When the District's first infant care center located in a junior high school opens Feb. 1, there will be more young mothers in the classrooms of Hart Junior High than the center can handle.
Yesterday, even as school board members questioned the propriety of caring for babies at a school for seventh through ninth graders, the center's coordinator said she is looking for alternate facilities for the overflow from Hart, on Minnesota Avenue SE in Congress Heights.
The school will be allotted six of the 12 spaces in the center, a converted basement classroom. The other six cribs are reserved for mothers who attend Ballou High School, three blocks away.
Last year, girls at Hart and Ballou gave birth to 111 babies, according to Sharman Dennis, coordinator of the infant care program. Two years ago, 18 Hart students dropped out because of their parental responsibilities, she said.
Mothers who place their babies at the center must spend lunch hours with their children. The center, like programs at two District high schools, is designed not merely to provide day care, but to train the girls how to be good parents.
"This ward has the highest teen-age pregnancy and infant mortality rates in the city," Dennis said. "There is a crisis in this city. We can ignore the fact that this is going on, or we can do something about it."
The center for the children of D.C. schoolchildren appeared festive and spacious at a ribbon-cutting ceremony yesterday. But the celebratory atmosphere did little to hide a political tiff that developed when word of the ribbon-cutting reached school board members this week.
Board President Linda Cropp (Ward 4) said the infant center was located at Hart solely because there was no room for it at Ballou. She said "its purpose is to serve the Ballou students and they had no space, so it was put in the closest school." She said Tuesday that the center was not intended to serve junior high school students.
Although Cropp and other board members said they did not know of plans to place the center in a junior high school, Dennis said the program has been part of the superintendent's comprehensive plan for three years. Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie did not return calls seeking comment yesterday.
R. Calvin Lockridge, the board member who represents Ward 8, where Hart is located, said he initially bristled at the idea of infant care in a junior high.
"I was worried that we were giving the wrong impression," he said. "But I've got to bite the bullet. There's more than enough young ladies with babies at Hart to justify this. Some of them are 17 years old, but some of them are 12.
"We don't condone babies having babies. But we recognize the fact that parenting skills must be developed earlier in some urban communities."
That is exactly what the Hart center is designed to do.
Filled with toys and equipped with a kitchen, the center, which opened with the aid of a $65,000 grant from the federally funded Developmental Disabilities Planning Council, will offer mothers training from a professional director and nursing and social work students.
"The idea is to provide mothers with the skills they need, and with self-esteem," Dennis said. "Many of these girls would drop out of school without this."
By intervening at the earliest possible stage, the center's planners hope to involve the children of teen-agers in a series of government programs, from the infant center to a toddler center at Ballou and on to Headstart and other early childhood programs.
"The students look at this as new hope," said Robert Milner, Hart's principal. "They realize that they have made a mistake. However, they still need the services of the system. Children who have children are under a lot of peer pressure. They do not have an easy time in school. They need encouragement. They need a friend."