Students, others hope New Lives center is spared

FORT WORTH -- The bullying began soon after her middle school classmates found out she was pregnant.

They sent the 13-year-old mean messages on MySpace and called her names in the hall. The girl, who didn't want her name used for fear of more bullying, became depressed and thought about getting an abortion.

But in February, she enrolled at the Center for New Lives and found support from other pregnant teens who encouraged her to come to class.

"I don't want to worry about going to a new school and getting teased," said the girl, now five months pregnant. "I like the staff here. They care about us and the girls. We are all the same."

She and many others at New Lives are now worried their south Fort Worth school will be shut down. Last week, district trustees temporarily delayed a decision on its fate, saying they needed more time to explore options, which could include moving the school or eliminating it and assigning the girls back to their home campuses.

Senior Sydney Ellis, 18, said the latter option won't work.

"A lot of girls are going to drop out if that happens," said the former dropout who has a 5-month-old child. "For a lot of girls, their schools didn't like pregnant girls going to them, so they didn't want to go. And a lot of girls don't have anyone to get help from except here."

'It's a struggle'

Interim Principal Evelyn Collins spent a recent early morning picking up middle schoolers who needed a ride to summer tutoring at the school. On any given day, her students face transportation issues, healthcare needs, abuse, homelessness or financial strains, and some even care for elderly or disabled relatives.

"It's a struggle," Collins said. "It's a struggle to keep them in school especially if they don't have parental support and want to go to work to live on their own. The one-on-one need is constant. ... But once we get them back into the system and show them that an education is possible, it's great and rewarding."

Collins spent much of her career at New Lives as a teacher and administrator before retiring in 2008. She returned last winter temporarily when Principal Mia Hall was selected to run the district's new all-girls academy set to open in August.

New Lives was started by Broadway Baptist Church in 1971. It was housed in various places and in 1994 moved to its current location at the former site of the Fort Worth State School, just west of Campus Drive. It is at the Resource Connection of Tarrant County, which also houses health and human services offices and employment assistance.

About 110 girls attend each month. Because many students are former dropouts, the school uses accelerated nine-week sessions aimed at helping the girls get back on track so they can either return to their home campuses or graduate through New Lives.

Along with traditional courses, students learn about prenatal care, breast feeding, parenting and what to look for when an infant is sick. The teens can earn "baby bucks" through good behavior or good grades with which they can buy baby clothes, diapers or other supplies donated to the school. Two social workers help guide them to various resources.

The girls can bring their babies to the on-campus day care run by the YMCA, which the teens said is one of the most important benefits because finding a sitter can be hard or costly. Among the district's traditional schools, only Polytechnic High School has on-site day care.

Fort Worth's teen birth rate dropped between 1995 and 2005, according to the latest data available from health officials. In 1995, there were 117.5 births per 1,000 girls ages 15-19. That fell to 92.4 births in 2005.

But Child Trends, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., released a report last fall showing that Fort Worth tied for seventh place among the nation's largest cities for repeat teen births, at 25 percent.

A support system

District officials had suggested merging New Lives with Project Reach, the district's other program for pregnant or parenting students.

Project Reach's five social workers work with about 600 teens at their home campuses each year.

In the 2004-05 school year, 32.7 percent of New Lives teens went on to graduate, compared with 57.2 percent of Project Reach students.

Nina Jackson, who oversees Project Reach, told trustees last week that her program works with teachers and campus administrators to develop a network that helps the girls stay in school.

"You have to work to create that support system," she told the board.

Fort Worth spends about $2.7 million a year on New Lives, with most spent on personnel and about $240,000 on the building lease. Project Reach costs $754,652, about half of which is paid through grants.

But district officials said it is hard to compare costs on a per-student basis because New Lives operates as school, and Project Reach's costs do not include other resources students use, such as labs or school counselors. And should New Lives close, more social workers and transportation would be needed for Project Reach, officials said.

In 2007, New York City closed its four schools for pregnant teens because of poor academic performance and attendance rates. That district's superintendent called the schools "a separate but unequal program," The New York Times reported.

Students and alumni of New Lives say their academics are like any other school.

Karen Allen, now 26, attended the school when she became pregnant as a junior. She remembers in-depth English reports and attending after-school tutoring. Allen said the school gave her a good foundation on which to earn her bachelor's degree from Texas Wesleyan University, which she did this spring.

"A driving force for me throughout the years was remembering what Ms. Collins always said: 'Being pregnant is not a disability. It might slow you down, but you got to keep on going,'" said Allen, who hopes to one day teach at the school. "I couldn't imagine my life without New Lives."

EVA-MARIE AYALA, 817-390-7700