Inside the RI high school keeping teen parents on track

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – It is a struggle for most teenagers to wake up and get themselves ready for high school. But imagine having to get a baby ready too.

At the Sheila C. “Skip” Nowell Leadership Academy charter school, the goal is to make sure young parents don’t give up on their education.

Founded in 2013, the school has two campuses – one in Providence and one in Central Falls – and 160 students, many of whom are pregnant or already have children. With only 40% of teen moms throughout the country currently earning their high school diploma by the age of 22, the school’s top priority is keeping students on track.

“We have a personalized learning curriculum,” Jessica Waters, the dean of academics at the school, told Eyewitness News. “Students are allowed to be self-directed and learn those skills that will help them be successful in college, so they will learn how to pace themselves. They can learn any time, any place, at school or at home.”

More than 3,300 Rhode Island teenagers from nearly every city and town gave birth to a child between 2011 and 2015, according to Rhode Island Kids Count, the state’s leading child advocacy organization. During the same time period, 21% of new moms from the state’s urban core – Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls and Woonsocket – had not yet earned a high school diploma.

Accord to a report from America’s Promise Alliance, teens said it was tough socially to be in a normal public school setting while pregnant. They also had challenges when trying to balance school and their responsibilities as a parent.

But Nowell Leadership Academy has a flexible, personalized model for learning designed to keep students coming back to class. The academy even offers Saturday classes and after school-help.  School leaders say they tailor interventions for students because many of them come to the school “off track” and they support them to get back on track. To date, about 50% of students who have enrolled at Nowell have either graduated or are still enrolled and working towards their diploma.

Leah Thompson, a 17-year-old with a 15-month-old son, is one of those students. She acknowledged that not every day is easy, but she enjoys school.

“Some days are good and everything is on time, others I am just rushing, rushing, rushing,” she said.

Nowell Leadership Academy accepts all students, but the curriculum is designed for pregnant and parenting teens.