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10/23/97 Church helps ease load of teen moms’ schooling

PONCA CITY, Okla. (BP)–They come with school books in a backpack, a diaper bag over their shoulders and a baby in their arms.
“These are just girls themselves,” said Gayle Young. “If we can just help them carry that load … .”
Young, minister of childhood education at First Baptist Church, Ponca City, Okla., is referring to a joint “Teen Moms” program involving the local school system, her church and several other community agencies.
The idea for Teen Moms developed from a speech delivered by school superintendent Bill White to the Ponca City ministerial alliance.
White said he went to the ministerial alliance to ask for help in nursery care. “The school dropout rate for new mothers was almost 100 percent because they couldn’t afford to pay for baby care,” he said.
First Baptist took the request one step further and offered its facility for classrooms in an alternative education program for pregnant and parenting teens.
The alternative school, officially called Teen Parenting Education Program (PEP), began with 10 students in the 1996-97 school year.
“The program is a combination of our church and the Ponca City School System with help from Northern Oklahoma Youth Service and Kay County Health Department,” Young said. “The church does the child-care part and the school does the teaching and classroom equipping part.”
This fall, 35 teen moms and pregnant teens started classes taught by Ponca City schoolteachers from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The moms’ 14 babies and nine toddlers are cared for in makeshift nurseries. The rest of the 35 girls, ranging from eighth grade to age 19, are pregnant.
One of the first things Young said she did to get ready for taking care of the babies was to write Conoco Oil Co., headquartered in Ponca City, to ask for $10,000 for baby beds.
“When the company asked how many beds that would buy, I said 10,” Young recounted. “I explained these were stainless steel beds which were built high so workers don’t have to constantly bend over when tending to the infants.” A local mattress company donated mattresses for the beds, and a mothers’ club made sheets, along with maternity and baby clothes.
Young said she can see a change in the girls from when they first started school at the church facility.
“At first they were somewhat isolated and had a ‘don’t want to be here’ attitude,” she said. “But now they ask about each other’s babies and pass around baby clothes and furniture.” Martha Long, day-school director at First Baptist, said the girls are offered both breakfast and lunch at the church, and many take those times to fellowship with each other.
In addition to school curriculum, the girls also are offered life skill courses. Said superintendent White, “We are going to raise another generation of at-risk kids if we don’t teach these kids to be parents.”
The church environment, he said, is an investment in the next generation of kids that would not happen in a sterilized day-care program or with a teenage stay-at-home mom.
“Instead of fighting over church-state issues, we’re working together to make a difference,” White said.
White and First Baptist pastor Hance Dilbeck said both the school and church are benefiting from the program.
“It has made the school system aware that we can get out of our box and do things differently,” White said.
“These girls may not be able to graduate in four years because of the shortened day, but our goal is to get them high school diplomas.”
White added the program has helped the image of the school system because it has helped the community see that school officials have the same love for kids as the church.
Dilbeck said the program has helped the church develop a vision for ministering to the community.
Although Dilbeck has been First Baptist’s pastor only several months, and wasn’t there when the program started, he and White said the initial apprehension of church members has melted and they have gone from a judgmental attitude to “How can we serve these people well and make them successful?”
White, who teaches a college and career Sunday school class, said church members had some reservations at first because “it sounded like we were condoning the behavior of the girls.”
“But they realized someone was going to have to deal with the consequences of the girls staying at home, not getting an education and not educating their children,” he said. “The attitude now is ‘What else can we do to help?'”
The school has a grant from the state which puts money into alternative education, and the youth services pays for the day-care workers, so although the program is expensive, the church breaks even, Young said.
However, there is a lot of worked involved in setting up and breaking down the classrooms and nursery areas which are used for Sunday school classes.
“All the cribs, high chairs, baby swings, toys and equipment are put in a storage room on Fridays and brought out again on Mondays,” Young said. The church has a day-care program, so its regular nursery facilities are not available for the school’s use.
White said the school system had 254 dropouts the year before the program at First Baptist was started.
“We usually start with 500 freshmen and graduate 300,” White said, adding the dropout rate a year later was 130. “We expect to be under 100 this year, and 35 of that cut is because of this program.” The success of the program has attracted the attention of state legislators who want to duplicate it in other school systems, he noted.
Long and Barbara Davis, coordinator for the school system, said it is interesting that there are no discipline problems in the program.
“I think that may be because there are no boys,” joked Davis, but she added the girls made rules for themselves. “They set up a system that if one of them has 10 absences, she is out of the program. The girls know we have high expectations of them, and they live up to those expectations. We have never had to say, ‘We don’t do that here.’ They know we value them enough to do the very best for them.”
The girls feel better about themselves because they’ve been treated well, Davis continued. “One girl said she will only date high school graduates. Next year she will probably say she only dates college boys. She has raised her standards.”
Their babies, meanwhile, are being nurtured, Long said. “They are being talked to and read to.”
“These women are role models for the girls,” pastor Dilbeck said. “They watch how these women take care of their babies.”

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  • Dana Williamson