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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Educators at Odds Over Aid to Teen Mothers

Schools: Conservative trustees halt plan to expand program, sparking another feud with county Supt. Weis.

October 09, 1998|JENNIFER HAMM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ventura County's top school official and conservative members of the county Board of Education are once again at odds--this time over a program to help teen mothers.

Citing moral and financial concerns, two school board members have put the brakes on a grant application that would expand a county program to educate teen mothers and help them raise healthy babies.

"It would be like we were rewarding these girls for having these babies out of wedlock," board member Ron Matthews said.

But county schools Supt. Charles Weis contends just the opposite, that the grant money is badly needed to help steer teen mothers back on to the road to success.

"We want to get these kids turned back on to school," Weis said. "The way to do that is to give them a five-day-a-week program. We want to get them into breaking the teen pregnancy cycle."

Weis, who has tangled with the board before over spending on AIDS education, family planning speakers and other issues, also objects that Matthews and fellow board member Marty Bates had stopped the grant application after earlier voting for tentative approval.

Board members deadlocked 2 to 2 in a final vote on the grant Sept. 28, effectively reversing the earlier action. The board lacks a fifth member until elections next month.

Because county education officials submitted their application hours before that meeting to abide by a state deadline, the board's change of direction has put the county in an awkward situation: If the money through the state-run School-Age Parenting and Infant Development program is offered, the county would have to decline.

"It just doesn't make sense," Weis said. "We didn't have any indication that there was anything wrong with this grant up until the day of the meeting."

Weis said the split vote is reminiscent of the board's 1995 decision to keep AIDS and pregnancy prevention educators from speaking in the county's schools.

District officials say the $370,000 they seek would allow them to expand a county program that provides high school instruction, child care, classes in parenting and other programs for teenage parents.

The grant would increase the number of teens served from 55 to 100. It also would expand child-care to five days a week at all three sites where the program operates around the county. Currently, only one site offers day care for students' children five days a week.

The money also would be used to hire early child-development staff members, help the school provide meals and make referrals for public agency services, said Kathy Auth, the teen pregnancy teacher at Gateway Community School.

Auth, who wrote the application, was surprised by the board's decision because she believes there is a vital need for increased services to teenage parents.

"It distresses me, because working with teen parents for over 10 years . . . once they do have the baby, we need to work on educating the mother," Auth said.

Matthews said he voted against the application because it would not solve any teen pregnancy problems in the county.

"It would just give them one more reason to fulfill this fantasy of having this child that they think is going to fulfill their lives," he said.

Matthews also said an expanded program would cost too much money and serve too few students. The $370,000 would be better spent on supplies and programs that would serve more students in the county, he said.

Bates and Matthews changed their minds after tentatively backing the grant application because the grant amount ended up larger than initially expected and an informal survey suggested few school districts wanted expanded services for teen parents, Matthews said.

Bates, who is up for reelection next month along with board member Al Rosen, could not be reached for comment.

Teenage parents who attend school at Gateway Community School in Camarillo, one of the county-run schools where the program operates, say they are thankful the county can provide them with day care while they are in class.

Dalia Felix, 15, said she would have dropped out of school without day care. She also said she has learned much about being a mother from the teachers and child-care providers since she became a parent two years ago.

"I like the way they treat us here," Dalia said. "They treat us like moms."

Fourteen-year-old Crystal Elder said the support from the school's program has helped her since she became pregnant in the sixth grade.

"I've learned a lot of stuff," Crystal said. "They teach you how to discipline them, how to feed them."

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