Missoula County Public Schools recently canned a long-established daycare nursery at Sentinel High School, and with it the last vestige of in-school support for parenting students.
The district eliminated two full-time positions by cutting the nursery, which was part of the decades-old Young Families Program. Public Affairs Director Lesli Brassfield notes only two or three parenting teens were enrolled in the nursery last year.
"We just don't feel having a daycare option in one of our public schools is an affordable option," Brassfield says.
Karen Allen, a regional director in the district, says the district will now focus on having school counselors alert local specialists to individual students raising children. Those specialists can, in turn, help students meet parenting needs.
"Sometimes these things are very stealth," Allen says. "These kids disappear. Where did they go? What happened to them? It's our goal to go out and find them."
Allen adds the district hopes to improve staggering dropout rates by identifying and aiding parenting students in all high schools.
The district first opened dialogue with childcare groups in June. Trudy Mizner, a division supervisor for the Missoula City-County Health Department, says the district's sudden emphasis on community support going into the 2009-10 school year marks a dramatic shift. In years past, parenting teens have mainly been kept "in-house," Mizner says.
"We need to have the schools as a partner," Mizner says, "because we all agree that education is essential for [parenting teen] success. I guess I'm optimistic because for the first time in a long time, the school is listening."
But not everyone sees the switch as a good thing. Gypsy Ray, executive director of Mountain Home, which houses up to six homeless teen mothers at a time, says this is a major setback for parenting teens. She points to Mountain Home resident Jancy Wells, mother of a 4-month-old son, as a prime example.
"The fact that we had a parenting program for mainstreaming students in our public school system was so ahead of the game," Ray says.
Ray adds that Mountain Home co-founder Lois Reimers, until recently a teacher with the Sentinel nursery, had seven teen parents enrolled in Young Families for this fall.
Wells planned to enter a second year with the nursery. She now has to take her infant across town for daycare.