LaToya Wright was a ninth-grader at McKeesport Area Senior High School when she had her daughter, Jalajia. Almost two decades later, she’s one of the program coordinators for Teen Elect, the same program that she said helped “change my life” as a young mother.
“Sometimes you need people outside of your family to support you and extra ears to listen and help,” she said. “I’ll always have a soft spot for the program. It helped me beat the odds and not become another statistic.”
Teen Elect — which stands for Education Leading to Employment and Career Training — serves more than 30 students in three local high schools: McKeesport Area, Elizabeth Forward and South Allegheny.
Ms. Wright tries to focus the weekly meetings and monthly workshops on issues related to the mothers’ everyday lives, including resume building, job searching, SAT and ACT preparation, relationship building with the children’s fathers, college and career fairs, and emotional counseling. A state grant allocates $198,000 annually to the program, said Dave Seropian, McKeesport Area business manager.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the annual costs of teen childbearing as of 2008 averaged $10.9 billion nationally and $463 million in Pennsylvania. In its 2013 prevention status report, the CDC summarized that teen mothers tend to have lower rates of school completion and reduced earnings. The report also said that children of teenage mothers are more likely to experience abuse or neglect, have more health problems, be incarcerated at some point during adolescence and also give birth as teenagers.
It’s those dire statistics that make the program imperative for young mothers, Ms. Wright said.
“Some people want to take things like this and sweep it under the rug to keep it quiet,” she said. “I say don’t let your decisions define you and do your best. That’s all you can do.”
The program, she said, has had a 100 percent graduation rate for enrolled teen parents for the past three years and offers support to mothers that makes it nearly impossible for them to fail. Based on their attendance at school and at Elect workshops and their grades, students receive educational incentives for their children, including gift cards to stores such as Babies R Us and Barnes & Noble.
The program also offers a “baby bus” for students who need transportation, which will pick up students and their children, drop the child off at day care, then bring the student to school.
Persona Warfield, 18, has been in the program for two years. Her guidance counselor arranged a meeting with Ms. Wright after Persona became pregnant with her son, Marvelle. School became very difficult for her, she said, after people discovered she was pregnant.
“People’s opinions of me changed,” she said. “They thought I was an 'out there' kind of girl. I was really aware of who my real friends were afterwards.”
The program helped her find understanding people to talk to, she said, and inspired her to work hard to finish school and eventually pursue a career in counseling or nursing. She said she plans to join the Navy after graduating in June.
“It made me want to come to school more, knowing that there was someone here to help me grow and become an even better mother for my son,” she said. “If you’re having a bad day, they’re the first ones to find out.”
Ms. Wright, who has lived and worked in McKeesport for most of her life, said she still has girls come back to her after graduation to seek advice and share their success stories.
“When I see girls hold onto their dreams and goals even after their pregnancy and take the steps to turn them into a reality, that’s how I know I’ve done my job,” she said.
Clarece Polke: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1889. Twitter: @clarepolke.