“People don’t understand,” Cervantes recently told the Sparks Tribune. “You can’t talk to your friends. … I didn’t want to drop out but (having a baby) made it a lot harder.”
Fortunately, a friend told her about a program through the school that might help her care for her child, continue in school and maintain her grades.
She applied and was accepted into the Early Head Start program, administered through the University of Nevada, Reno’s Child and Family Research Center. The program partners with the Washoe County School District and benefits teen parents as well as their children. For Cervantes, it was one of the best things to happen to her as she was adjusting to being a young mother.
“They really are there for you when you need them,” said Cervantes, who has since graduated from Sparks High and still has Jayden in the program while she studies at Reno’s Milan Institute to become a pharmaceutical technician.
Recently, the local Early Head Start received $1.2 million in federal stimulus funding to hire 17 new staff members for the expanding program.
Sherry Waugh, director of the Child and Family Research Center, called the university program a training ground for teachers. The program launched in 1988 and has expanded to seven classrooms for students to learn about infants and toddlers in a child care setting. Early Head Start prepares infants and toddlers for school and also provides nutritional, medical and dental services.
Previously, the center was funded for about $1 million, which could serve 96 families. The additional $1.2 million will allow the center to nearly double its services to an extra 84 families.
“This is a high-quality, center-based child care and it’s one of the important pieces for every family, whether they’re low-poverty or not,” Waugh said.
Even though the program caters to the low-income children in the area, Waugh said fewer than 3 percent of eligible children are served. Families qualify for the service if their annual gross income is less than $22,000 for a family of four. Parents also must be working full-time, in school full-time or both.
Waugh said it became clear in the early 1960s that toddlers and children about 4 years old need to learn skills early, but in the mid-1990s it was found that learning can take place between birth and 3 years of age. In 1998, Nevada became the first state with a funded Early Head Start program for infants and toddlers.
Concurrently, the need has become great to provide quality child care even as more parents are unemployed today, Waugh said, especially among teen parents. Thus, the UNR center has partnered with the Washoe County School District, particularly with Sparks, Hug and Wooster high schools, to provide essential services for teen parents and their children.
“For children, one of the biggest correlates of their success is mom’s educational level,” Waugh said. “Keeping mom in school and having them finish high school and continuing their education after that is really important, so at those (WCSD) high schools we’ve provided infant and toddler care so moms can bring their babies to school with them.”
Joanne Everts, the WCSD director of child and family services, said the school district provides center-based programs for teens during the year and home-based visits during the summer. The program is successful in maintaining the students’ academic progress and success as they stay connected with teachers, tutors and counselors while the babies are properly supervised.
“Very often it is the teens that really need that support and a lot of teens, they might be living with their parents who are working themselves and can’t care for a child,” Everts said. “(Teens) might not have a stable home situation or they don’t have an ongoing means of support either financially or emotionally.”
The program takes up to 28 students on an annual basis. This past spring, 12 of 28 teen parent seniors graduated from high school. Of those, 10 are now enrolled in community college or a university. Five teen parents received scholarships and three received the Millennium Scholarship to attend the University of Nevada, Reno.
“And one teen received a school attendance award for only missing one day in four years,” Everts said. “That’s pretty amazing when you have a child.”
In Cervantes’ case, Jayden’s father wasn’t there to help her and as she struggled to finish school and recuperate from giving birth. Cervantes’ mother would take her homework to school for her and pick it up.
She also receives visits from Sarah Lowrey, Early Head Start support specialist for the district. Lowrey spends time in students’ homes to find out what they need and teach them how to interact with their children.
“There’s been a ton of research that shows children of teen mothers are at a higher risk for poverty, being in gangs and such,” Lowrey said. “All of our teachers are highly qualified in an early childhood education background. … Being a young parent is not easy, so we’re doing a lot to make their parenting easier, as well as helping with their children. So it’s absolutely for (the teen’s) benefit and their child is getting an education, too.”
Cervantes said Lowrey helps her by bringing activities to do with her 2-year-old, whether it’s coloring or easy bowling games. She said at first she depended on the help of her mother, stepfather, father and sister for some of her struggles trying to get a part-time job or to study, but she said because she’s always been a good student, she was able to overcome many of her worries about her own future.
“It took a lot of getting used to,” Cervantes said. “Now I really like talking to other teen moms. I tell them just because you have children doesn’t mean you can’t do what you want.”
Early Head Start also works in conjunction with Step 2, which provides on-site treatment programs for parents dealing with substance abuse. The program at UNR plans to build three permanent classrooms at a location near Clear Acre and Crystal lanes in Reno.
For more information about UNR’s Early Head Start, visit www.unr.edu/educ/cfrc.