin's record with national statistics. The US Department of Education reports that 44 percent of America's teen mothers have a second child before the first child is one year old. Austin's rate is 8.9 percent. The Austin schools will accept only a student's first child.
Each year about 100 Austin students pay $40 a month for the day care. This low cost enables the faculty to make ''serious demands on students,'' according to Ms. Ayres. They will not ''spoon feed'' the young parents, she says. They will help them figure out bus schedules, find a telephone number, or ask the right questions, but will not chauffeur or accompany them to appointments with prospective employers or social-service agencies. Nonstudents are charged $195 a month, which is in the midrange of day-care costs in the city. Austin's program began with federal funds and is now self-supporting.
The Austin centers open an hour before school. Parents are encouraged to see their children during lunch period. If a parent is truant while his or her child is being cared for, she is dismissed from the program.
Young men are welcome in all three cities' day-care programs, but Ms. Ayres finds those ''most concerned'' tend to be married student fathers.
Albuquerque's New Futures school, opened in 1974, has a capacity to care for 75 babies and is always full, according to Mrs. Gaston.
New Futures alumni have become college graduates, and follow-up studies show they ''generally feel about as well-off as the general population,'' she says. There is no charge for the day care, which is partly funded by private grants. The program has had a ''sharp'' loss of federal money during the last two years, Mrs. Gaston says.
The children of students are from two weeks to four years old. The average student enrollment is 200. Young women may attend while they are pregnant. For those parents who previously dropped out of school, New Futures offers preparatory classes for a high school equivalency diploma.
For the past two years, student parents in Cambridge have wanted to participate in the high school's parenting classes, but they ''couldn't find child care,'' according to Sherry Trella, coordinator of home economics and industrial arts in the city school system.
This fall the new day-care center will be able to take 23 infants and toddlers, at least 10 of whom will be children of students. The weekly charge will be $10 for students and $75 for nonstudents.
Ms. Funk says the Cambridge day-care center will make use of foster grandparents. She hopes this will enhance the ''lovely, family feeling'' that has emerged in the adolescent parenting classes. This support system includes the young mothers themselves, who are tough on each other, says Ms. Funk.
Many of the student parents are ''crisis-oriented,'' and have had ''a pretty rough time,'' according to Ms. Funk. Noting she has seen them become ''articulate, assertive, mature young women,'' she credits the change to their staying in school.
In all three cities with high school day care, community support is strong and the economic argument has been persuasive. ''The younger a mother is when she drops out of school, the greater the chance that both she and her child will be on welfare,'' Ms. Ayres says.
In Albuquerque, ''the community realizes the most cost-effective thing to do is to help students complete secondary education and be a good parent,'' Mrs. Gaston says.
Josie Candelaria, health planner with the New Mexico Health Systems Agency, says the community rallied behind New Futures from its beginning - and those few who were initially apprehensive about the program became convinced ''there was a need.''
No students participating in the Austin program are on welfare, Ms. Ayres says, adding, ''It is so rewarding to go to each high school graduation and see our students walk across the stage and know that if it weren't for this program they would be on welfare somewhere.''