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PROGRAM COMBINES STUDY GROUP WITH DAY CARE TO HELP TEEN MOTHERS CATCH UP IN SCHOOLWORK

Lisset Roman is a 17-year-old mother with a mission:

"I'm very determined to graduate regardless of how long it takes," she said. "You can't get a job without a diploma."

Lisset also has learned another important lesson:

You can't get a high school diploma without having someone watch your 5-month-old son.

So she is taking advantage of a summer school program being offered for the first time by Buffalo Public Schools and the YWCA.

Through her participation in GIFT (Grandparents Infants Families Teens), Lisset has been meeting with two teachers and 19 other teen-age moms five days a week to prepare for examinations the students either failed or did not take in June.

They meet in Schoolhouse Commons, 1005 Grant St., which doubles as a senior-citizens residence, with their children across the hall in the YWCA's day-care program.

"Traditional high school is not for babies," said Rosalie Wiggle, director of alternative education for Buffalo Public Schools. "These girls had a chance for traditional education all year long . . . and they failed."

Of the almost 1,000 teen mothers in the Buffalo School District, the 20 girls seated at round tables with notebooks spread out in front of them were preparing not only to pass exams, but to face life after the summer program ends.

"I don't feel alone anymore," said Lisset, taking a break from studying for Global 10, English II and algebra exams. "I feel confident in passing my exams."

Even if she does pass all three exams, Lisset will enter her senior year at McKinley High School behind in several courses.

"I'll have to go to night school, but at least it won't be full-time," she said. "I'll only have to go two or three times a week."

But going to night school means someone will have to watch her 5-month-old son, Ruben Batista.

For now, he is right across the hall with the children of her classmates, something Lisset couldn't be happier about.

"It's a big relief, knowing he's right here," she said. "I concentrate more because I know I can check on him."

She also knows that he is getting the attention he needs, not only from the YWCA's staff but from senior citizens living in Schoolhouse Commons as well.

One of the seniors, Christine Smith, visits the children regularly.

"I think it's cool that she's down here," said Lisset. "My son loves her, and she loves the kids very much."

Next summer, Ms. Wiggle said she hopes more senior citizens will be able to participate in the program.

"It's a great experience for both the seniors and the babies," she said.

The after-school instruction the young mothers receive is a great experience as well.

After the summer school instruction from 9 a.m. until noon, Monday through Friday, the mothers choose to attend meetings sponsored by the American Red Cross and EPIC (Every Person Influences Children), where parenting skills and stress and anger management classes are taught.

But perhaps more important than the instruction these young women have received is the friendships they have built during the six-week program.

Girls who didn't know one another when the program began have formed a support system for one another.

"I totally understand what the other girls are going through," said Shannon Brown, 17, the mother of 18-month-old Graceann. "If one of us isn't here for a couple of days, someone will call to make sure everything is OK."

With everything teen moms have to deal with, this support system is vital, said instructor Judith Balzer.

"Mondays are the worst," she said. "You can see it in their faces when they come in on Mondays. They'll be working all morning and then all of a sudden they put their head down on the table. That's like raising their hand."

On those occasions, Ms. Balzer said she will sit down and talk with the young mother. Often all they need is someone to listen. When social services are necessary, the calls are made from the program.

"We emphasize problem solving," Ms. Balzer said. "The girls are able to give advice to one another. They are tremendous."

Because they are all in the same boat, the young mothers do relate to one another more than other students their age.

"These girls are finally able to connect with themselves and with each other," Ms. Balzer said. "The bottom line is their confidence level is increased."

It shows in their studies.

"I've learned here, in this program, more than I have all year long in a regular classroom," said Shannon, entering her senior year at the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts.

The young mothers also realize they can make things work.

"I realize how lucky I am, seeing how some of the other girls struggle," said Lisset.

This week the 20 young mothers took a total of 44 exams in 19 different subjects. They are on the path to a high school diploma, and hopeful that the struggle to get by will be made a little easier as a result.

"We're trying to give them a message," Ms. Wiggle said. "You took a detour but that doesn't mean you have to be off the road forever."

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