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Holyoke GED program like alternative prep school for young mom

Susan Notes: Along with regular classroom work, students are required to take humanities courses and participate in extracurricular activities such as dance, yoga, photography or rowing crew. These students are getting a richer education than if they had stayed in 'regular' school. Kudos to the people running this program, and kudos to the students.

By Adam Gorlick, Associated Press Writer

HOLYOKE, Mass. --Viviana Camacho's hands are strong but rough. They're blistered and cracked, rubbed raw from hours of rowing on the Connecticut River.

She shows them off with pride.

"I wanted to row because I wanted to challenge myself," Camacho says. "I want to try hard things because life is hard."

At 20, Camacho doesn't seem to need any more challenges. She had her first daughter at 16 and her second at 19. She lives in a shelter for homeless families, raising her two girls with help from a $444 monthly welfare check.

She quit high school in the ninth grade, worked a job at Taco Bell and then took a second-shift position at a Chicopee factory.

But Camacho, who moved to Holyoke from Puerto Rico when she was 7, isn't looking for any shortcuts on what she sees as her path to finding a good job and economic independence.

Two years ago she entered The Care Center, a GED program for one of the largest groups at risk of needing long-term welfare assistance: mothers between 16 and 21 who dropped out of high school.

Along with regular classroom work, students are required to take humanities courses and participate in extracurricular activities such as dance, yoga, photography or rowing crew.

The idea is to put the 140 students who attend The Care Center each year in the same learning environment offered in private college preparatory schools. Each student studies at her own pace. Some take a year to complete their GED; others take longer.

"The assumption at prep schools is that the students are brilliant," said Anne Teschner, The Care Center's executive director. "We have the same assumption here. And when you have those high expectations, young people rise to them."

So far, they have.

In the eight years since The Care Center adopted its private school model -- which state and federal officials say is unique -- about 85 percent of its students have gone to college, most often Holyoke Community College.

Before that, fewer than 5 percent of the students going through the 20-year-old program were college-bound, Teschner said.

About 11 percent of the country's GED recipients received an associate, bachelor or masters degree in 2003, according to the most recent figures available from the U.S. Census Bureau.

"I'm definitely going to college," said Camacho, who thinks she might want to be a massage therapist. "This is how I'm going to get a better life for myself and my kids."

As much as The Care Center strives to create a prep school environment, the Holyoke facility at first seems more like a daycare center than a school. Baby car seats and strollers clog the entranceway, and mornings start with many of the young mothers leaving their infants and toddlers with the onsite daycare workers.

From there, the students buckle down. Classes in English, math, social studies and science fill the morning. Afternoons are spent in art, poetry, parenting and life skills classes.

In between, the student focus on their extracurricular programs.

"I've gotten so much self-confidence from rowing," said 20-year-old Maritza Diaz, a 10th grade dropout whose children are 5, 3 and 1.

Standing at an even 5-feet and looking like she's in the middle of her teenage years, Diaz said she wanted to row crew because it looked like fun. But after learning how to carry the 60-foot, 200-pound boat to the river and balance and row it with her teammates, she got a few lessons in physics, patience and cooperation.

"What hurts the most is when people don't believe you can do something just because you're poor and you're from Holyoke," said Diaz, who plans on going to Holyoke Community College when she gets her GED. "But this is proof that if we have a chance, we can succeed."

Of the 140 pregnant or parenting students who go through The Care Center's yearlong program, all have dropped out of school, most before the ninth grade. Ninety-five percent are on welfare, and about half are enrolled in English as a Second Language courses.

The agency's $1.6 million budget comes from about 40 different state, federal and private sources.

The Care Center is one of 14 recipients of grant money from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Programs, which is the only federal agency solely devoted to teen mother support services. Each year, more than 200 programs apply for the grant money. But The Care Center has stood out from the rest, winning a five-year, $1.4 million grant four years ago.

"Their curriculum is very intensive and focuses on things other programs don't have, like extracurriculars and humanities," said Tarsha Wilson, a public health analyst who helps administer the grants for the Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Programs. "That's a unique approach."

Along with their academic success and boosted confidence, The Care Center has given the students something else that many never considered: a feeling of independence.

"When I'm out there rowing, it's like I'm free," Camacho says. "That's time for me, and I like that."

Still, at the end of the day, she understands her role as a mother. With her blistered hands, Camacho scoops up her 1-year-old daughter Yasmarie at The Care Center's daycare. She'll have to pick up her 4-year-old at another daycare, and they'll make their way back to the apartment they share at the family shelter.

— Adam Gorlick
Associated Press


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