By Anne K. Ferguson, Co-Founder, former Principal
In the year 2000 we were just three teachers in a dropout prevention program for pregnant and parenting teens in Volusia County, FL. We had a combined total of thirty years serving this special and overlooked population. Although we had received accolades as a “best practices” program, the reality was that we couldn’t shake the “dropout prevention” stigma. Directors would come and go and we had four in five years. We didn’t mind; we knew what we were doing and where we belonged. We started to notice some changes. Nothing you could really put your finger on. We heard that Teen Parent East might be “phased out” because it was too expensive and it would be “downsized.” A teen parent child care center at a local high school was closed. At meetings administrators asked if the educational needs of our students were really being met? They wondered if they weren't missing out on the true high school experience? After all, weren’t parenting classes offered at all high schools? As a staff we were alarmed. We knew our students needed love, guidance, and nurturing to get them through the stress of having a baby so young. We knew that sending them back to their zone school without support would be devastating. At one time we were serving 75 students grades 6-12 and 40 babies; now we were down to 25 students and 10 babies. Over 600 girls between the ages of 12-19 delivered babies in Volusia County in 2000 -- where were they?
The first conversion charter school in Volusia County, FL
I had heard about a movement called “charter” schools where you could free yourself from the boundaries of district and state bureaucracy. I realized that converting Teen Parent East to a charter school was the answer for our fledgling program. My colleagues thought I was out of my mind, but after many discussions, and encouragement from trusted educators, we decided to give it a try. In the early 2001 we contacted members of the district of our intent to convert to a charter school. By February 2002 we had two rejected applications by a school board that was “gun shy” because of prior charter school failures. We ran into multiple roadblocks with a district unfamiliar with “conversion” charter schools. They were concerned about fiscal viability and they wondered how could teachers know how to run a school?
In early 2002 a newspaper article stated that the proposed school was a step closer to approval. The sticking points included our plan to set aside four child care slots for children of high school teachers. The purpose was to have role models for teen parents. We knew our students would learn valuable lessons just watching how adult parents interact with their children. The district was also concerned that students would remain in our school longer than one semester beyond the birth of their babies. Our argument was that many of our students needed us the most at the time they were being “transitioned” to their zone schools. We had the statistics; 75% of the students “transitioned” back to their zone schools a couple of years earlier had dropped out of school. We negotiated, compromised, stood our ground, gave in, argued, gave up, negotiated some more and finally in March 2002 our application was approved for a three-year contract.
The Chiles Academy
As soon as we were approved we wrote a letter to Ms. Rhea Chiles, the widow of the former governor of Florida, for permission to name our school after him in honor of his legacy for children’s causes. He had visited our program years ago and had given us hope for the future. We wanted to give a little back.
In the fall we will start our fourth year as a public charter school, as well as a private, non-profit entity. The executive director runs the day to day operation of the school and reports monthly to the chairman of the board of the corporation. Our board is made up of an eclectic group of community members that includes a doctor, minister, retired guidance counselor, community college counselor, retired educator, and retired insurance executive. All of the staff members did not follow us in our conversion, but most of them did. We now have a staff of 20 that includes four teachers, a registered nurse, a guidance counselor, a secretary, an administrative assistant, an executive director, a child care director, and ten child care givers.
The academic focus of The Chiles Academy is to provide students with the opportunity to earn a high school diploma. Although the core subjects are delivered in a competency-based computerized curriculum, there is the opportunity for a student who experiences frustration in reading to participate in our unique reading program. Pre-natal health care, parenting education, early childhood development education, counseling, and outreach and social skills training are integral parts of the charter school. The heart and soul of our curriculum is the comprehensive parenting and early childhood development reading program provided by Morning Glory Press’ Teen Parenting Series.
Another successful aspect of our school can be attributed to the hands-on experience all students receive in a caring, child care environment. It is a family environment, where learning happens naturally. Students practice what they learn in the classroom through interaction with the babies. We hope they will pass along these learned skills to their own children. We have a licensed and trained staff of child care givers who oversee and carefully guide and teach the students how to take care of babies. Two of our child care givers are former students.
The common denominator for most of our students is poverty and the rules of society can be different when neglect, abuse, and homelessness are prevalent in your daily life. We have tried the traditional methods of recruiting students but what works best is word of mouth. Most of these kids are scared and angry, and have no hope for the future. They drop out of school. When they run into friends who are pregnant or have a baby and find out that they are enrolled in school, they want to know that our school is “ok.” We also keep in close touch with counselors in the middle and high schools, the health department, and other social agencies in the area.
Our attendance averages around 62%, which is good for a school serving this population. The national average is 50%. We call our absent and tardy students every single day. We hound them. If we can’t reach them by phone, we send someone out to their home. Sometimes they come to school just to “get us off their back.” They know that our expectations of them are high and that we treat them as if they were our own. Many have never felt that before. This odd feeling of being “cared for” takes a while to sink in. Soon they keep coming back for more. If we can get them to come to school, we can slowly peel away the mask of fear or anger or pain. We tell them that although they have given up their youth for their children; they shouldn’t have to give up their future. We tell them we care but they don’t really believe us. They’ve heard all that before. Then they test us to see how much we really care. Everyone on the staff has to be on the same page. Otherwise they’ll work you.