- Associated Press - Saturday, July 12, 2014

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Rikita Huland, 19, thought she’d graduate from Landry-Walker High School in Algiers, go to college and work in early childhood development. After she started her career, she figured, she would have a baby of her own.

As it turned out, early childhood development came first. “He’s here now. I’m just making the best of it,” she said recently, dangling a rattle as her 9-month-old son, Lloyal Young, stared out of big, almond-shaped eyes at visitors to Landry-Walker. He’s increased her motivation. “I want to be successful for him,” she said.

Her sentiment was shared by Ianta Brown, 17, mother of 8-month-old Devon McGrew, and Dajia Franklin, 17, mother of 18-month-old Trinity.

Becoming a mother “made me feel like I had to step up,” Brown said.

Although New Orleans’ teen birth rate is falling, there still were 39 births for every 1,000 15- to 19-year-old women in the city in 2011, according to the KidsCount database. About 70 of Landry-Walker’s 1,240 students last year were parents. Principal Mary Laurie knows what it’s like: she, too, had her first child while in high school.

“You can’t just throw these kids to the side because they made a mistake,” Landry-Walker social worker Fran Pursell said.

Which is why 17 of those teen parents are spending their summer days in literacy and child-care classes. Landry-Walker and the Center for Development and Learning are piloting a program to help them stay in school, improve their children’s lives and prepare for work. They will earn 90 hours toward a Child Development Association certificate to work in day-care centers.

Childcare is provided during the classes. So is a stipend, for otherwise, the students would have to take jobs to pay for Pampers.

“We make a real effort because we know what kinds of problems they face,” Pursell said. “I tell them all the time, ‘You need to complete school now even more than before. … This doesn’t mean that you can’t follow your dreams. The only thing is, it is going to make it a little bit harder.’”

While reviewing infant cognitive development, class got real-life and personal. “Some of you who have shared your sonograms with me - we can see the brain in the sonograms,” teacher Amy Poteet Poirier reminded them.

Students traded stories about when their babies began to crawl. Again and again, Poirier emphasized the importance of those first few years. “Remember how Rikita said her baby looks around all the time and she was worried?” she said. “The more curious they are, the more they’re going to learn.”

Even the reading and writing class hit home. From a journal-writing assignment, teacher Carl Davis segued into a discussion of taking responsibility, making good choices and not getting pregnant. “Girls get pregnant. Boys make like they don’t got nothing to do with it,” said Shaunneka Hampton, who’s due next month.

However, a number of fathers are in the program. Jamal Gibson, 17, thought it was a no-brainer. The basketball player’s girlfriend is due in December. “If I’m a father, I’m going to take care of the child. That’s how I feel about it,” he said. He’s started to imagine playing sports with his son or daughter - they don’t know which they’re having yet - “helping him be something in life.”

During a break, the participants streamed next door where children slept in play pens or ran around an alphabet mat, next to a changing table of pushed-together desks and under a Nelson Mandela poster recommending “perseverance.” A “little player in a big shirt” - Joeseph West, 2, in a cheeky basketball jersey - crowed “Dada!” and flung his arms around the neck of Kenneth Hagan Jr., 15.

Adults warred to play with the babies. Hampton brought Lloyal some crackers and took over rattle detail.

The program, it seems, has given rise to a host of courtesy aunts and uncles. Poteet said the students were becoming a support network for each other, which was especially useful for those who don’t have much help at home.

Normally, participants’ children are at an Algiers child-care center, but it was closed for the week. The Center for Development and Learning is conducting a feasibility study to have on-site child care at Landry-Walker. The community health clinic in the school building lets parents get prenatal and pediatric care right downstairs.

The partners are still determining whether the program can continue in the fall. If it does, they hope to add another 15 participants.

Huland said the class has changed her parenting already. “I read to him more, every day,” she said. “I know that it’s important.”

There was one piece of information she regretted not knowing ahead of time. “I wish someone would’ve told me that they can really hear inside the stomach, inside the womb,” she said, ruefully. “I wouldn’t have fussed with his dad!”

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Information from: The Times-Picayune, https://www.nola.com

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