One toddler sat quietly in a chair, still wide-eyed from her afternoon nap. Another patiently let a daycare worker change her diaper. Teyonna, 21 months old, followed along as her mother, Jasmine Langley, read aloud from a picture book. “We have three meals a day,” Langley read as she sat in the Blue Room at the Elizabeth Celotto Child Care Center on Tuesday afternoon. “Breakfast, say breakfast.”
“Breakfast,” Teyonna repeated emphatically.
“Lunch, say lunch,” Langley said.
“Juice,” Teyonna declared.
The scene would be unremarkable, except that the Celotto Center is on the ground floor of Wilbur Cross High School, down the hall from the cafeteria. The 32 mothers who use it for free, including Langley, are students at Wilbur Cross and other New Haven public high schools. Absent boyfriends, disapproving parents and mounting bills all challenge these teen mothers, who receive varying levels of support from friends, family and the fathers of their children. But the center’s mission — to keep the young mothers in school — has so far met with success.
Some 27 Wilbur Cross students use the Celotto Center, which is independent from the New Haven Board of Education but receives some city funding. If a girl becomes pregnant while attending Wilbur Cross, the largest public high school in New Haven, teachers and administrators urge her to transfer to the Polly T. McCabe Center, a transitional school for pregnant students in grades eight through 12. Most girls choose to make the switch: Polly McCabe’s curriculum covers nutrition, childbirth and parenting, and students enjoy a flexible schedule while still receiving academic credit. Once students give birth, outreach worker Leslie Blatteau ’97 from the Celotto Center contacts them and encourages them to return to Wilbur Cross.
“I will call you, I will come to your house,” Blatteau said. “I figure I’m going to bring by some school work, bring something for the baby.”
Blatteau said that around a quarter of the girls who leave Polly McCabe do not return to school. But for Langley, and many of the other mothers who returned to Wilbur Cross, dropping out was not an option.
“I don’t look at a child as being a burden or a setback,” Langley said. “She’s just more reason to do everything I have to do” — like get good grades, graduate and go to college.
Balancing schoolwork and motherhood is difficult for almost anyone, and junior Jessenia Roman, a Celotto Center mother, is having trouble. This fall, nearly a year and a half after she gave birth to her son Jovanny, Roman missed four days of school in a row and thought about quitting.
“I [am] getting C’s, B’s and D’s,” she said, adding that she did better before her pregnancy. “I can’t concentrate that good.”
Still, if recent trends are any indication, Roman will likely graduate: all of the seniors who used the center last year got their diplomas. The center’s graduation rates are high, staff said, because its services make life easier for clients.
The center, together with the New Haven Board of Education, provides door-to-door transportation to and from school for clients and their children. Nine daycare workers, called “teachers,” supervise and play with the 32 children, aged six weeks to three years, from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. Blatteau connects the mothers with community organizations that provide health care, housing, insurance, food and other amenities. Muhammad Shabazz, the case manager, tries to contact the fathers and reunite the families that have fallen apart. Most of the mothers who use the center attend a daily parenting class at Wilbur Cross, where they learn about relationships, birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, money management and employment opportunities.
Senior Apeu Acuil, 20, said she appreciated the center’s services. Her daughters, Sara, 5, and Nyjur, 3, recently transferred from the Celotto Center to another daycare facility, though the center’s staff still watches them on occasion.
“Without [the center], I cannot come to school,” Acuil said.
The Celotto Center was the brainchild of six Yale Law School students, who in the early 1990s interviewed over 60 teen parents. Three-quarters of those parents said that they weren’t in school because they had no childcare.
“The teen fathers were able to attend schools, and it was the teen mothers who were not,” Lori Nordstrom LAW ’94, one of the original six, said.
A good idea grew into the Celotto Center by winter 1994 with help from the New Haven superintendent of schools, two city commissioners, a New Haven state representative, a professor at the Yale School of Architecture, a pro bono painter, childhood experts, teen parents and community advocates.
Principal Robert Canelli said he is glad the superintendent of schools chose Wilbur Cross as the site for the center, though he understands why some might criticize it.
“Some people think it promotes our young ladies to go out and have babies,” he said.
But Blatteau insisted that daycare prevents second and third pregnancies. It also prepares the children to start their own educations.
“No matter what, teen parents’ children will be in New Haven public schools in, what, five years,” Blatteau said.
Most important, said staff and students alike, the center makes it easier for teen parents to graduate.
“It’s, like, inspirational because you are around all these young women who have babies, and some girls have two babies, and they still come to school,” Langley said. “And that’s really big.”
But even with the center’s help, the mothers struggle.
Acuil, who moved to Connecticut from Sudan at age 15, has trouble paying the bills. This week, her Sudanese husband quit his job at a manufacturing company. Her parents are still in Sudan.
“It’s not enough money,” Acuil said. “I rent a house, $725, and you have the cable, and you have the phone, all that thing, and my electric [bill is] $390, almost $400.”
Langley has an income and a wider support network. She works as a salaried counselor at an after-school program, while her best friend takes care of Teyonna. Langley’s mother also helps out. But Teyonna’s father is serving a three-year sentence at the Cheshire Correctional Center for assault, and he rarely sees Langley or their baby.
“When he had got arrested, it was just like devastating because now he couldn’t be around, and I was just so lonely,” Langley said. “It was just hard. It’s hard now.”
Roman’s relationship with her own mother deteriorated after she got pregnant. They argued with each other and got into fist-fights, and Roman spent six months of her pregnancy at her ex-boyfriend’s house. Now, she said, she is sometimes so frustrated that she wants to hit classmates who tease her, or beat up girls who dated her ex-boyfriend while she was pregnant.
Raynetta Woods, who teaches the parenting class, said several of her students are aggressive and angry.
“Many of them are really trying to exert their own independence,” she said.
Woods can teach Roman about communication, and Blatteau can try to find services for Acuil. But Shabazz cannot bring back Teyonna’s father until his sentence is over. In the meantime, he is working to reunite other men with their families. He first identifies the fathers, then contacts them and invites them to visit.
“A lot of them are in denial,” said Shabazz, whom children at the center call “uncle.” “They’re hoping that, oh, maybe it’s not mine, even though deep down inside, they know. You got the ones who don’t want to be bothered at all.”
Still, since Shabazz’s position was created three months ago, five fathers have become regulars at the center. The rest drop by occasionally or not at all. One-third of the fathers are incarcerated, Shabazz said.
“I’ve seen many fathers that remind me of me,” said Shabazz, who had his first child at age 18. “I’m able to talk to them about my experiences.”
At Wilbur Cross, where around 15 students may become pregnant every year, being a teen parent carries little stigma.
One senior, who admitted to having engaged in unprotected sex, said he sometimes feels he could easily have been a father.
His classmate Janay Brannic said she also worries about becoming a parent.
“There’s been so many women in my family whose dreams have been stopped because they got pregnant,” she said.
Several students applauded their pregnant classmates for staying in school.
“I see them taking care of their children well, so I give them props,” freshman Nailah Abdul said.
The Celotto Center treats the children well, too. Each child is assigned to one of four rooms, which are stocked with books and toys and decorated with mirrors, pictures and photographs of the children themselves. The children’s favorite activities include dancing with scarves, feeding the fish, doing puzzles and eating lunch. Gianni, 2, the son of junior Kim Atkinson, likes fooling around with water, Nyjur likes doing art, and Teyonna likes riding the wooden horse and playing the tambourine. Lorraine DeLuz, the center’s director, said these activities promote motor skills, language skills and self-esteem.
The teachers keep a journal on every child, and at pick-up time, they give each mother a run-down of her child’s day.
“She had crackers, she had chocolate milk,” teacher Colleen Melia told Acuil one afternoon, pointing to Sara and Nyjur. “I offered them apples, they didn’t want any.”
But while the center can help provide for Acuil and other mothers during high school, they are on their own after graduation. Acuil wants to get a job and make some money. Langley is trying to get into Southern Connecticut State University. Roman hopes to go to cosmetology school and open her own salon.
“The lack of resources for them beyond the program can be frustrating sometimes,” Blatteau said. “When you think about how a client might be struggling when she gets out of here, it’s a little disheartening.”