Diplomas & day care: Spokane school helps teens navigate parenthood

Lumen High School supports expecting and parenting teens as they receive an education. After Dobbs, are other schools ready for more pregnant students?

A person is holding a newborn baby at a school desk.

Rene, a senior at Lumen High School, holds his newborn son, RJ, during class. (Camilla Forte/The Hechinger Report)

This story originally was published by The Hechinger Report.

Before giving birth to her daughter, Kaleeya Baldwin, 19, had given up on education.

She’d dropped out of school as a seventh grader, after behavior problems had banished her to alternative schools. Growing up in foster homes and later landing in juvenile court had convinced her to disappear from every system that claimed responsibility for her.

“I was just really angry with everything,” said Baldwin.

But in early 2020, during what would have been her freshman year in high school, Baldwin discovered she was pregnant. At her first ultrasound appointment, a nurse handed her a stack of pamphlets. One, advertising a new school for pregnant and parenting teens, caught her attention.

Kaleeya Baldwin, 19, holds her daughter Akiyah, 3 1/2. (Camilla Forte/The Hechinger Report)

“Something switched when Akylah got here,” Baldwin said, referring to her daughter. “I was a whole different person. Now it’s high school that matters. It’s a legacy — and it’s hope for her.”

Four years ago and two months pregnant, Baldwin enrolled as one of the first students at Lumen High School. The Spokane charter school — its name, which means a unit of light, was selected by young parents who wished someone had shone a light on education for them — today enrolls about five dozen expectant and parenting teens, including fathers. Inside a three-story office building in the city’s downtown business core, Lumen provides full-day child care, baby supplies, mental health counseling and other support as students work toward graduation based on customized education plans.

When the Spokane school district authorized the charter school, it acknowledged that these students had been underserved in traditional high schools and that alternatives were needed. Nationwide, only about half of teen mothers receive a high school degree by age 22. Researchers say common school policies like strict attendance rules and dress codes often contribute to young parents deciding to drop out. In April, the U.S. Department of Education issued new regulations to strengthen protections for pregnant and parenting students, though it’s unclear whether the revisions, which also include protections for LGBTQ+ youth, will survive legal challenges.

Solutions for these young parents have become even more urgent after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling overturning the constitutional right to an abortion. Lumen is located about 20 miles from the Idaho border, which has one of the country’s strictest abortion bans. Recently, representatives from a network of charter schools in the state toured Lumen to evaluate whether they might bring a similar program to the Boise area. Researchers have also visited the school to study how educators elsewhere might replicate its supportive services, not only for pregnant students, but for those facing crises like substance use.

“There are some bright spots. Lumen is one,” said Jeannette Pai-Espinosa, president of the Justice + Joy National Collaborative, which advocates for young women, including teen mothers, referring to support in K-12 schools for pregnant and parenting teens. “By and large it’s just not really a priority on the list of many, many things schools are challenged with and facing now.”

Nationally, teenage birth rates have fallen for the past three decades, reaching an all-time low in 2022, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That same year, the decline in teen births skidded to a halt in Texas, one year after the state’s Republican lawmakers had enacted a six-week abortion ban. Experts fear Texas’ change in direction could foreshadow a national uptick in teen pregnancy now that adolescents face more hurdles to abortion access in red states.

Decades of research have revealed the long-term effects of adolescent pregnancy and childbearing: The CDC reports children of teen mothers tend to have lower performance in school and higher chances of dropping out of high school. They’re more likely to have health problems and give birth as teenagers themselves.

Shauna Edwards witnessed such outcomes as part of her work with pregnant and parenting teens for a religious nonprofit and in high schools along the Idaho/-Washington border. She also learned the limits of trying to shoehorn services for those students into a school’s existing budget. At one campus, where Edwards helped as a counselor, she said the principal assigned just one teacher for all subjects and two classroom aides to handle child care for the babies of 60 students.

Melissa Pettey, the principal of Lumen High School, meets with school support staff on March 19, 2024, to discuss current student needs. (Camilla Forte/The Hechinger Report)

Frustrated, she tried to convince the superintendent of another school district to offer a similar teen parent program, but with more funding. He couldn’t justify the costs, Edwards said. Instead, he suggested she open her own school.

“I could serve all of Spokane, ideally, and wouldn’t have the risk of getting shut down by a school district trying to balance its budget,” said Edwards, executive director for Lumen.

Every morning, students from across Spokane County — at 1,800 square miles, it’s a bit larger than Rhode Island — trek to the Lumen campus downtown. Many take public transit, which is free for youth under 18, and end their rides at a regional bus hub across the street from the school. Once their children reach six months, Lumen students can drop them off at an on-site childcare and preschool center, operated by a nonprofit partner, before heading upstairs to start their day. Before then, parents can bring their babies to class.

Funding for small schools in Washington state helps Lumen afford a full teaching staff — one adult each for English, history, math, science and special education. The charter also has a full-time principal, social worker and counselor. Other adults manage student internships or donations to the school’s food bank and “baby boutique,” where students can “shop” for a stroller, formula, diapers and clothes — all free of charge.

It’s common to see an infant cradled in a teacher’s arm, allowing students to focus on their classwork. On a recent afternoon, two couples traded cradling duties with their newborns during a parenting class on lactation.

“Delivering is something that happens to you. Not so with nursing. You have to do it,” said Megan Macy, a guest teacher, who introduced herself as “the official milk lady.”

Baldwin shared a bit about her daughter Akylah’s delivery: “I was so depleted. I was her chew toy, her crying shoulder, her feeding bag. Once we got home, she wouldn’t latch at all.”

Her friend Keelah, 17, rocked her newborn in a car seat. (The Hechinger Report is identifying the parents who are minors by first name only to protect their privacy.) “It’s hard, and it’s scary,” she said of the first week home with the baby. “She lost a pound between the hospital and pediatrician.”

Related: ‘They just tried to scare us’: How anti-abortion centers teach sex ed in public schools

Lumen contracts with the Shades of Motherhood Network, a Spokane-based nonprofit founded to support Black mothers, to run the parenting classes. The school reserves space for health officials to meet with mothers and babies for routine checkups and government food programs. And founding principal Melissa Pettey has pushed — and paid for — teachers to make home visits with each student.

For each student, Lumen staff develops an individual graduation plan based on earned and missing credits from previous high schools. The school uses an instructional approach, called mastery-based learning, that allows students to earn credits based on competency in academic skills, often applied in projects. The parenting class, for example, counts as a credit for career and technical education, depending on how the contracted teachers evaluate each student.

Megan Macy, a guest teacher and lactation expert, leads a parenting class that students at Lumen High School attend every afternoon. (Camilla Forte/The Hechinger Report)

The learn-as-you-go approach also allows Lumen to work around the instability in the lives of their students, who are often coping with children’s illnesses, day care challenges, housing insecurity and other issues.

But the chaos in a young parent’s life can look like inconsistent attendance or even truancy on state accountability reports. Just a tenth of Lumen students attend school regularly, which the state defines as missing no more than two days of class each month.

Next year, the Spokane school district will review Lumen’s operations and performance to decide whether to renew the school’s charter. State data shows less than a fifth of Lumen’s students graduate on time, while a third dropped out. The state doesn’t publicly report testing data from Lumen, due to its size. But Edwards and Pettey said proficiency on state exams isn’t their main goal.

“One student attended 16 elementary schools. Six high schools before junior year,” Pettey said. “Think of the learning missed. How do we get that student to an 11th grade level?”

Added Edwards: “If you can grow them to read baby books to their kids, that’s a success.”

Lumen’s authorizer, Spokane Public Schools, will modify how it evaluates the charter’s performance to take its nontraditional students into account, according to Kristin Whiteaker, who oversees charter schools for the district.

She noted that about a third of Lumen’s incoming high schoolers test at an elementary level; another third test at middle school levels. But during the 2022-23 school year, 52 percent of students posted growth in math while at Lumen, and nearly two-thirds performed better on English language arts exams, according to the school. All of the students who make it to graduation have been accepted into college; 95 percent actually enrolled or started working six months after graduation.

“They’re serving such a unique population,” Whiteaker said. “If you can provide a pathway for students to the next stage of their lives, that’s accomplishing their goals.”

Lumen, she added, removes many of the barriers that pregnant and parenting teens face at Spokane’s traditional high schools. Some struggle to complete make-up work after missing weeks or months of classes for parental leave. Most have no access to child care, and regular schools don’t allow babies in the classroom.

Ideally, some experts say, expecting and parenting teens could remain in their original schools and receive these supports. That’s rarely the case, though, and the social stigma alone can keep young parents from finishing their education.

At the national level, a 2010 law that provided funding to help these students expired in 2019. Jessica Harding and Susan Zief, with the research firm Mathematica, studied the effectiveness of those federally funded programs and found that successful ones work hard to provide flexibility, for excused absences or for adding maternity clothes to dress codes. Others get creative, helping students navigate public transportation and modify their work schedules to meet with students after hours.

“Sometimes,” Harding said, “the solutions are not complicated.”

Parenting classes at Lumen High School include lessons on lactation. The classes count as a career and technical education credit. (Camilla Forte/The Hechinger Report)

In 2022, when the Supreme Court upended abortion care nationwide, Edwards expected students without reproductive choice in Idaho to attempt to enroll in Lumen. A handful have inquired with the school, said Edwards, but to enroll they would have to move across the state border to Washington where housing costs are significantly higher.

In fact, Lumen recently lost one student whose father found a cheaper home in Idaho. Average rents across Spokane County have risen more than 50 percent over the past five years. And as of March, about half of Lumen students qualified as homeless. One young mother slept outside during winter break while her newborn stayed with a friend. Three students, asked what they would change about Lumen, cited affordable housing or temporary shelter that could help them.

Across Washington, pregnant and parenting teens account for 12% of all unaccompanied youth in the homeless system. But the state has a severe shortage of shelter beds available for youth under 18, with even fewer supportive housing options that allow young families to stay together, according to a February 2024 state report. Edwards, meanwhile, has talked with developers to see if they could reserve affordable units for students or loosen rules that prevent minors from signing a lease.

“We missed a whole month of class. It was a long month,” said Mena, a 17-year-old junior who convinced her boyfriend, Rene, to enroll before their son’s delivery, in January.

Rene Jr., or RJ, had already lived with the couple in several homes during his first few months. A restraining order with one set of RJ’s grandparents and a guardianship battle with the other pushed Mena and Rene to couch-surf with friends.

“School was the only way we could see each other,” Rene said. “I’m surprised, honestly, they can get me to graduation,” he added, while burping RJ. “He’s going to have a future.”

Later, as Mena suctioned RJ’s stuffy nose in another classroom, Rene struggled to stay awake in math. He had forgotten what he’d learned in some earlier lessons on graphing linear equations, and retreated into social media on his phone. Another student badgered him to “put in some effort,” but Rene resisted.

His teacher, Trevor Bradley, intervened. “What’s special about today? Why don’t you want to try?” he said. “You told me you’re tired because the baby’s keeping you up at night.”

After drawing another set of equations on the whiteboard, Bradley asked Rene and the other student for help with finding the values of x and y. Rene barely whispered his answer.

“That’s it! You do remember,” Bradley said, as Rene yawned.

From the start, Lumen’s founders planned to include fathers in the school. Pai-Espinosa, with the National Collaborative, said it’s unusual for K-12 systems to focus on fathers, since mothers often have custodial rights. And at Lumen, the inclusion of “baby daddies” — as students and staff refer to them — sometimes adds teen drama to the mix of emotions and hormones already present at the school.

Lumen’s lack of diversity among adults there has also bothered some students, including Kaleeya Baldwin. Only 40 percent of her peers identify as white, and all of the school’s teachers and administrators are white. Edwards said it has been difficult to recruit a diverse staff. As a temporary solution the school contracted with the Shades of Motherhood Network for parenting classes.

“It’s hard being in a white space with no Black teachers,” Baldwin said.

Still, she said she liked the school’s emphasis on engaging students in semester-long projects in different subjects and on real-world problems. Last year, confronted with drug-use problems near the downtown campus, students researched and presented options for the city to consider on safe needle disposal in public places. Each student’s individual graduation plan also includes an internship.

Payton, 17, has wanted to be a school counselor since before giving birth to her daughter in late 2022. Her internship at nearby Sacajawea Middle School convinced her to stay on that career path. Another mother, Alana, started an internship this spring with a local credit union and plans to use the marketing experience to help her advocate for children with disabilities in the future.

Baldwin recently turned her internship, with a downtown restaurant, into a part-time job. She planned to save for college, but no longer needs to. Gonzaga University notified her in March of a full-ride scholarship to study there this fall.

“Lumen didn’t change who I was,” Baldwin said. “I did this for my daughter. I didn’t want to be that low-income family. So I got my ass up, got into this school and I got an education.”

The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet focused on education, originally published this story on May 28, 2024.

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