She didn't realize she was pregnant at 17: 'I didn't know what pregnancy felt like'
More from the series
The Valley is home to California's highest teenage birth rates. Teen parents say they lack support at school, and sex education is infused with politics.
Every morning just before 5 a.m., 17-year-old Judy Sinpraseuth would quietly pack books, diapers and formula, trying not to wake her newborn son as she prepared him for the ride on the city bus.
Before the sun rose, Sinpraseuth would push Antwone in his stroller nearly two miles from their west Fresno home down a dark dirt road to the nearest bus stop. Together, they would ride to Cambridge Continuation High School – a 10-mile trip that took about an hour each way. When class was over, the pair would do it all over again.
Before she was a mother, Sinpraseuth went to Hoover High School – where she wanted to stay after she found out she was pregnant. That’s where her friends were, and it meant a quick, free ride to class from her parents.
But Hoover didn’t offer on-site child care like Cambridge did. So she had to make a choice.
“I look back on those times, like, how in the heck did I do it?” said Sinpraseuth, now 24. “There were a lot of moments when he was crying, and then I would start crying. We were crying together.”
‘Whatever you do, don’t get pregnant’
The California Healthy Youth Act was passed in 2016, and requires that students learn unbiased and medically accurate sex education. Research shows that comprehensive sex education means fewer teen pregnancies, but there are concerns about how well the new law will be implemented in the politically conservative San Joaquin Valley, which has a history of push-back against such lessons. While California continues to decrease its state teen birth rate, the Valley is home to six of the 10 counties with the highest rates.
Despite the high number of teen pregnancies in the region, only seven of the 22 school districts in Fresno, Tulare and Madera counties offer programs for teen parents, according to a 2015 report by the American Civil Liberties Union. Only six of the districts in those counties provide child care for children of enrolled students.
I wasn’t taking prenatal vitamins. I wasn’t going to the doctor. I was scared, and I didn’t know where to go.
Judy Sinpraseuth on being pregnant at 16
For Sinpraseuth, the bus rides across town to a school she says is for “the bad kids” were worth the free child care. She didn’t really have anybody else.
Her strict parents – immigrants from Laos – were already angry at her for dating outside her race. When she told them she was pregnant – by her boyfriend, who is black – they disowned her. “When they found out, all hell broke loose,” she said.
She hid her pregnancy for months out of fear, wearing big T-shirts to class and at home – “anything to cover up my belly.” By the time she got her first ultrasound, she was eight months pregnant. Antwone, who is now 6, is cognitively delayed and has speech problems, and Sinpraseuth blames herself for that.
“I wasn’t taking prenatal vitamins. I wasn’t going to the doctor. I was scared, and I didn’t know where to go,” she said. “We did not talk about sex. It’s like, super forbidden. You do not have sex until you find your husband and get married – and he has to be Lao.”
Her parents weren’t at the hospital when she gave birth, and she wasn’t allowed to return home once Antwone was born. She moved in with her boyfriend’s family, and Antwone’s paternal grandmother helped out when she could.
Sinpraseuth now works as a classroom aide at one of Fresno Unified’s early learning centers, and is pursuing her teaching degree through State Center Community College District. She already thinks about how she will teach Antwone about sex – and what more open conversations about sex could have meant for her as a teen.
“At school, they tell you the story: how the little sperm goes into the canals … but they don’t really tell you how it actually happens. They don’t go in depth,” Sinpraseuth said. “I guess they feel like it’s the parents’ responsibility, but all my parents ever said was, ‘Whatever you do, don’t get pregnant.’ ”
The program at Cambridge High that Sinpraseuth and Antwone took all those bus rides for doesn’t exist anymore. When she graduated in 2011, she was among only 2 percent of the state’s teen moms still being served by state-funded Parent and Child Education centers. That’s down from nearly 8 percent of California teen moms served by the centers in 2007.
Now, Roosevelt High is the only school in the Fresno Unified district that still offers child care to teen parents. Facing a budget deficit in 2008, the state allowed funding for the School Age Families Education (Cal-SAFE) program to instead be used “for any educational purpose.” The switch to flexible funding resulted in a dramatic decline in the programs, which aimed to keep teen parents from dropping out by offering on-site child care and parenting classes.
The state’s funding for Cal-SAFE went from more than $80 million at its inception in 2000, to about $46 million in 2008, and the program was officially shuttered in 2013.
73 percentof teen parents who used Cal-SAFE programs graduated high school
But Cal-SAFE was working, according to a final report on the programs conducted in 2015. Nearly 75 percent of the teen parents who used the Cal-SAFE program graduated from high school, compared to the national teen mom graduation rate of about 40 percent.
Students enrolled in the program were also less likely to have another baby in their teens. Only 8 percent of babies born while their parents were enrolled in the program represented repeat births, compared to the national repeat birth rate among teens of about 18 percent.
“Despite these positive outcomes for students and their children, the Cal-SAFE program today no longer officially exists in the eyes of the California Department of Education,” the report says. “Some districts opted to sweep their Cal-SAFE program funds into their general coffers to serve all students, rather than the specific sub-population of expectant and parenting students. As the years passed, fewer districts continued to provide targeted services and even fewer continued to report the number of expectant and parenting students they served.”
The systems are just not set up to support teen mothers in a traditional academic environment.
John Forbes, former Fresno High principal
John Forbes started as vice principal at Fresno High in 2005, and saw the benefits of the Cal-SAFE program firsthand. By the time he was principal in 2012, the program at Fresno High was gone.
“That was a struggle: to not have child care, but to keep them in school. Pretty much, it meant that the girls who were in school were the ones who had support from either their parents or grandparents to provide child care,” said Forbes, now a dean of instruction at Clovis Community College. “Every student deserves an adult advocate, and we tried to be that. But the systems are just not set up to support teen mothers in a traditional academic environment.”
Forbes and Fresno High’s school nurse took it upon themselves to offer teen moms support, holding counseling sessions during lunchtime and building a private breastfeeding room in 2016.
“The population was still there, so we had to work at supporting them in a different way,” Forbes said. “What I always saw was these students had an increased motivation and focus. They became really mature in terms of their academics.”
‘Where the bad kids go’
At 17, Sinpraseuth graduated from Cambridge early. “The atmosphere there … I was just determined to get it done.”
She was one of several pregnant or parenting girls attending Cambridge High at the time, but she didn’t feel like they belonged. The school, where 98 percent of students are minorities, lists “teen pregnancies” on its website as a reason for why students attend. Other reasons include poor attendance, low credits, discipline problems and juvenile justice referrals.
“It’s where all the bad kids go,” Sinpraseuth said. “There were fights and drugs. They didn’t even give us actual work. They would just give us packets, and when you’d turn one in, you’d get another.”
It’s not uncommon for teen moms to go to alternative schools like Cambridge. In Sinpraseuth’s case, it’s because the school offered her something that her traditional high school didn’t. In other cases, it’s because girls feel shamed or pushed out of their regular school by administrators.
Yolanda Jimenez-Ruiz, who oversees alternative education for Fresno Unified, said Cambridge High “always has students’ educational interests at its core,” and that teen moms are not encouraged to go there. Federal laws forbid schools from pressuring teen parents to leave their school of choice.
“It’s just an option: there’s more flexibility, it’s a smaller setting and they can work with counselors to modify schedules as needed,” Jimenez-Ruiz said. “It’s not a practice of ours to channel students to one school because they’re teen parents. We don’t want to derail them. That wouldn’t be a pathway we would support because if a student is doing well, we want to make sure we continue to support that student.”
Robert Oakes, a spokesman for the California Department of Education, said that Cal-SAFE was absorbed into the Local Control Funding Formula, which was passed in 2013 and gives school districts more control over spending, as well as extra funding based on the amount of needy students served.
“Individual school districts now can make their own decisions about operating support programs for pregnant and teenage parents enrolled in school,” Oakes said, pointing to programs at Los Angeles Unified and Santa Ana Unified, which have chosen to emulate Cal-SAFE.
Fresno Unified does not designate any funding specifically for teen parents in its Local Control Accountability Plan. “Many of the supports funded by the LCAP include social/emotional services, academic interventions, and alternative schools which ALL provide additional support services to teen parents,” FUSD spokeswoman Jessica Baird said in an email. “Teen parents are not specifically referenced in the LCAP narrative.”
It’s not a practice of ours to channel students to one school because they’re teen parents.
Yolanda Jimenez-Ruiz, head of alternative education for Fresno Unified
Deanna Mathies, executive officer for Fresno Unified’s early learning department, said that in addition to choosing to keep the program at Roosevelt High, the school district invested millions in early learning – and children of teen parents are given priority access to those services. The district operates five early learning centers throughout Fresno that offer low-cost or free child care to qualified parents: those who are seeking work or attending school.
“When we find out about a teen parent through counselors or nurses, we lead them to WIC or the program that works best for them. And I don’t mean we just give them a phone number. We make that personal connection for them,” Mathies said. “Their baby needs to be supported as best as possible so we can maximize on that brain development from birth.”
But according to the ACLU, the most effective programs target teen parents’ needs as much as their babies’ needs.
“Unless school districts more fully understand the experiences of these students and how best to support them, the loss of dedicated funding for Cal-SAFE could result in a significant decrease in program support for parenting students across California,” the ACLU report says. “Contrary to stereotype, parenthood is an educational motivator for many students. By removing barriers that block pregnant and parenting students’ progress, California policymakers and schools will help them to succeed in school and in life.”
TEENS AND SEX
This story is part of a series about sex education and teen pregnancy, and is produced as a project for the USC Center for Health Journalism’s California Fellowship.