Teen mothers learn job skills, build a sense of family

Windy is an unwed mother who bore a second child three weeks ago. She has just turned 17. Her first daughter, Angela, came when Windy was only 14. ``Angela is the only thing I have,'' Windy said before the second baby arrived.

``You don't know what your parents do for you until you have your own kids and you see everything you have to do for them,'' says Windy.

She dropped out of high school in the 10th grade - without a diploma, without a skill, and without a husband.

Today, after participating in an innovative program for both pregnant and parenting teens called the High Performers' Academy, Windy's story is different.

The ``academy'' is a special high school semester designed to teach word processing skills to unwed teen-age mothers and mothers-to-be.

It also prepares them for the GED. That's the general educational development, or high school equivalency, test. Transportation and day care are provided for the students.

In June, 17 unwed teen-age mothers or mothers-to-be, aged 16 to 21, graduated from the academy. All but three were former high school dropouts, like Windy.

The High Performers' Academy for pregnant and parenting teens is a project of the French River Education Center, North Oxford, Mass., in cooperation with the Worcester City Manager's Office of Employment and Training.

Backing comes from grants from the Federal Job Training Partnership Act and the Massachusetts Department of Public Welfare, and from Digital Equipment Corporation for equipment, software, teacher training, and executive consulting time.

``One of the main thrusts of the project is to try to develop a sense of family with these participants,'' says Robert Richardson, director of the French River Education Center.

``One of our counselors works with the kids,'' he continues, ``trying to develop their parenting skills and trying to connect them with their boyfriends, if that seems appropriate, and trying to help them develop into a family that's self-sufficient.

``The first building block is that the young women feel confident enough in their own abilities as both mothers and members of society so that they can have a foundation to build a family on. And that's what we're trying to do.''

The origin of the academy is somewhat long and complicated.

The short of it is that in 1978, Mr. Richardson's center did a survey of schoolteachers, principals, and superintendents about what they needed in order to improve education in the central Massachusetts area.

One clear need was more computers in the schools. So Richardson got in touch with high-tech companies in the area, including Digital Equipment.

``Things clicked a little bit with Digital,'' he says. ``One of the first grants we got with Digital was a Bay State Skills Corporation grant.

``They're a quasi-public state agency that provides funds for groups like us to develop training programs for adults. They gave us money, and Digital gave us equipment so that we could train teachers and other adults in the computer field.

``Dr. Frank Driscoll [Oxford Superintendent of Schools] and I began looking at the situation that there weren't a lot of computers in schools, and there was a very bleak picture for schools to get computers. At that point we began to approach some computer companies and say, `We don't even know the questions to ask. Can you help us out?'

``Over the years we built up trust and developed other things,'' he says. One of them was the High Performers' Academy.

Carol Harootian taught office skills at the academy and is impressed by the dedication of the girls.

``They're very willing to learn,'' she says. ``They're eager. They're cooperative. They're easier to teach. They have a reason to be there. They want to be there, and they want to learn. They want to secure a job, to get a skill.

``They were studying so that they can go out and earn money to support their children and themselves.

``You couldn't get them off the computers, all of them. We'd take one break during the day, and you'd have to tell them to get up and leave and take a walk around,'' says Ms. Harootian.

Windy comments about her semester at High Performers' Academy: ``If they didn't have it, I wouldn't be able to go for my GED and learn what I have. If they didn't have it, I wouldn't have the day care. I wouldn't have the transportation. They gave us a chance that no one else did.''

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