Publication Date: November 1, 1998  Page: G1  Section: LIFE & LEISURE  Edition: ONE STAR 
A shrill bell pierces the morning stillness and signals the end of third period. Wide, bright hallways that smell of fresh paint and new linoleum in the just-built Ballston Spa High School swell with teen spirit.

A doorway that looks like any other classroom's is ignored by the jostling, laughing stream of students on their way to fourth period. Not a single one stops or even seems to glance at the construction paper lettering on the door that reads ``Little Scotties Cuddle Corner.''

Some teachers and parents, on the other hand, make no secret of their anger over one of the Capital Region's only in-school day-care centers for high school mothers. They argue that such a program in plain view promotes teen pregnancy.

Those critics, though, have not spent time in the white sneakers of 17-year-old Valarie Valente, a senior, skittering after her 17-month-old daughter, Brianna.

Another world

Welcome to Valarie's world. When she's not up all night with a sick toddler, she might finally get to sleep around midnight. That's only after she makes dinner, helps her younger sisters and brother with their homework and does her own class assignment. Then there are dishes to wash, ironing the next day's outfit, preparing lunches.

Valarie's mom, a single parent, works 10-hour days and some weekends as a nurse's aide.

Valarie tries to negotiate a confusing emotional intersection as daughter, big sister and, since age 15, as mother.

``I feel like having a baby made me grow up so fast,'' Valarie says. ``And it's just hard work every day, and I'm scared all the time something is going to happen to Brianna and that I won't be a good mother. A lot of things go through my mind in the middle of the night.''

Valarie, her mom and three siblings live in a double-wide trailer at the Creek and Pines Trailer Park. ``We've got a creek, but no pines,'' Valarie says.

She has piercing brown eyes, straight brown hair pulled back in a short ponytail, simple silver hoop earrings and no makeup. On a recent school day, she dresses in a ubiquitous teen uniform: khakis, a white T-shirt under a striped green sweater vest, all covered by an oversized blue corduroy shirt. She is a high honor roll student. Her husky voice with a thoughtfulness and articulateness that belies her age is tempered by seventeenspeak.

``Mrs. Tayler-MacNeill rocks,'' Valarie says of her teacher and coordinator of the school's teen parent program. ``She's like my best friend.''

``Valarie is one of the special ones,'' Peg Tayler-MacNeill says. ``She's got a bright future.''

Finding the funds

Tayler-MacNeill is a driving force behind the controversial concept of bringing a day-care center into Ballston Spa High, which opened last year in the old building and moved into the new school this fall. But the seeds were planted in 1994, when Tayler-MacNeill, 39, who wrote her master's thesis on teen parents, helped secure a $50,000 state education grant for her program. That was followed last year by Head Start funding and supervising the eight-crib day care for infants and toddlers of high school students on site.

In 1994, there were 24 students at Ballston Spa High that were teen parents; this year, there are six at the 1,200-student school.

``I heard so many times that bringing these cute babies into school would encourage teen pregnancy,'' Tayler-MacNeill says. ``It's had exactly the opposite effect. Our numbers have gone down each year. We've proven that addressing the issue head-on and keeping kids from dropping out is the best way to reduce teen pregnancy.''

Tayler-MacNeill also tries to create a supportive environment. She says the ugly reality is that several of her teen mothers were not willing sexual partners; they were either coerced into intercourse or, in a few cases, were the victims of rape who decided to have the baby.

The girls themselves prefer not to talk about the conception details.

Valarie says Brianna's biological father lives in Niskayuna, an affluent suburb where she lived before her parents split up. ``The guy's a bum and I'd rather forget him,'' Valarie says of her daughter's father. ``He doesn't have any contact with me or Brianna. He doesn't care and I'm glad he's gone. It wasn't a happy thing how it happened that I got pregnant.''

Tayler-MacNeill also sends her teen mothers into nearby middle schools to offer unvarnished talk to the adolescents. It's a kind of ``scared straight'' approach that appears to work as preventive medicine, the teacher says. ``Our purpose is to help students set goals and show them what a barrier teen parenting is to reaching those goals.''

Tayler-MacNeill, who has taught since 1981 at Ballston Spa High, keeps in touch with her teen moms. A few are currently attending college. Most are working. Almost none are on welfare.

``We have lots of success stories,'' Tayler-MacNeill says. ``We have a program that works and I wish other schools would take a look.''

Getting through

Such public health policy matters are not on Valarie's mind. She's focused on just getting through the day. After five or six hours of sleep often interrupted by her daughter or her 8-year-old sister, Valarie is up at 5 a.m.

``It's tough, but what else are you going to do?'' she asks. The 5-6 a.m. shift is Valarie's time to shower, dress and eat breakfast. She gets daughter Brianna up at 6 a.m., dresses her and feeds her breakfast. She packs a bag of toddler gear and her own books, a lunch and homework and loads Brianna into a car safety seat. They leave the trailer park at 6:45 a.m. in Valarie's car and drive to school.

Valarie does not worry about being perceived as a poster girl promoting teen pregnancy.

``I come in to school with Brianna in one arm, trying to protect her from the rain, lugging her diaper bag and all my school stuff,'' says Valarie, whose classmates generally ignore this mother among them, giving her and all the accoutrements of parenting a wide berth.

``If a girl asks me, I tell them bluntly that it's real hard,'' Valarie says. ``I tell them, `Don't get pregnant. Wait.' It's that simple.''

The day-care center where Valarie brings Brianna on school days has that brand-new look with gleaming plastic trucks and unruffled dolls, a sparkling play kitchen and the centerpiece, a climbing-and-play area surrounded by oversized mats in primary colors.

The eight cribs have fresh sheets, colorful comforters, teddy bears propped up in the corners and soft fabric music mobiles. Rows of cubbies contain extra shoes and clothing. All eight infants and toddlers wear diapers, neatly piled by child above a changing table and sink. Sparkling infant bicycle helmets are lined up for use on scooters and ride-on toys. A four-seat buggy and single strollers for daily walks are set by a back door. The school and the center is so new, a playground is in the planning stages and remains to be built.

It looks and feels like any other day-care center. But what sets this one apart is the fact that the mothers of the infants and toddlers are, in many ways, still children themselves.

At lunchtime, the teen moms sit cross-legged on the linoleum floor, scrunching down to be at the level of the miniature table where their kids eat. In between their own bites and trying to help their bibbed babies negotiate sippy cups and thick plastic spoons, the teens talk about being high school girls and moms at the same time.

Planning for the future

Sarah Liedel, a 17-year-old senior, buys a sub sandwich and french fries from the cafeteria. Her two children, Kortni, 2, and Kari, 1, eat the school-supplied hot lunch with toddler portions of rice, turkey, gravy and apple pieces. Liedel started bringing her two kids here last year.

``It works out so much better to have this center right in the school,'' Sarah said.

Still, her day is more demanding than most teens'. She lives at home with her mother and stepfather. She has a part-time job as an interviewer for Bell Atlantic. She typically gets to bed around 11 p.m. and is up by 6 a.m. to get Kortni and Kari ready. All three ride a bus to school. They share a 30-minute lunch break, or more time if Sarah has a free period.

Her two babies were fathered by the same young man. He is not involved in their rearing and does not provide financial support a recurring theme among the teen mothers. She has felt isolated from her peers since she gave birth at age 15 to Kortni.

``I go to school, go to work and go to bed. That's my life,'' Sarah says. ``I don't have time for anything else, so I've only got a few friends. They see what it's like. Believe me, they don't want the life I have.''

Sarah has been looking forward for months to the school break over Thanksgiving. Her mother will take care of Kortni and Kari, while Sarah visits a boyfriend in New Hampshire. ``No work, no kids, no school. It's the best,'' Sarah says. ``My boyfriend cooks for me, I go to the movies and vegetate.''

Such idyllic times are short-lived. ``Everyone said I ruined my life when I had my babies,'' Sarah says. ``I'd like to prove them wrong. I've wanted to be a paralegal since I was like 7. That's my dream.''

Sarah hopes to study to become a paralegal at Bryant & Stratton Business Institute in Albany after graduation.

Father misses visits

Shannon Quinlivan, 18, a former Ballston Spa High student who earned her General Equivalency Diploma last year, is a walking advertisement for her career track. With glittery eye shadow in jewel tones, a silver hoop pierced through her left eyebrow and Gothic makeup touches, Quinlivan comes to see her 17-month-old daughter, Kailee, at the high school straight from morning BOCES training in cosmetology.

``It's a struggle to be a mom, and this helps me out so much to have Kailee here,'' says Shannon, whose daughter wears gold studs in her pierced ears.

Shannon says Kailee's biological father pays support sporadically and regularly misses his pre-arranged visitation times. ``I leave Wednesday afternoon open for her father to be with Kailee,'' Shannon says. ``He usually doesn't come.''

Shannon is working toward her goal of owning a beauty shop. ``It's something I've always wanted to do,'' she says.

Juggling life is tiring

Tara Ruzycky, an 18-year-old senior, started bringing her 18-month-old son, Cody, to the high school day-care center this fall. ``It's so much better than taking him to a regular baby sitter like I did before,'' she says.

Tara speaks in short breaths between bursts of activity. She's a flash of blue jeans and stockinged feet the day-care center is a no-shoe zone as she chases after the low-slung coil of energy that is her son. She perspires around the neck of a ``Just Do It'' Nike T-shirt.

Tara lives in Greenfield, Saratoga County, with her fiance, David Hudson, who works as a janitor for Macy's at Crossgates Mall in Guilderland. Tara works there, too, on the weekend cleaning shift. She drops off Cody at her grandmother's and takes a bus to the mall. On schooldays, she's up at 5:30 a.m. to get ready to catch a bus to school with Cody.

``It's tiring on a good day,'' Tara says, pausing to catch her breath once more. ``It gets really hard when he's up sick all night.''

Cody's biological father helps out some. The little boy is temporarily living with his paternal grandfather while Tara and her fiance get settled and formalize custody and visitation arrangements.

Tara says she doesn't want to clean mall stores the rest of her life. She hopes to be accepted to a vocational-technical program to study photography and graphic design.

Teacher a role model

The teen mothers look to their teacher, Tayler-MacNeill, as a role model. Her teen parent program meets in a classroom adjacent to the day-care center, allowing mothers to peek in on their babies through windows during class breaks.

Closer still, the teen mothers are having positive parenting techniques reinforced during the time they spend in the day-care center at lunch or during drop-offs and pickups by observing the quiet grace of Lorraine McMahon, lead infant- and toddler-teacher.

McMahon, 52, is a mother of six. She raised her own children, who are now aged 11 to 29, took care of foster children, and worked for many years as a special education teacher. McMahon had her first baby at age 21, forcing her to drop out of college during the pregnancy.

``I can relate to these teen mothers in a way because of that,'' McMahon says. ``But their age puts me in an unsual place. I feel like a mom to the teen moms and a mom to their babies.''

Over the summer, McMahon received special funding to make home visits to the teen moms to bridge the gap in reinforcing parenting skills during the three-month school vacation when the day-care center is closed.

McMahon saw firsthand the poverty, the broken families and the daily struggle the teen moms must overcome to be good parents. ``Seeing that first-hand gave me a greater appreciation of what they've been through and their true needs,'' she says.

An exception

Barb Adams, regional coordinator of Head Start, says the day-care center in Ballston Spa High School is the exception to the rule.

``Many school districts still take that out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude,'' Adams says. ``Ballston Spa has taken a unique approach that is proactive. They realize that in a few years these babies will be students in our district, so let's give them support now so that they'll get the right start.''

In addition, the Ballston Spa teen mothers who participate in the day-care program have a much better chance of graduating, compared to their counterparts who do not have such an on-site resource. Last year, two out of three teen mothers in the Ballston Spa program graduated on time with their class, including one with honors, and the third earned her General Equivalency Diploma. Nationally, 50 percent of teen mothers don't finish high school.

In Saratoga County, where Adams is Head Start's coordinator, only Corinth High School has an on-site day-care center. But the Corinth center is in a separate building, across a field from the high school's main hallways.

In Rensselaer County, the only other on-site day-care center in the Capital Region opened in September at Rensselaer High School for eight infants and toddlers of teen moms. Troy has a similar program in its alternate learning center at School 1 in the city, across town from Troy High School. Albany and Schenectady counties do not have day-care centers in their high schools, although they are available in alternative programs in urban areas.

At Ballston Spa High, a key to the day-care center's effectiveness is district support, says Terri Blum, child development specialist with Head Start who supervises the school's center.

Head Start contributes $80,000 annually to pay the salaries of three teachers and supplies for the center. The school district makes contributions equivalent to more than $20,000 yearly by not charging rent for the 500-square-foot complex of rooms and by providing utilities, free busing and other services to teen mothers and their babies.

To be able to participate, teen mothers must meet Head Start's federal income guidelines of the national poverty level: $10,850 for a family of two, $13,650 for three and $16,450 for four.

Daughter grounds mom

Valarie's long-term goal is to study at a local community college before transferring to a four-year university for a degree in child psychology. Her work through Tayler-MacNeill's class as a day-care teacher's assistant has helped shape her desire to work with youngsters.

Valarie says she has found some personal happiness in the company of her boyfriend, Randy Wolf, a sophomore. She has lunch with him one day each week in the cafeteria; the other four days she eats with Brianna. Valarie says she has no other time for a social life with her classmates.

``I hear them whispering and saying mean things behind my back,'' Valarie says. ``I've learned to deal with it. Being a teen mom separates you and you end up alone a lot of the time.''

In an unexpected way, the challenge of raising Brianna forced Valarie to settle down and focus on her future.

``I drank and did drugs and was getting Fs in school before I had Brianna,'' Valarie says. ``I wasn't the kind of girl I wanted to be. I had Brianna and it was like she opened my eyes. I saw things had to change. I like the person I am now a lot more than before.''

Valarie is proud of the way she raises Brianna, who walked early, at 9 months, and graduated at 16 months from a crib to a toddler bed. She reads to her daughter several times each day. She limits Brianna's TV watching to 30 minutes of ``Barney'' each day. She colors with Brianna, challenges her to piece together puzzles.

In the end, daughter grounds mother.

``When I get stressed out, I talk to Brianna about my problems,'' Valarie says. ``Or I might take her for a walk to discuss things. She doesn't understand me, but it helps to feel her love.''

Freezing time

Valarie sometimes wishes for a secret power of being able to suspend time. ``I wouldn't give up my daughter for the world,'' the 17-year-old says. ``But what I'd really like is to be able to freeze everything like it is now until I'm 25 years old and finished with my degree in child psychology, working in that field and able to afford my own apartment.''

But then the sixth period bell rang and Valarie stifles a yawn. ``Gotta go to class, Brianna,'' she says, lacing up sneakers.

``Hope I don't fall asleep,'' Valarie adds with a wave to Brianna and a kiss blown from a mother's palm.

The door to the day-care center closes and Valarie is swept up in the stream of students pouring through the halls, another senior just trying to get through the day.

FACTS:TEEN PREGNACY NATIONAL STATISTICS ON TEEN PREGNANCY 50% of girls who become pregnant as teenagers never receive their high school diploma and a majority of teen fathers do not receive a high school degree by age 20. 60% percent of teenagers who become pregnant are living in poverty at the time of the birth. 53% of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) goes to families formed by a teen birth. The federal government spent $34 billion in 1992 on services for families begun by teen parents, an increase of 36 percent above the $25 billion spent in 1990. Teen mothers can expect to earn about half the lifetime income of women who first give birth in their 20s. Children of teen parents have a higher risk of lower intellectual and academic achievement. Source: The National Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Parenting and Preventing, 1995 survey STATEWIDE STATISTICS ON TEEN PREGNANCY In 1991, 37 percent of teen births were to mothers aged 15-17 and 63 percent to mothers aged 18-19 statewide. The percentage of births among the youngest teens is small, but growing, accounting for 1,720 pregnancies and 598 births to teens under 15 years old in 1991 in New York state. There were 56,138 teen pregnancies statewide in 1991, a rate of 93 pregnancies per 1,000 teen females. That's an increase from a teen pregnancy rate of 78 per 1,000 teen females in 1980. Teen birth rates were substantially higher in 1991 in New York City (61 per 1,000) than they were in the rest of the state (36 per 1,000.) Source: 1994 NYS Kids Count Data Book.
Caption: Paul D. Kniskern,Sr./Times Union

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