Eighteen-year-old Roberta Contreras couldn't linger too long after her high school graduation last week. After all, her two children and the baby-sitter were waiting at home for her, so the graduation festivities--like the usual frivolities of adolescence--would have to take a back seat.
"I knew I would graduate," said Contreras, who intends to take business classes at Oxnard College. "I had to. I have to be the sole support of my kids."
The school that kept her and 44 other pregnant or parenting girls on an educational track is Gateway Community School, a collection of five remodeled Quonset huts near Camarillo Airport. It's one of two schools in Ventura County that offers free child care so teen-agers can bring their babies to class.
On June 15, four mothers graduated from Gateway, which primarily is a school for problem students from throughout the county. The Simi Valley Adult School, the other Ventura County educational facility with a full program designed for young mothers and mothers-to-be, will graduate six mothers Friday.
One Simi Valley mother has been accepted at USC. The others won't attend schools so prestigious, but some eventually will take classes at local community colleges or get vocational training in a variety of fields. All will have an edge over the hundreds of Ventura County pregnant teen-agers who annually drop out of school, winding up as welfare clients and dooming their children to the same dismal status.
Ventura County teen-agers had 1,038 babies in 1985--one for every 23 teen-aged girls, according to Planned Parenthood in Ventura. Ventura County's teen-age birthrate ranks 13th among California's 58 counties, according to state figures.
Yet the two programs in Ventura County with day care this year logged an attendance of only 65, despite openings in each. Transportation is a perennial problem for teen-agers in the sprawling county, program organizers say. And the harried life of young mothers, who are often from poor backgrounds and broken homes, does not make an easy fit with academics.
"It could be problems at home--they might get married, move away or get an apartment with their boyfriend in the Valley," said Ruth Dempsey, a Simi Valley instructor. "Many grew up in that environment. They think everything's going to be just fine."
Such optimism hasn't snared Michelle, a 16-year-old junior at Gateway who gave birth in April.
Saddened by Plight
Thinking about her boyfriend, who she says is drifting around the Bay Area looking for work as a recording engineer, saddens her.
"I think maybe I met the wrong person," she said. "He has nothing. He has two suitcases. He's living in a dream world of marijuana. I tell him I need diapers and clothes. I tell him if we can't feed one person three times a day, how are we going to feed three of us three times a day?"
Gateway--which students attend one day a week--attempts to answer such questions. With the help of texts and videos, the women study such standard subjects as English and math at home and use their day at school to tackle more pressing problems.
In some classes, they are taught the skills that new parents twice their age often learn in similar classes. They compare the practicality and efficiency of cloth and disposable diapers; they delve into the nutritional needs of newborns and learn what to do about problems ranging from infants' nightmares to accidental choking.
Meanwhile, they grapple with their own negative feelings. Counselors guide them through discussions about how to deal with parents and boyfriends. They talk about marriage, sex, birth control and plans for life after high school.
"My sister was pregnant and went to a regular Camarillo high school," said Penny Nall, 18, a young mother and senior at Gateway. "It was really hard on her. They made a big deal out of it. At Gateway, they make you feel welcome. Kids can talk to one another. They can talk to other moms."
One of the most urgent problems they face is whether to place their newborns up for adoption. Most of them decide against it.
For many teen-agers, a baby means security and instant adulthood.
"I never considered abortion," one teen-ager said. "I didn't want to give him up for adoption. I carried him for nine months. I felt him kick. I wanted someone who would love me for the rest of my life. I know he will."
At Gateway, pregnant and parenting students hardly ever cross paths on campus. Pregnant young women go to class on Tuesdays. Parenting students go to class on Thursdays.
"It makes sense to have them on their own day," said Gail Henniger, a Gateway instructor. "It protects the ones who haven't made a decision yet."
Keeping babies is a fairly new phenomenon, said Jackie Goldberg, a member of the Los Angeles Board of Education and an advocate of child care in the schools.