June 12, 2011
APPLETON — In January 2010, Neenah High School junior Jessie Gillespie — then 17 and dizzied by a stomach-fouling set of nerves — summoned the courage to speak an unmentionable, unthinkable, unavoidable truth.
“I’m pregnant,” she told her guidance counselor, softly.
Though Gillespie didn’t know it at the time, that admission and tacit plea for help won her immediate access to a largely obscure but extensive network of resources and services available to pregnant teens and teen parents in the Fox Valley.
In the weeks after two Kimberly High School students were accused of abandoning their newborn daughter behind a church last month — a pregnancy the fearful 17-year-old mother hid from family, teachers and classmates — The Post-Crescent consulted Fox Valley high school principals, counselors and nurses about local resources for pregnant teens and school-age parents.
The P-C found that schools essentially outsource many services that help expectant and parenting students stay in school. In addition to modifying class schedules and offering courses on childhood development, schools lean on a web of nonprofit, faith-based and governmental organizations that blankets the Valley.
But to access that community-based help, students must often seek it out — a nerve-wracking, humbling gesture that requires the very self-awareness and maturity that may have been lacking when the unborn or newborn child was conceived.
“We do not have a formal program for pregnant teens or teen parents,” said Sharral Jensen, a nurse at Neenah High School. “(But) I usually receive a referral from a school counselor when a girl becomes pregnant and meet with her regularly during her pregnancy to offer education, support and community referrals.”
Now 18 and a recent Neenah High School graduate, Gillespie turned to the Internet before seeking help at school.
“Google can only get you so far,” she quickly discovered.
Confused and scared as she tried to learn more about adoption — which she ultimately chose for her son, Tyler — Gillespie reluctantly decided to consult her school guidance counselor after talking it over with her parents.
“I was pretty embarrassed about it,” Gillespie said. “I didn’t want to tell (my teachers I was pregnant), but I knew someone needed to know because I had to go to the bathroom a lot more … It’s an odd thing to have to tell someone.”
Once the words escaped her lips, Gillespie discovered far more resources and options than she ever knew existed.
“I really didn’t know there was anything, I didn’t know that the school did anything at all,” she said. “They don’t really talk about it … I was shocked to find out they did so much. They give you all the resources to make an educated decision.”
Gillespie’s experience is typical: Students often bear the responsibility to seek help, but once they do, schools shepherd them to a network of assistance that is deep, broad and long lasting.
Wisconsin state law requires that school districts accommodate pregnant teens and school-age parents by modifying programs and making resources available to help them stay in school and graduate.
A few local school districts — particularly Appleton, Green Bay and Menasha — have comprehensive programs in place for pregnant and parenting teens. But most districts meet state requirements through fairly simple programs, such as the effort under way at Kimberly High School.
“We don’t have anything formalized, but we do offer a variety of services,” said Mike Rietveld, principal at Kimberly. “First, our school nurse always meets with the individuals, both the males and the females, but especially the young ladies to make sure that they’re getting medical care. If they aren’t, (the nurse) contacts parents and tries to connect them to medical services.”
From time to time, school officials even help students break the life-altering news to their parents.
“Sometimes the student is very terrified to tell mom and dad,” Rietveld said. “Occasionally it’s a situation where we have the parent come in to school and the counselor will sit down with the student and the parent to have that first conversation.”
Once the pregnancy is confirmed and the student receives adequate medical attention, Rietveld said, the school works around the student’s new schedule requirements, which often includes six weeks of homebound instruction for teen moms.
“Basically, we’re trying to make sure we can create a schedule for them that works so that if they need a block of time off from school because of daycare issues and other things, we try to work that in,” he said. “Our goal is to get them to graduate on time.”
Similarly, students at Little Chute High School use the district’s school-within-a-school framework for greater flexibility with scheduling.
“That setting is generally the setting that our young ladies who either have children or are going to have children choose,” said Cindy Heath, a school guidance counselor. “They can go out to work in the afternoon or do volunteer work. They can do their coursework in a more flexible pace.”
Above and beyond
Some districts take it a step further by hiring staff members who work exclusively with pregnant and parenting students.
“We have a very structured program where we offer a parenting class in some schools,” said Dorie Railling, who runs the School-Age Parent Program in Appleton. The Green Bay Area School District has a similar program.
In addition to coordinating support groups and one-on-one counseling, Railling organizes “Baby Day” twice a year.
“Teens from years past come back and bring their babies,” Railling said. “(Teen moms) can help each other and let (expecting moms) know what’s in their future.”
Similarly, Menasha High School invites teen parents to address students in health class, where the young parents are peppered with frank questions: Do you feel that getting pregnant was a mistake or do you regret it? What was going through your mind when you found out you were going to have a baby? Are you still with the other parent of the baby?
“We call it the ‘teen parent panel,’” said Julie Holly, counselor at Menasha. “Students tend to remember that — it makes a big impression on freshmen.”
For help beyond the schoolhouse, local districts connect students with a wide range of community and governmental organizations that offer everything from medical attention and daycare assistance to food stamps and relationship counseling.
“(School social workers) explore all the different options that the students have, whether it’s carrying the child to term and keeping the child or carrying the child to term and putting it up for adoption,” said Rob Kerl, a counselor at Oshkosh West High School. “I don’t know that we’ve ever really talked about abortion with them unless they bring it up. Typically, because it’s such a hot-button issue, we encourage them to pursue putting children up for adoption. But the bottom line is if they ask questions about things, we will give them straight information.”
When schools direct students to local resources, one local nonprofit stands first among equals: Family Services of Northeast Wisconsin.
“They do a number of really incredible programs for teen moms and dads,” said Little Chute’s Cindy Heath.
“We have a lot of free resources available for pregnant teens,” said Katie Krauter, family support specialist at Parent Connection, a division of Family Services that works with teen parents of both sexes. “We have an in-home visitation program. Our teen parent coordinator (goes) into their home and (meets) with them twice a month for about an hour, and (brings) information about child development in that prenatal stage: how to take care of yourself, what to expect, how to sign up for the (federal Women, Infant and Children’s nutrition) program to help pay for formula, etc.”
The program also offers a “baby basics” course for fathers and teen parent support groups.
“Parent Connection is fabulous, just fabulous. They have so many classes, they provide so many services for teen parents,” said Menasha’s Julie Holly.
In addition to funneling pregnant and parenting students to programs at Family Services, school districts make sure their students are also connected to the host of services available from municipal, county, state and federal governments.
“We try to discourage teen pregnancy, but ultimately we’re going to provide the resources (needed) to have them be successful,” said Tracy Hackert, a psychologist at Menasha High School.