WASHINGTON — The bright basement room at Cardozo High School was quiet for the first time in hours--no "Hokey Pokey" or baby wails, just the murmur of hushed adult voices as five well-fed infants eased into their early afternoon naps.
Debbie, 18, gazed into a crib at her son, 8-month-old Gregory, whose picture she wears in a tiny pendant around her neck. In a few minutes her lunch break would end and she would have to return to class.
"I was pleased to go back to school and make my future better, for him," said the slim teen-ager, dressed in sweater and jeans. "I need to get a proper job. I want to be a pediatric nurse or doctor."
These might have been empty dreams for Debbie, who lives on welfare, but for a colorful oasis of innocence, stuffed animals and rocking chairs in the bowels of a stark, brick, urban high school.
"I don't have anyone to look after the baby. I can't afford a baby sitter," Debbie said. "That's what I love about this center. It really provides for the mother who wants to go back to school."
More than 1 million teen-age girls become pregnant each year and nearly half of them have their babies, according to the Center for Population Options. About half of those who complete their pregnancies drop out of school, often because they don't have child care.
Society pays a high price for teen-age pregnancies: low-birth-weight babies who may need special medical care and later remedial education, long-term unemployment and welfare reliance among undereducated teen parents, and child abuse and neglect by the inexperienced and frustrated parents--many of whom have disturbed family lives themselves.
But experts believe--and studies are beginning to show--that child-care centers at or near high schools can keep teen mothers in school, reduce repeat pregnancies and draw adolescent parents into a web of services that heighten their chances for a good life.
"You pay now or you pay later," said Sharon Rodine, director of the National Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy and Parenting. "All kinds of related social problems can be reduced when you can put a little money into child care for the teen parent."
Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said: "If these mothers stay in school, it makes a great difference in the welfare rolls and a very great difference in their children's futures. A working parent who can read and write is not likely to have an illiterate kid."
Child care usually is the cornerstone of a whole network of support services needed by young mothers, who often have poor basic skills and few opportunities, concludes the draft of an article to be published in March by the Children's Defense Fund (CDF).
"You have to provide a special range of services. But without child care, I don't see what pregnant teens' opportunities are," says Helen Blank, the organization's director of child care.
There are 400 to 500 school-coordinated child-care services in the United States, according to CDF. Some, like Cardozo, are in public school buildings; some are in separate schools for teen-age parents, while others are in family day-care homes near schools attended by the parents.
The main advantage to students is that scheduling and transportation are enormously simplified. The tie-in also means that some mothers can breast-feed, counselors can observe parent-child relationships, and the day-care centers can be used to teach parenting skills. In addition, the young mothers retain their status as primary caretakers--rather than turning that responsibility over to their own mothers.
Most programs arrange or provide health care to both mothers and babies and make sure new parents learn how to care for and understand their babies. Some provide mentors to student mothers, some offer family counseling and some find ways to involve each baby's father, grandparents, aunts and uncles.
Child Studies Required
At Cardozo, staff members see to it that mothers and babies receive physicals and immunizations. The girls attend weekly parenting classes or rap sessions. They're required to take child studies in their home-economics classes.
"They have more tolerance in the evening with their babies because they have some relief during the day," said Lucille Green, the coordinator of infant programs in the District of Columbia public schools. "I'm sure we've cut down to some degree on child abuse and neglect."
The Cardozo program has two simple aims: delaying further pregnancies and finishing school. Each girl must call the center by 9 a.m. if she will be late or absent that day. If she leaves the building during school hours, her baby goes with her. Her attendance is monitored. She will be kicked out if she becomes pregnant.
'We're not here to baby-sit," Green says. "We're here to keep them in class."