fb-pixelA teen parent high school program that should go Mass. statewide Skip to main content

A program at Chelsea High School gives teen parents extra support. Supporters want to expand it.

Massachusetts has one of the lowest teen birth rates in the country, but some say more support is necessary for students who do become pregnant or parents during school.

Bryanna Morales, with her son, Jeremiah, was part of Chelsea High School's expectant and parenting student program.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

When Bryanna Morales found out she was pregnant, she was terrified.

She was in eighth grade.

“I was so young, I didn’t really know what I was going to do,” Morales said, now 18. “But I was already five months, so it was kind of like, ‘Well, I guess I have to do this.’”


Bryanna Morales credits Chelsea's expectant and parenting teen program for helping her stay in school while caring for her son, Jeremiah. “They made it happen for me," she said.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Morales was 14 when she gave birth to her son, Jeremiah. Entering high school with a newborn, Morales could have been in jeopardy of dropping out.

Nevertheless, she graduated this summer, thanks to a program at Chelsea High School designed to provide intensive support for pregnant and parenting students.

Advertisement



“I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it; four years of high school with a kid is not easy,” said Morales. “They made it happen for me.”

In addition to the increased danger of dropping out, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, teen pregnancy is associated with a higher risk of poor health, social, education, and employment outcomes.

To head off those problems, Chelsea Public Schools was one of five Massachusetts communities to get federal funding from 2010 to 2020 for a program called the Massachusetts Pregnant and Parenting Teen Initiative.

Teen parents who stayed in the program for six months or longer saw increases in contraceptive use, access to insurance and prenatal care, reductions in repeat pregnancies, and progress toward academic and career goals, a report by state public health officials found.

In Chelsea’s program, young parents have a single district employee assigned to make sure they get the academic support and counseling they need, as well as connect them to agencies that can provide health care, child care, housing, and mental health support.

Karissa Barbosa (left), program liaison, and Brenda Peña, coordinator of social work at Chelsea Public Schools, flanked Bryanna Morales and her son, Jeremiah, at Chelsea High.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

The program was so successful that the 6,150-student Chelsea Public Schools, whose student body is 88 percent Hispanic and nearly 91 percent high needs, chose to incorporate the program’s cost, which ranges from $50,000 to $63,000 per year, into its annual budget after the federal grant ended. Advocates hope to expand it and make it a model for other districts with a large number of teen parents.

Advertisement



“I think there’s this stigma … (around) what it means to be a young parent,” said Brenda Peña, a district administrator who oversees the expectant and parenting student liaison program.

“People see it as, ‘This is going to hold me back. ... I’m not going to be able to successfully finish high school,’” said Peña. “And that’s not true, it’s just a matter of how much you’re willing to invest, and how you support those students.”

Karissa Barbosa, program liaison for the Pregnant and Parenting Teen Initiative at Chelsea Public Schools, tries to meet with each student in the program every week and hosts a monthly parents’ group to build a sense of community.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Helping teen moms make it to graduation is personal for Karissa Barbosa, the Chelsea school district’s sole teen parent liaison. Her own mother was a junior in high school when she gave birth to Barbosa, and family photos show Barbosa with her mother throughout her senior year and at graduation.

“My mom’s a very successful woman; she’s a teacher now,” said Barbosa, 25. “But she always tells me she wishes that she had someone like me in high school.”

Research shows that successful teen parent programs are flexible, tailored to individual needs, and offer intensive one-on-one support. They also incorporate group activities, coordinate social services and resources, and develop trusting relationships between the students and staff.

For Barbosa, that sometimes means waiting with a student for pregnancy test results, attending doctor’s appointments, or visiting a home.

Advertisement



She tries to meet with each student every week, hosts a monthly parents’ group to build a sense of community, helps them navigate and access social services, and keeps a watchful eye on each student’s attendance.

“She was constantly checking in with me,” said Morales. “It’s just good to know that someone who’s not your family is there for you and supporting you and cheering you on.”

Peña said that during this upcoming school year she and Barbosa will work on collaborating more with teachers to find alternative ways for student parents to complete assignments and earn the credits necessary to graduate.

Brenda Peña, as the coordinator of social work at Chelsea Public Schools, urges teachers and administrators to look beyond traditional methods of helping students cope. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

“It’s really thinking outside the box, really being as creative as possible and not sticking to this kind of brick-and-mortar mentality, or this mindset of ‘traditional is the only way to go,’” said Peña.

In other districts she’s worked in, she said, supporting student parents often falls on school counselors or social workers who have other responsibilities; having a staffer devoted to these students, she said, makes a world of difference. Barbosa goes “above and beyond … makes herself available, advocates for the students in a way that really nobody has before,” said Peña.

“I got emotional graduating and leaving the program, because she was such a big part of my last two years of high school,” said Morales.


State Senator Sal DiDomenico, who represents Chelsea, wants teen parents across the state to get the same help. He has filed legislation every session since 2015 to replicate Chelsea’s program elsewhere, to no avail.

Advertisement



In June, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education heard testimony on the Chelsea program’s success, but the bill hasn’t moved.

“For me, it’s so important to keep fighting for it,” DiDomenico said. “I don’t want them to get left behind.”

New Bedford, which launched its own program over 30 years ago, joined Chelsea in extending its program after federal funding ended in 2020. It’s unclear whether the other three districts — Lawrence, Holyoke, and Springfield — still offer such services; they did not reply to a request for comment or more information.

The teen birth rate for decades has been on a steady decline nationwide, and Massachusetts has the second lowest teen birth rate, at 5.7 for every 1,000 girls ages 15-19 in 2021, in the country. However, significant disparities persist among racial groups and by geography.

In 2020 , the birth rate among Hispanics, 15 to 19 years old in Massachusetts, was 21.0 per 1,000 girls and 10.3 for non-Hispanic Black girls, compared to 2.2 for white girls and 1.7 for Asians.

“We can’t sit back on our laurels,” said Gillian Sealy, chief of staff at Washington, D.C.-based Power to Decide, a nonprofit that works to advance sexual and reproductive health. “These disparities continue to persist, and there are systemic factors as to why.”

In recent years, Peña said, the expectant and parenting teen program at Chelsea High School has served 13 to 25 students per year, and in the past two years, has had a graduation rate of 100 percent, although some students attended summer school or transferred to alternative programs in order to meet graduation requirements.

Advertisement



Morales said it certainly made a difference for her.

“I’m really proud of myself, for him really,” said Morales, gesturing to her son. “I finally got my diploma.”

For Bryanna Morales, making it through high school while mothering her son, Jeremiah, was a proud achievement. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Niki Griswold can be reached at niki.griswold@globe.com. Follow her @nikigriswold.