Eight pregnant teen-agers, many dressed in oversized T-shirts and snacking on milk and cookies, gathered around a plastic baby doll at Hamilton Adult Center in Torrance last week for a lesson in newborn care.
The topics of the day included crib safety and how to clean a baby's umbilical cord. But nurse Annelie Hagan was also called on to counter a folk tale that a baby can suffer brain damage if the mother pulls the bottle out of the baby's mouth too quickly.
"I thought I knew a lot about having a baby, but I guess not," one of the girls said later.
For years, pregnant teen-agers from all over the South Bay were bused to Lawndale to attend La Vida School on the campus of Leuzinger High School, the only county-run program for pregnant girls in the area. But in an effort to make the program more widely available, county education officials last month opened La Vida School South in Torrance for girls who live in Torrance, the beach cities and the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
As part of its expansion effort, county education officials plan to move the Lawndale program, which now has 26 students, to Inglewood at the end of the year. They are also discussing the possibility of opening a third school at R. K. Lloyde Continuation High in Lawndale by January.
"We're really trying to provide as many opportunities as possible for the girls to continue and complete their education," said Rose Marie Benjamin Zuniga, area administrator for the county's Office of Education. "We know there's such a high dropout rate of teen mothers. But if we can provide more locations where these programs are available, the more likely we will be to decrease that risk."
Between 1983 and 1988, the latest year for which there are statistics, the number of teen-age pregnancies throughout the South Bay and Westside increased 9% from 3,038 to 3,311, according to the county health department. The figures do not take into account a possible rise in the number of teen-agers.
But it was a wish to make the program more convenient, rather than the increase in teen-age pregnancies, that prompted county officials to expand the program, Zuniga said.
A local school official, who asked not to be identified, said the expansion was necessary because some South Bay girls were reluctant to attend the pregnant minor program on the campus of Leuzinger High School.
Racial unrest among students at the school erupted into widespread brawling earlier this year. The fighting, which was finally quelled by more than 50 police officers and sheriff's deputies, was sparked by an argument between two girls, one black and the other Latina.
Although one teen-ager said she enrolled at the new La Vida School South "because of all the gangs and stuff" in Lawndale, most of the girls in the Torrance program said they were just glad they could now attend school closer to home.
"It was a long way to go and inconvenient," said one 17-year-old girl who attended the Lawndale program in the summer before transferring to Torrance last month. "A lot of mornings, I just didn't feel like going. I missed a lot of days because of it."
County education officials say enrollment in the program is likely to climb now that it has been expanded to an additional site.
Last year, 112 pregnant girls between the ages of 12 and 18 spent at least a semester in the Lawndale program. About 40% of the girls who went through the program came from Leuzinger and Hawthorne high schools in the Centinela Valley Union High School District.
Eleanor Hooper, director of instruction at Centinela Valley, said school officials hope they will be able to retain a program for pregnant teens at one of the district's schools. The district's pregnancy rate is "large enough that we felt we had an obligation on behalf of our young women to provide a program close by to them," Hooper said.
In addition to the two programs in the South Bay, the Office of Education also operates pregnant minor programs in Paramount and Montebello. The schools are run as a partnership between the county, which provides the instruction and materials, and the local school district, which provides the classroom space.
To enroll in the program, which is strictly optional, girls need only to bring in a doctor's note verifying they are pregnant. In addition to regular academic studies, the girls receive counseling and parenting classes. Most stay enrolled in the school until their babies are born. Many return to school to get their high school diploma.
"It's like you're at home here," said Kristen Nichols, 16, an Inglewood resident now attending the Lawndale program. "If you don't feel good, you can lay down. You can eat whenever you want to."
"I want to continue with my education. I'm not going to stop with my high school diploma," added Kristen, whose baby is due in January. "If it weren't for this, I wouldn't be graduating at all."