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Collaboration helps teen moms earn their GED

Group of teens gathered around tables
A collaboration between First Glance Student Center and Project: LEARN is helping teen moms get their GED.

Pregnancy changes everything. That's what nearly 75 teenage girls in Kenmore are discovering as they navigate the challenges of motherhood with the help of Teen Moms.

The program, which started with just a few girls meeting in the back of a funeral home, has grown into one of the most comprehensive services for teenage parents in greater Akron. Girls who participate in the program meet weekly to learn about being a good mom while their child is cared for by volunteers. Meetings include hands-on activities, speakers, dinner and more, and girls can earn points to purchase clothes and diapers for their babies. 

Now, these young mothers can also earn their GEDs. In January, Teen Moms teamed up with Project: LEARN of Summit County to offer girls free classes toward their diploma. 

According to Teen Moms Director Karen Freeman, education is one of the biggest challenges facing young parents, particularly those who drop out of high school once the baby is born.

"Most of the girls do not anticipate ending their education when they are expecting a child. However, once they have the child, that changes and they drop out for what they think will only be a short time," she said. "Unfortunately, they don't generally go back."

Entering adulthood without a high school diploma presents several challenges, including the obvious disadvantages faced when searching for a job. But perhaps more startling is the effect dropping out of school has on girls' tendency to get pregnant again.

"Statistics show that if a girl does not go back to high school, she will have a second child in two years," Freeman said. "Our girls fit into that statistic perfectly, like clockwork."

To help stop this trend, Freeman reached out to Akron Community Foundation. Staff at the foundation then connected her with Project: LEARN, a community-based organization that provides free tutoring and GED classes. The agency agreed to send a teacher out to Kenmore, and Park United Methodist Church stepped in to offer space for the classes.

"This site is a perfect set-up for my girls," Freeman said. "The teacher seems like a great fit, and the class is already acting as a small community."

Project: LEARN Executive Director Rick McIntosh said the site has been so successful that it may become a model for similar sites around the county. The key to its success, he said, is the dedication of the Teen Moms volunteers.

"They've got a group of very concerned citizens that help Project: LEARN retain and make a difference in the lives of the teens coming to that site," McIntosh said. "The volunteers help the students deal with (outside) barriers that come with them into class and provide that critical missing piece to help them get their GED."

For instance, in the past, girls had trouble going to class consistently because they couldn't find transportation or child care. Now, the church is paying a babysitter to watch the children while their moms are learning. Because the class meets twice a week, however, transportation continues to be an obstacle. Many girls walk long distances to get to the site, while others rely on rides from undependable sources. 

To help, Freeman said she gives bus passes to as many girls as she can afford, and others are driven by program volunteers.

"My leaders and other volunteers are anxious to help the girls worth through their trouble spots in accomplishing (their education) goals," Freeman said.

Already, enthusiasm for the program has been strong. At the initial orientation, 10 of the 14 people in attendance were from the Teen Moms program, and Freeman said the momentum has been building.

"For many of the girls, it will be the first thing in their lives they have seen through to completion," she said. "Many of them don't think past today, so to plan for a future education is huge."

Perhaps most importantly, getting an education often has a domino-effect in helping teenage mothers rebuild their lives. Freeman said many of the girls also struggle with poverty, low self-esteem, and a lack of family support, all of which improve when girls are introduced to mentors that help them meet their educational goals. 

The lives of their young children are also dramatically improved. "We know the best prediction of success in school is the education of the mother," McIntosh said. "When we can make a difference in the mother's life and help her stay in school, she's more likely to become an educational role model (for her child). Our investment in these young ladies is going to pay off down the road in the next generation."

Statistically speaking, parental education is linked to improved cognitive and behavioral outcomes in children, as well as reduced early sexual activity and teen pregnancies. "Obtaining a diploma or a GED is an important factor in reducing intergenerational poverty," Freeman said.

In addition, by helping girls improve their self-esteem through educational achievements, the number of girls who get pregnant a second or even a third time decreases. 

"If we can get them to feel good about themselves and who they are, they may not give in so easily," Freeman said. "(Getting their GED) will give them a sense of worth and value."

Freeman recalls one particular girl who underwent a complete transformation after entering the Teen Moms program: "I have one teen mom who was an extremely rough girl before her baby.  She regularly beat up other students and was a force to be reckoned with. I took her to the Urban League's GED program, and her math skills were so poor that she did not qualify for the program. One of my mentors encouraged her to start learning her multiplication tables, one number at a time. Then, one week at Teen Moms in front of the entire group, this girl stopped me and said, 'Miss Karen, listen to me do my fours.' That one moment will forever live in my heart and mind – what a huge message she sent to the other girls."

It is experiences like this that motivate Freeman to keep challenging the girls to go back to school. 

"It is an incredible feeling when I see them take this first step," she said. "We can try to help these girls on multiple levels, but if we fail to encourage them in education, we fail not only them but their children, as well. Just seeing them take interest in their education is so rewarding."

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