As Rosario Rocha rolls through the tough West Sacramento neighborhood of Oak Park, it’s as though she is recalling someone else’s childhood world: the drugs and prostitutes, the school yard violence-and, of course, pregnancy in high school.
Today, at twenty-two, Rocha has a vision of the world that ranges far beyond the stifling confines of Oak Park to college, a career, and someday her own house in another part of town. At six, her daughter Megan, as confident a first grader as you’re likely to meet, is as busy as the offspring of any baby boomer: at the moment there are classes in violin, folk dance, and ballet.
In large measure, Rocha credits her transformation to finding a program called Teen Success, a project of Planned Parenthood Mar Monte supported in part by grants from the Hewlett Foundation. The support is part of the Foundation’s larger commitment to making grants to help disadvantaged communities throughout the Bay Area.
Teen Success, which reaches girls in twenty-one locations in California and another half dozen across the country, fills a need that few others do: it teaches teenage girls who already have had one child how to avoid a second teen pregnancy and find their way in the world.
“When I started at Teen Success, I thought, ‘Okay, I’m done,”’ Rosario Rocha says, laughing at the memory. “‘I have a high school equivalency, I’m a Hispanic mom-I guess I’ll make more babies.'”
Statistics suggest she’s far from alone. Studies of teenage mothers conclude that between a third and a quarter of them will have a second child within two years. And those who do are less likely to obtain a high school diploma and more likely to live in poverty or receive public assistance than those who don’t. Nor are the odds in their families’ favor even if they stop at one. The children of teen parents are ten times more likely to be poor, suffer severe health problems, and drop out of school. They also are more likely to end up in jail.
A Philanthropist Sees a Need
Started in 1990 with funding from former California state senator and Silicon Valley philanthropist Becky Morgan, today Teen Success holds promise as a national model for how to help young mothers successfully navigate the twin challenges of motherhood and adolescence. Terri Lind, Associate Vice President of Teen Programs for Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, said the program has hired experts to conduct a large-scale, year-long evaluation of the program at all the sites to determine the crucial elements of its success.
To date, the numbers have been impressive. Data collection was uneven in the program’s early years, but of the more than 1,000 girls who have participated in Teen Success, the percentage of those having a second child in their teenage years is far lower than the national average of 20 percent, Lind says.
Those who complete the program also complete high school or its equivalent at a rate more than double the national average: roughly 90 percent of Teen Success graduates earn a high school diploma or the equivalent, compared to 41 percent of pregnant teens nationwide. Even more impressive, 67 percent of Teen Success graduates do as Rosario Rocha is doing and go on to post-high school education. Nationally, only 2 percent of teen moms have a college degree by age thirty.
“It’s broad life issues, issues of adolescence that need to be addressed,” says Lind. “It’s, Who am I? What can I accomplish? Am I lovable? These girls are all at risk.”
Working with two facilitators in groups of twelve, the girls meet once a week for two hours to share problems and stories, and learn how to cope. Few have had positive experiences with men. One girl says she has had a tough week because her best friend was shot in the head. Another recalls brandishing a screwdriver at a girl she saw with the father of her baby.
“If someone comes in with a black eye, everything else stops, and they deal with that,” says Lind. “It’s really hard work to do because it’s not scripted, and there are lots of shades of gray.”
Each session begins with a snack, then transitions to a group discussion. The talk might be about emergency contraception, but ranges far more widely. The real goal is for the girls to learn the discipline to set long-term goals and work toward them.
Initially at least, a young mother’s incentive might be the two-hour break that the free child care offers, or the small stipend. Each girl gets $10 if she attends the entire two hours. Come late or leave early and she forfeits the money. For every twenty-five weeks of attendance (they don’t need to be consecutive) a girl receives a $100 bonus-a considerable sum for most teen moms. She also signs a contract saying she will maintain the current size of her family, stay in school or get back in if she has have dropped out, not be involved in any substance abuse, and commit to the program for at least a year.
“Initially, it was about the $10,” acknowledges Rocha. Now, asked what part of the program she most appreciates in retrospect, without hesitation she says it was the discipline.
“When a facilitator suggested I could go to community college, I said, ‘What!?'” she recalls. “That just wasn’t part of my experience. I started at community college in my first year at Teen Success.
“Later, when I got a copy of my transcript, I looked at my GPA, and it said Honors. I said, ‘What’s this?’ And a teacher told me everyone who had at least a 3.6 GPA qualified. And I’m the first one in my family to go to college.”
Learning from Each Other
Lind says sometimes the older girls can wield as much influence as the facilitators.
“We get girls as young as thirteen,” she says. “So you have some seventeen-year-olds who are the sage voices of the group. They can say, ‘You know, I used to think that, too. I never thought I’d go to college.’ And sometimes the younger girls get a vision of what’s possible. It’s much more powerful coming from a peer.”
By the end of the year, Lind says, most girls say they don’t want to leave. Some stay several years. Many of these kids are familiar with abandonment of one sort or another, she says, and having to leave the program can feel like that. Even success can present problems. “A girl being independent and going to college can alienate her from her family, which might not be familiar with either,” Lind says, adding that helping the girls and their families appreciate their success is a part of the work.
Rosario Rocha has been lucky in that regard. Her parents, who brought her here from Mexico when she was five, now watch Megan so Rosario can attend classes at Sacramento Community College. For the past decade they have worked at a local hotel as a janitor and maid.
Rocha, who now works as a facilitator at Teen Success between college classes, says her parents immigrated to give her a chance at the American Dream. It’s a dream that she says she takes seriously. After community college, she plans to transfer to California State University, Sacramento, to get a degree in math-her first love-and a teaching certificate, so she can join the faculty of the high school she quit when she became pregnant.
“There are too few women teachers there,” she says