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Breaking the Cycle
With Fairfax Program's Aid, Teen Mom of 2 Balances Education, Parenting

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 20, 2009

Monica Aramburu was in eighth grade at Lanier Middle School when she had her first child. Her senior year, she became a mother again.

Most teenage girls with babies drop out of school. But Aramburu transferred to Bryant Adult Alternative High School in Fairfax County, where she and her daughter and, later, her son could attend school together.

Last night, 5-year-old Priscilla Augment finished her school year with a pre-kindergarten graduation ceremony, at which she wore a fresh white sundress and a bow in her hair. Aramburu is weeks away from a high school diploma.

"I didn't think we would make it," said Aramburu, now 19, her pink JanSport backpack full of diapers, formula and a year's worth of algebra worksheets and quizzes organized in a Hannah Montana folder.

Some estimates put the dropout rate for teen mothers at 60 percent. Such mothers are far more likely to live in poverty and have daughters who become teen mothers.

"By coming here, she broke the cycle," said Elizabeth Link, who founded the Project Opportunity program in 1987. About 2,500 young women have come through the program in the Alexandria section of Fairfax, one of two in the county. Nearly 20 alumnae came to a retirement party for Link this spring, many of them teachers, nurses or graduate students, some with children in college.

"Just because you have a baby at a young age does not mean you cannot be successful" is Link's mantra.

But finding the right combination of services for a parenting teenager is difficult. The Bryant program offers flexible schedules, parenting classes, mentoring, transportation and job counseling before and after graduation. Key to Bryant's success, Link said, is a partnership with the on-campus day-care center run by United Community Ministries. The center reserves as many as a quarter of its spots for the children of the program's teen moms.

Teenage mothers are legally entitled to services at their neighborhood schools, but many choose to transfer to specialized programs where they will not feel stigmatized.

After 15 years of steady declines in teen pregnancy, demand for such programs could be on the rise. From 2005 to 2007, the teen birth rate climbed 5 percent, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

Aramburu moved to Virginia from Peru with her mother when she was in third grade. A year later she met Mark Augment, the boy who would become the father of her children, at Daniels Run Elementary School in Fairfax. She remembers him first as the skinny boy with curly hair who made fun of her. Two years later, he passed her a note, through a friend, with his phone number on it.

When they started going out, "we were little kids," she said. They went to McDonald's after school, played flashlight tag and talked for hours on the phone.

In seventh grade, they started having sex. They knew about condoms, Aramburu said, but were embarrassed to buy them and afraid to ask their parents for help. By eighth grade, she became pregnant.

Her mother was devastated. "She could not even look at me," Aramburu said. A counselor referred them to Bryant.

Priscilla was born in spring 2004. The new mother and daughter enrolled in school together in the fall. Aramburu repeated eighth grade with a small group of other middle-school moms, learning science and history as well as parenting skills and child development. She spent her lunch hour with Priscilla in day care.

Several of the other mothers she met at school dropped out, she said. Many felt pressure from families to work; others thought school was too hard. Aramburu's mother, who was working two jobs, said she would support her financially as long as she stayed in school.

For three years, Aramburu commuted to and from school with Priscilla in a bus outfitted with car seats and seat belts. They often spent weekends with her boyfriend, who by then had dropped out of school, but their relationship was off and on.

By junior year, she was exhausted. She enrolled in night classes, hoping to get her diploma sooner. But she ended up failing some courses and delaying graduation. She and her boyfriend talked about the possibility of her moving in with his family in Maryland. She dropped out of school, got a job at the mall and planned to get her GED.

But last summer, she found out she was pregnant again. "You should learn from your mistakes. I did the opposite," she said. "I was pretty sad most of the time because of that, and I was scared."

She decided she wanted to be a better role model. She re-enrolled at Bryant and got ready to graduate within the year.

That fall, she was back in school, and when she felt the baby kick for the first time, her outlook improved. "I thought, 'Everything is going to be okay.' "

But the school year was hard. Priscilla got sick in February and was hospitalized for two weeks with a bone infection. Aramburu slept in the hospital with her every night. A month later, Nathaniel Augment was born.

She was back in school by mid-April -- this time, with two children.

One afternoon this month, the halls at Bryant were mostly deserted. Many students were gone. But Aramburu was finishing work from spring semester and getting a jump-start on geometry, the last class she needs to pass before she can graduate in August.

She met with a special education teacher to talk about a research paper. Then she walked downstairs to the day-care area. Past a hallway full of construction paper caterpillars and butterflies, she found Priscilla in the pre-K classroom.

Mother and daughter, wearing matching Nikes and bluejeans, clasped hands and went to pick up Nathaniel from the infant room. Aramburu found his blue blanket and rinsed out his baby bottles. They went outside to wait for the bus.

Priscilla will start kindergarten in the fall, and Aramburu plans to enroll in community college. She wants to study business administration or possibly social work, and she wants to be able one day to show her children her college degree.

"That's my goal for them," she said.

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