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Cassie Jimenez and daughter

Cassie Jimenez, right, plays with her two-year-old daughter, Mallorie, during a brief visit to the Early Head Start classroom. Mallorie's free childcare is included as part of the teen parent program Jimenez enrolled in three years ago. 

At age 15, Cassie Jimenez was struggling to balance her high-school classes with raising her infant daughter, Mallorie.

Without a daycare option that fit her school schedule, the Kelso sophomore often skipped class so she could stay home to care for Mallorie. She was falling behind, and the obstacles to earning a high school diploma were piling up.

All that changed when Jimenez transferred to R.A. Long High School three years ago and enrolled in the Longview School District teen parent program.

Now in her senior year, Jimenez, 18, is on track to graduate this spring. She is preparing to enroll at Clark College, where her daughter can continue to attend early education daycare classes.

“(The teen parent program) helped me look into the future and get connected with different programs,” Jimenez said. “It’s really helped me and Mallorie grow in different ways.”

Jimenez is one of about 14 students currently enrolled in the teen parent program, which pairs a parenting-focused life skills course and traditional academics with free childcare. Most students join the program by referral from a counselor, teacher or peer, said program coordinator Chelsea Chandler.

The program is a partnership between the school district and the Lower Columbia College Early Head Start program, which started in 2010. While mothers are in school, their children are at Head Start.

The program “lays the foundation for teen parents to go onto the next step (after graduation) and be successful,” Chandler said.

Nationally, only about half of teen mothers receive their high school diploma, and the children of teenage mothers are also more likely than their peers to drop out of high school, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Children of teen mothers are also more likely to have babies in their teens, too.

“Providing these supports can really help set the student on a path, and the child on a path, they might not have had without that to break the cycle,” Chandler said.

This program can eliminate the choice between finishing high school or raising a child, said Megan Shea-Bates, early education coordinator for the Longview School District.

“We know Cowlitz County has the No. 1 rate of teen pregnancy in the state,” Shea said. “Instead of seeing that as an obstacle ... our job as a district is figuring out how to serve that need.”

As part of their six-period class schedule, the teen parents take a life skills class to learn about child development, health safety and nutrition, financial literacy, healthy relationship skills and how to prepare for life as a parent after high school. Each lesson is personalized to the needs of the parents. For example, the childhood development unit focuses on the ages for each toddler whose mother is enrolled in the program.

The teen parents can also choose how they explore a particular topic, making the lessons more meaningful to them, said Michelle Strozyk, teen parent program teacher.

“We say to them often that this program is for them, not for us,” Strozyk said. “We want them to be able to take this information and apply it to their real lives.”

Strozyk also serves as an area manager for the Early Head Start program, and she oversees the 16 free slots delegated to the teen parent program. The federally funded school readiness program prepares infants and toddlers for preschool, develops their social skills and values free health screenings.

The Early Head Start classes “operate seamlessly” with the parenting class, Strozyk said. The early learning teachers keep a log of each day’s activities, and they go over that list with the teen parents to show what the child learns from each activity.

“The things you don’t realize are educational opportunities in the throes of parenthood, we are trying to show them,” Chandler said.

The childcare component gives Jimenez peace of mind knowing Mallorie is playing and learning in a safe environment. It also helps Jimenez focus on her own learning, she said.

The program has been so influential to Jimenez’s life as a teen parent that the high school senior signed up to represent the program on its state policy council. This legislative session, Jimenez will travel to Olympia to advocate for funding for Early Head Start programs.

“I want to be a voice for Early Head Start and the teen parents because we get overlooked a lot,” Jimenez said.

Jimenez is just one of many success stories from the program, which Chandler said has also produced AmeriCorps volunteers, Head Start employees, young entrepreneurs and several college graduates.

“When I think about when I first started, I just wanted to do it because I wanted to graduate. I didn’t realize they would help me find a college and help me learn about different things,” Jimenez said. “They’ve taught me a lot, even when we are having a simple conversation.”

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