Anne Teschner brings Shakespeare, Plato, and high academic goals to teen mothers

The Care Center, in Holyoke, Mass., uses private school and even college coursework to challenge teen moms to aim higher.

Steven Purcell/White House
Anne Teschner (left), executive director of The Care Center in Holyoke, Mass., receives the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama (right), Nov. 2. The Center provides a rigorous academic environment for more than 120 teen mothers in central Massachusetts.

There was something, Anne Teschner says, about seeing the facts in black and white.

That was the motivation behind founding The Care Center in Holyoke, Mass,. in 1986 after a state report was released about the high teen pregnancy rate in Holyoke. At that time, the rate there was five times the national average.

When The Center opened, it had 20 teen mothers as students. Ms. Teschner came on board as executive director in 1997, and The Center now takes more than 120 students each year.

The Center helps teen mothers who have dropped out of high school, but want to complete their GED, the high-school equivalency test. Class sizes are kept small, and there’s a daycare center on site.

But this is no ordinary teen shelter: Currently, between 70 and 85 percent of its graduates go on to college.

Courses for college credit are also available at The Center, including The Clemente Course in the Humanities, which focuses on art history, literature, and philosophy. Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., gives the credit for the course. The Center also works with Holyoke Community College and Elms College in Chicopee, Mass., to create college courses and give students credit for completion.

Expecting that teen mothers can set, and meet, high educational goals for themselves is the goal. One of the most difficult challenges the 24 staff members face, Teschner says, is getting past students’ beliefs that they have somehow gone wrong in life.

“One of the ideas we had to break down is, 'you’re a teen mom, you’re a failure,' ” she says. “They hear the message that if you’re a teen mother, you’ve closed a lot of doors … and our take on it was, why don’t we open some of those doors?”

The courses at The Care Center have subject matter that many would not expect, including classes that focus on Shakespeare and Plato. Integrating such classical authors began as an experiment, Teschner says.

Her idea was “Let’s see what happens if we do a six-week workshop on Plato,” she says. “Maybe everyone will run out the door screaming. But they didn’t.”

Some staff and students first opposed including classic authors and classes such as poetry and creative writing in the curriculum. They didn't think the subjects would be practical.

“Some staff left,” Teschner says. “They said, ‘The girls have enough on their plate. They’re on welfare. They have babies…. Some of the students were very dubious. They said, ‘This [author] is some white guy, and I need a job.’ ”

But Teschner says the courses have since succeeded, becoming popular with students. The Care Center has added a course on religion, inspired by the students, that’s also gone over well.

“We heard students talking about big spiritual questions,” she says. “And especially if you just had a baby, those questions are front and center.”

On Nov. 2 The Center, which receives state and local government funding and private donations, was given the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, presented by Michelle Obama. It was recognized from a group of almost 500 nominations. The award includes a $10,000 donation to the Center.

Teschner said receiving the award felt like an affirmation.

“It was so wonderful to have the White House ratify what we’re doing,” she says. “Both for us, but also to spotlight what other people are doing in other cities working with teens.”

The Center will be adding a fencing course to its athletics roster for the spring, and it wants to add more college courses.

The ultimate dream? Opening an all-women community college.

Teschner also hopes that public schools will be inspired by The Center’s success in adopting methods used by private schools to achieve results.

“What goes on in a private school works,” she says. “Why don’t we do it in a public school?”

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