Finding out that she was pregnant during her junior year of high school was an “unreal” experience for Valerie Lara.
“I didn’t care about anything in that moment besides my pregnancy, so I decided to let stuff kind of go,” she said.
Now, Lara’s child is six months old and she’s close to graduating. She’s part of the Tempe Union High School District’s Teenage Pregnancy Program, which supports pregnant and parenting students in the district.
It’s a decades-old program that has stuck around despite steadily declining teen birth rates in the state. At its core, the program is an effort to prevent students who become parents in high school from dropping out, said Andrea Carmody, the program’s director.
Just 50% of teen mothers get their high school diplomas by 22, compared to around 90% of women who don’t give birth during adolescence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Free for any pregnant or parenting student in the district, TAPP provides child care during the school day, academic support and counseling, and door-to-door transportation for students who live within district boundaries.
Students in the program can also take a class on parenting that counts toward their high school credits. The class, which meets almost every day, covers a range of topics like car seat safety, shaken baby syndrome, early literacy, oral health for babies, self-esteem and healthy relationships, Carmody said. The time can also be used to take online credit recovery courses for students who may have fallen behind.
Lara, 18, said that TAPP gave her time to catch up on credits. She now takes in-person classes at Marcos de Niza High School, the district school where the program is housed, while her child stays at TAPP’s infant room on campus. The program was recently moved from an alternative school in the district to Marcos de Niza, which is a comprehensive high school.
“I wanted to feel that connection with my baby, still being at school though,” Lara said, adding that she visits him during lunch. “It’s hard being apart from your baby. It’s just convenient when they’re here.”
She said that the other students in TAPP are “amazing,” and that there’s “support all the way around.”
“I thought I was completely by myself in having to go through it until I came to the TAPP program,” she said.
Teen birth rates at historic low, but pregnancy program serves dozens
Carmody said she believes Tempe Union’s program is the only school program remaining in Maricopa County that offers comprehensive services to pregnant and parenting students. The Mesa Unified School District’s TAPP program was cut at the end of the 2008-09 school year after 30 years, according to a 2008 Arizona Republic article. But there are programs like Tempe Union’s in the Flagstaff, Tucson and Marana school districts.
Teen birth rates in Arizona have declined nearly every year since 1994, when the rate was 82.8 births per 1,000 females ages 15 to 19, according to data from the Arizona Department of Health Services. In 2021, it reached a low of 15.3. That’s in line with the trend across the country, which saw the teen birth rate reach a historic low in 2022, according to the CDC.
The number of students in TAPP, which began in 1975, has also declined over the years, according to Carmody.
Still, the program’s persistence is evidence of Tempe Union’s commitment to supporting students who become a parent in high school, she said. The district’s annual budget for TAPP is $360,000, which is primarily for staff and benefits, according to a district spokesperson. TAPP’s headquarters is filled with community donations like children’s books, diapers, gently used baby clothes, toys and wipes.
This school year, TAPP has served 18 babies and 31 teens, including five fathers. Students have come to the program from across the Valley through open enrollment, Carmody said.
The program also recently added a workspace for students who attend the district’s online school so they can use child care and be a part of the community.
“It’s helpful to get out of the house, be in a space where they can work, and then they get that social aspect,” Carmody said. “They can start to create relationships and friendships and start not to feel that isolation that sometimes teen pregnancy can cause.”
This year, TAPP is projecting an approximately 70% graduation rate for its seniors, though Carmody said the program typically gains new students over the course of the semester, which affects the rate.
“We’re always watching grades, we’re watching attendance,” Carmody said. “Because we’re dropout prevention, the goal is to get them to graduation.”
Setting students up for after graduation
Amya Salas, 17, is on track to graduate on time and is hoping to attend a dental assistant program after she leaves. She joined TAPP at the start of her junior year after having her daughter, Sofia, over the summer, without taking any time off school. (The district provides 10 excused absences for students after they have a child, so whether students continue school without taking time off often depends on when they give birth, according to Carmody.)
But without the child care provided by TAPP, Salas said, it would have been “more of a struggle” to take care of Sofia and finish high school. TAPP’s class also taught her things like where car seats should go, when to start feeding Sofia solids and how to do daily checkups, she said.
For Maria Estrada, 15, TAPP taught her what to expect during labor and breastfeeding, she said, as well as helped her accomplish her online classes.
“They help me get my work done and really focus on us finishing school,” Estrada said.
While the primary goal of TAPP is to get students to graduate, program leaders also want to help students plan their next steps.
Kim Whitmyer, the program’s mentor and volunteer coordinator, connects TAPP students to resources for child care, education and work, like College Connect Tempe, Early Head Start, Tempe PRE preschool, WIC and Arizona@Work. Before they leave, seniors create accounts with Maricopa Community Colleges so they’re set to apply, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, complete Department of Economic Security or Early Head Start child care applications and look at a list of in-demand jobs in the state. Whitmyer is taking Salas to visit dental assistant schools this year, she said.
“They went from TAPP, they met all these different people, and then they had a place they could go to continue to receive support and services without relying on us as their high school teachers and having to come back,” Whitmyer said of former students.
Madeleine Parrish covers K-12 education. Reach her at [email protected].