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D.C. Teen Parenting Program's Funding Set To Expire

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A $1.5 million federal grant to support the "New Heights" teen parenting program in D.C. Public Schools is slated to end at the end of this coming school year.

Jennifer Hernandez got pregnant at 15 and her parents kicked her out of the house when they found out.

"It makes it really hard, because you have to support yourself and the child," she says. 

Hernandez is one of many: in 2009, more than 1,000 babies were born to mothers between 15 and 19 years old, according to DCPS. Now, without the special curriculum to fit the needs of teen parents, school officials say many of those girls will become high school dropouts.  

Now living on her own, Hernandez, who's 17, credits a program coordinator from the New Heights support group for helping her to get into college and win a scholarship.

"She edited all my essays. She actually let me use her work computer. She pushed me to do it," says Hernandez. "I wasn't going to do it. She was like, 'This is free money. This is $10,000 and you can win.' And I won it."

Another young mother, Tanicka Smith, got pregnant at 14. She participated in the New Heights program, and eventually graduated from Anacostia High School. Now, at 21, she's preparing for her last year of college at St. Augustine's University in North Carolina.  

"I'm graduating with my bachelor's ... and I kept moving forward," she says. "I stayed positive and I believed in myself and I wanted my daughter to be able to look up to me and believe that she could do anything possible."

Victoria Bellard, a coordinator at New Heights, says stories like Jennifer's and Tanicka's aren't the exception, but the rule for teen moms who receive academic support and counseling through the program. Without it, the girls tend to drop out of school, she says. 

"After the first year that I started, graduation rate for teen parents at Anacostia for the teen parents in the program was 85 percent," says Bellard. "And then when our funding dropped, it plummeted to 67 percent."

The grant program has been at 15 D.C. public high schools with high incidences of teen pregnancy. But it will end after the 2012-2013 school year if more federal funding doesn't come through. 

"What's scary to me is that grant runs out in 2013," says Bellard. "That can't happen to these girls. They need the support and the help of people." 

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