Pregnant and parenting teens recognized for finishing high school

GRAD program helps them stay in school, be good parents

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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Adilene Miranda planned to drop out of high school when she got pregnant at 16. The whispers and stares in the hallway made school unbearable. But she wanted to do what her parents never did: graduate from high school.

"My parents never finished high school," Miranda said. "I want to change that for my family. I want my son to see that I graduated."

Desiree Barrera-Poulsen knew when she got pregnant nine months ago that she wouldn't be happy with a General Education Development credential. She wanted a diploma, and she wanted it from Evergreen High School, where her dad received his diploma.

Miranda and Barrera-Poulsen, along with a handful of other pregnant and parenting teens at Evergreen High School, will achieve those goals next week when they walk across the stage and accept their high school diplomas.

As the teens wrap up their senior year, they're also marking the end of their participation in the GRADS (Graduation, Reality and Dual-Role Skills) program at Evergreen, the magnet school for Evergreen Public Schools. The GRADS program not only keeps pregnant and parenting teens (male and female) in school, it teaches them about healthy pregnancies and babies, parenting skills, avoiding repeat pregnancies and providing for their families.

According to a 2010 national study, only 51 percent of teen moms will receive a diploma or GED by age 22, compared with 89 percent of non-teen moms. But through the GRADS program, 74 percent of the teens in the 2010-11 school year earned their diploma or GED, or planned to continue with the GRADS program.

Vancouver Public Schools also offers the program, with Hudson's Bay High School serving as the magnet school. The two schools are among only 21 across the state with GRADS programs.

On Wednesday, about a dozen teens from both school districts were recognized for their efforts to complete high school and the GRADS program. Wednesday's ceremony also showcased new GRADS partnerships in Clark County, thanks to a three-year federal grant.

In 2010, the Washington State Department of Health received a federal grant aimed at helping pregnant and parenting teens and women. The state health department then collaborated with 10 local health departments across the state, including Clark County Public Health. The state Attorney General's Office and Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction are also involved in the grant work.

The local health departments are tasked with developing sustainable community partnerships that will support the GRADS programs and the pregnant and parenting teens in the communities. In Clark County, that work began in earnest in August 2011.

In less than a year, the county has established partnerships with more than 70 organizations, said Kara Seaman, coordinator of the local collaboration efforts. Those partnerships have resulted in gifts of diapers and books, bringing parent-child literacy events to the schools, and new support groups for young parents. The efforts also helped link teens with prenatal medical care providers and informed medical offices about GRADS so providers could refer teens to the program, Seaman said.

The grant has also paid for the development of a new website, http://www.WashingTeenHelp.org, aimed at connecting pregnant and parenting teens to health information, state benefit programs, and community-specific support resources.

Next up: starting a career

For Miranda and Barrera-Poulsen, completing the GRADS program and high school will not only help them become the parents they strive to be, but also set them up for achieving their next goal: beginning a career.

For Miranda, that means spending the next year at the Clark County Skills Center to finish beauty school. For Barrera-Poulsen, it means building off the college credits she earned at the Skills Center and becoming a triage nurse.

For the teens, both 18, the accomplishment is also about setting an example for their children and showing those who doubted them that they can achieve their goals.

"I really dislike when people use pregnancy as an excuse for everything," Barrera-Poulsen said. "If I can do it, you can, too."

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health;http://facebook.com/reporterharshman;marissa.harshman@columbian.com.