Monday, August 22nd, 2011
Written by Joy Hollowell
An alternative high school in Maine is offering young parents a second chance at an education. Amanda Cates was 14 years old when her mother left. “My mom met a guy online in Scotland. She went over there in July, married him in August, and didn’t come back,” Cates says. The teenager describes the pain from that as “damaging” and admits she turned to alcohol and drugs. She also dropped out of school. Soon after, Cates left her home in Waldoboro and joined a traveling fair as a game booth operator. “That was my life,” says Cates, “And as strange as it sounds, [the fair workers] were my family.”
At 19, Cates found out she was pregnant. The father of her unborn child was abusive, claims Cates, and she was still heavily into drugs and drinking. “I had no intention of keeping this baby,” she says. But then, the mother-to-be heard her baby’s heartbeat. “Something changed that day,” says Cates, “and I just knew I couldn’t do to my little girl what my own mom did to me. I knew I had to work hard to be the best mom possible for her.” Cates says she stopped using drugs and alcohol that very day and has remained sober since. She also moved in with an aunt and uncle and cut off ties to her boyfriend. “I was starting over; learning how to live my life again on the outside, so to speak,” she says.
At Rockland high school, senior Jenna Arsenault had her future mapped out. After graduation, she would enroll in college to become a special education teacher. But halfway through the school year, that perfectly laid out plan changed completely. She got pregnant.
During her third trimester, Arsenault dropped out of school. “It just got to be too much,” she says.
After her son, Bradley, was born, Arsenault contemplated going back to public school. But the new mom couldn’t bear the thought of being away from her son for one second. And there were practical problems too, like who would watch her baby while she was in class?
For Arsenault, as well as Cates, the Passages Program was her solution to getting an education. Instead of going to school, the teachers travel to their students’ homes. And rather than a Maine High School Equivalency Diploma (GED), students graduate with a diploma from an actual high school. “I liked that a lot,” Arsenault says.
Passages is run through Wayfinder Schools in Camden, Maine’s first alternative high school. The private facility was founded in 1973 by Dora Lievow and Emanuel Pariser. The couple, both teachers, saw that the traditional classroom setting didn’t work for everyone. They came up with a teaching practice called relational education. “It’s based on the idea that the most fundamental part of a successful educational experience revolves around the relationship teachers and students can establish with one another,” explains Pariser, who, along with Lievow, retired from the school in 2006. “Helpful relationships are characterized by high levels of trust, respect, and accountability between teachers and students and within the whole learning community.”
The learning is self-directed and custom-tailored. Teachers typically meet one-on-one with students, and coursework is project-based, such as essays and demonstrations. In addition to their academics, the students are also responsible for chores around the campus and cooking meals. And they are required to intern or apprentice at local businesses.
When it first started, Wayfinder Schools was a residential program where students lived on campus for the school year. In the early 1990s, a student enrolled in Wayfinder Schools became pregnant. “We searched for educational models that would work for students for whom we couldn’t provide a residence,” explains Pariser.
He and Lievow identified three main obstacles for teen moms and dads: transportation, childcare, and housing. In 1994, the duo started the Passages Program. The idea is to allow young parents the opportunity to learn academics, as well as life skills, at their own pace and in their own setting. “It’s based on an individualized learning plan, because every student comes in with different levels of education, different levels of need,” says Martha Kempe, director of the Passages Program.
The program is for pregnant and parenting teens and can accept up to 20 students in Waldo, Knox, and parts of Lincoln County. About three years ago, a satellite Passages Program started up at the Cobscook Community Learning Center (CCLC) in Trescott Township. “I always love to share that our very first two graduates went on to college,” says Charley Martin-Berry, coordinator of the Passages Program at CCLC and one of two teachers there. Up to 15 students can be served at the Washington County school, and they graduate with a diploma from Wayfinder Schools. And when school starts up again next month, so will a third Passages Program at Wayfinder Schools. The nonprofit, social service organization helps at-risk teenagers in Southern Maine.
Prospective students must apply to attend the Passages Program. “There are four steps,” says Martin-Berry. Once the application is received, a home visit is scheduled to explain the program in detail. If the prospective student still seems interested, they go in for an interview. “We look at their education history, family background, relationships, if they’ve had any problems with substance abuse, things like that. It’s a really lengthy process.” The fourth and final step is a challenge, set forth by the school. It can be in the form of questions or small projects that the teenagers have to complete within a month. “It shows us how self-motivated they can be,” Martin-Berry says. “Can they work at home, without a classroom setting? We need to know if they will be able to succeed with self-directed learning.”
Colby Richardson joined the program with his girlfriend, after they found out she was pregnant. Both had already dropped out of high school. “The program has taught me a lot about life itself,” says the 19-year-old from East Machias. “It has helped me grow as a parent. I learned new things about my daughter. It helped me connect more with her and heightened the fathering experience.”
The Passages curriculum is much different than other schools. Students must complete 24 core skills, as they are called, in order to graduate. These subjects cover academics, as well as parenting and life skills. There are courses on math, reading, and writing, along with home safety and organization, job hunting, and conflict resolution. In many cases, the students also earn their driver’s license during the school year.
“Each core skill consists of various tasks or objectives that the students must complete,” explains Martin-Berry. “The approach is different for every student. Some core skills take awhile for the students, like self-care and critical thinking, while others, like pregnancy, are tackled pretty quickly. Everybody’s final paper will look different, but they all have to demonstrate that the student understands that skill.”
There are also monthly workshops related to the core skills, and the students must complete at least six hours of community service.
The average age of students in the Passages Program is 18. The school will accept someone who is 14, although the youngest student they’ve ever had was 15. The cutoff is 20, but once they are in the program, they try to help them stay. “We have a student right now that’s 24,” Kempe says.
Twenty-year-old Amanda Coley is hoping to finish the program by December. The Rockland woman started with Passages last year. She quit public school at the age of 16, soon after giving birth to her daughter. “I really didn’t want to [quit school],” Coley says, “but I had started the 11th grade two weeks late and just couldn’t keep up.”
Coley now has an infant son. She knows it will be tougher to stay on course with two young kids in the house. Still, she’s encouraged by the confidence she’s gained through the Passages Program. “I actually passed the math test,” Coley says and smiles. “I did it. I passed with a 95. Shocked myself. I wasn’t expecting to do so well because I was struggling with it so bad. Made me feel really good.”
Coley also gives kudos to her teacher. “I have trust issues,” admits the young mom, revealing that her own mother is in and out of jail. “I don’t open up to a lot of people. Heather [King] has helped me regain that.”
“It’s definitely not just teaching,” says Heather King, who teaches at the Camden school. “This week, I was on a mission to find baby items for two of the girls. One of them is due in two weeks. I went to several second-hand shops looking for a crib and a car seat.” The week before, King drove one of her students to a doctor’s appointment, and another to the hospital for a tour of the delivery and maternity rooms.
Her colleague, Andrea Itkin, whose background includes 10 years working in a domestic violence center, remembers dealing with a homeless crisis not too long ago. “I was on the phone for weeks,” says Itkin, “trying to find this student a place to live.”
Both women agree that for many of the students, their role is more of surrogate mom. “That’s it in a nutshell,” King says. “That’s a missing piece for a lot of these girls—it’s very rare if they have one.” King adds that a lot of the students parent their own parents. “It makes me emotional just to think about it,” she says, her voice catching a bit.
“Some of our students have loving, concerned parents and extended family members,” Itkin chimes in. “However, all of our students benefit from our close attention to their academic and emotional needs. It is one of the reasons our program is successful. The nurture and care that we give them really makes a difference. We’re actually listening to what they have to say, and we’re respecting them as adults and as parents. That would work well for anyone, right?”
“The real challenge is finding a balance between nurturing them and upping their standards,” adds King. “You’re giving them all the things they need emotionally from you. They start to trust you, and a relationship develops. And then, you can push them a little bit.”
Teachers meet with students at least once a week in the students’ homes. It translates to a lot of travel. “Our students are living on the edge, literally and figuratively,” says Martin-Berry. She and the other teacher in Washington County rack up more than 1,500 miles a month driving to meet their students.
The students all work on a laptop that is assigned to them, and grading is based on a pass/fail system. Those that want to go on to college can request grades instead. Students graduate from Passages with a private high school diploma, approved by the Maine Department of Education.
Once the students have passed their core skills, they must complete a final project, known as a “Passage.” The goal is to find one challenge, fear, or passion in life and turn it into a learning experience. A team made up of the student, a teacher, staff member, past graduate, someone in the student’s “support system”, and an expert in the area they chose for their project all help in the planning and presentation of it.
Leana Hendrickson remembers her “Passage” like it was yesterday. The 2006 graduate put on a dance show. “I love to dance but had always had a fear of perform-ing in front of people,” says the Waldoboro woman. “I wanted to get over that.”
Hendrickson says in addition to getting over her stage fright, she also got to work with a professional dance instructor. The mother of two says Passages gave her so much, including the necessary tools to survive being a young parent. “Me and my husband were just learning how to live on our own,” she says. “The program taught us how to budget, how to shop for the best prices for groceries, all kinds of stuff that you really need to know in the real world. I didn’t need to know how to go on to college; I needed to know how to raise a family.”
Kim Taliadouros graduated from the Passages Program 10 years ago. “I don’t even dare to imagine the person I would be without the school,” says the Camden woman. “When I started the program, I saw myself as a statistic, a teen parent who would never achieve. I felt eyes on me everywhere I went and was nervous to approach those I considered adults for fear of being judged,” Taliadouros says. “Wayfinder Schools staff never judged me—they made me feel like an equal, someone who could achieve anything I set my heart on.” Taliadouros now sits on her town’s budget committee. Kempe and the teachers from Wayfinder Schools still check up on her all these years later. “Passages molded me from the wary, frightened teen to the responsible, hardworking parent I am today,” Taliadouros says proudly.
There is no cost for students to attend the school. The Passages program gets a majority of its funding from subsidies provided by the public school districts where the students live. “These are students that might otherwise drop out,” says Kempe, “so it’s a benefit to the school.” Other funding comes from grants from organizations like The Maine Women’s Fund, which recently awarded the program $10,000. The Maine Children’s Trust and Maine Family Literacy Program also contribute. There are also private foundations and donors.
Kempe admits it’s a challenge to balance the budget each year. She says much of the money they used to receive dried up with recent state and federal budget cuts. “We used to be year-round, but last year, we moved to a 10-month academic year,” Kempe says.
Amanda Yates is doing her part to pay back the school. For the past four years, the Passages alum has come back to the Camden school to teach the first aid core skill workshop. The 2006 graduate credits Passages for getting her life on track. “The direction I was headed wasn’t good,” says Yates. “I was married at 17 because I thought I had to. You get to a certain point where you’re depressed, and your confidence level is down because you’re always doing the wrong steps. I really wanted to do something for myself and my kids.”
After graduation, Yates joined the Maine Army National Guard, where she excelled to the rank of Specialist. “I wouldn’t have the life I have right now if it weren’t for the Passages Program. They’re awesome. I just can’t say enough good stuff about them,” says Yates.
Kempe was recently honored at the Blaine House with the Commissioner of Education Recognition Award for her work on behalf of “at-risk” youth. “I think the main goal for our students is to recognize that this is their life,” says Kempe. “And yeah, they’ve become parents at a young age, but they can still have a sense of responsibility and accountability for their lives.”
Like most of the students, Jenna Arsenault credits her child with keeping her motivated. The teenager graduated from the program in June 2011. For her final Passages project, Arsenault interned with a special education teacher in Thomaston. As a result of that, the school hired Arsenault on as a teacher’s aide. Arsenault says she’s proud of her accomplishments and, most importantly, the role model she’s created for her son. “When he does get older, I can say I did get my diploma, so you’re going to, too.”
Amanda Cates now works with Alzheimer’s patients. She also ended up taking a course to answer calls for a domestic violence hotline. Cates says she is now in a healthy relationship and raising a second daughter. “Wayfinder Schools will never know how much they have helped me and other students,” says Cates. “Passages truly saved my life.”
JOY HOLLOWELL A native of New York, Joy Hollowell has called Maine home since the turn of the century. For the past nine years, she’s been a reporter and co-anchor of the Morning Show on WABI-TV. In her spare time she enjoys the great outdoors with her husband and two sons.