Sunday, February 04, 2007


TUCSON, Ariz. -- They range in age from 12 to 19, with babies on the way or already born.
But compared with other teen parents, the 57 girls and 10 boys enrolled in Sunnyside High School's teenage parent program have a well-above-average chance of graduating from high school on time.
It was 21 years ago in January that Sunnyside launched a revolutionary program to keep pregnant teens in school, and to help them and their babies' fathers become good parents.
From the start, the program has offered classes in parenting and child development, an infant nursery and a clinic where girls can get prenatal care, all at the high school.
Nationwide, the dropout rate for pregnant teens averages 60 percent. At Sunnyside, it's less than 20 percent. Thirty-three percent of the nation's pregnant high school students will get pregnant again before graduation. For the last three years at Sunnyside, it's averaged about 3 percent.
In Arizona, 62 percent of pregnant teens get prenatal care in their first three months. At Sunnyside, it's 77 percent.
Those statistics are the pride and joy of Valla Dalrymple, director of Sunnyside's teenage-parent program.
"We keep the data in case there's ever talk of dropping the program," Dalrymple said.
The Sunnyside Unified School District board adopted the program despite the angry parents who picketed outside its meetings. A few parents still complain, Dalrymple said _ mostly out of fear that the program encourages teen pregnancy.
"The fact of the matter is, if the program weren't here, we would still have girls getting pregnant," Dalrymple said.
Sunnyside's is one of fewer than 20 teen-parent programs in the state, according to the Arizona Coalition on Adolescent Pregnancy and Parenting. Many around the state have closed in recent years _ sometimes because of opposition to the programs, often due to financial constraints.
Phoenix Union High School District, for example, closed its teen-parent program 12 years ago, after it had served up to 200 students a year for 30 years. The district, with 24,000 students, has the most teen pregnancies of any school district in the state _ nearly 1,700 in 2004.
But Sunnyside officials consider their program cost-effective. State dropout-prevention funds help with the costs, and student co-payments for nursery care bring in an estimated $35,000 per year, said Alan Storm, the district's assistant superintendent for student services. Sunnyside contributes about $150,000 a year from its operating budget.
"It provides a very-much-needed service," Storm said. "We know it's keeping kids in school, it's helping them to be better parents and it will help them be more productive later."
Rachel Vasavilbaso, an administrative assistant at Sunnyside, was in the teen-parent program 18 years ago when she gave birth to her first child.
"It was very difficult for me, because I was a very involved student," Vasavilbaso recalled. "I was a cheerleader, and I was on the Student Council. I was kicked out of both programs _ in a nice way.'
"The teenage-parent program gave me a sense of belonging again."
Vasavilbaso was 16 and a sophomore when daughter Elora Diaz was born. Thirteen months later, in her junior year, she gave birth to her second daughter, Jacquelyn Diaz. The following year, Vasavilbaso graduated _ on time.
But history repeated itself. Jacquelyn, a sophomore this year, gave birth to a son, Diamante, 17 months ago, at the beginning of her freshman year.
"That was very sad for me," Vasavilbaso said. "I never wished or wanted my children to go down that road."
But for Vasavilbaso and her daughter, adversity seems to give way to achievement.
At Sunnyside, Vasavilbaso works as a first responder to student problems when they arise _ from smoking in a boys bathroom to fights and lost ID tags.
"She's great. If anything good happens around here, it's usually because of her," said Manuel Davila, Sunnyside's assistant principal for student services.
Vasavilbaso also runs a janitorial business with her husband and sells real estate on the side. In her spare time, she's the high school's cheerleading coach.
"I want to teach my children that they can accomplish whatever they want," she said.
Jacquelyn's goal is to become a nurse. "I want to help people, and it's a great-paying job," she said.
Jacquelyn stayed in school, enduring the stares of fellow students when she became pregnant in the eighth grade.
"Now, the little things don't affect me _ the things other teenagers get into a crisis over," she said. "I don't let them get in my way. I have too much to lose."
Sunnyside's teen-parent program was one of three funded in the late 1980s by the Flinn Foundation of Phoenix. The other two were at high schools in Phoenix and Chandler.
Early success rates prompted the foundation to fund eight more programs, one of them in the Marana Unified School District, which started its program in 1991.
"For many of these young teens, they have to drop out to get a job, pay the bills, buy the diapers," said John Murphy, the foundation's president and chief executive officer. "And when confronted with those harsh realities, school becomes a distant memory. That penalizes both the young adult and the infant."
The American Youth Policy Forum issued a report last year on the cost to society of teens' dropping out of high school. According to the report, high school dropouts contribute to state and federal tax revenues at about half the rate of high school graduates.
Dropouts are more likely to require government assistance for food, housing and health care. If one-third of dropouts stayed in school and got diplomas, they would save assistance programs $11 billion a year.
Despite the success of teen-parent programs, they are offered in just 12 school districts statewide _ three in Tucson.
Patty Jo Angelini, a board member and former director of the Arizona Coalition on Teen Pregnancy, said Tucson outshines the rest of the state in its consistent support for teen-parent programs.
"Tucson is saying: 'We're investing in our young people. We're investing in our future.' "

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