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Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2008 | No one batted an eye when a pigtailed toddler wandered into Dawn Miller’s high school history class, picking her way between the backpacks and desks. Eyes fixed on the dry-erase board, the teen students kept answering Miller’s questions.

“The Sandinistas and the Contras fought for power in which country?” Miller asked.

A hand flitted into the air. Another student scooped up the toddler and cradled the tiny girl in her lap, just behind her desk.

“Nicaragua,” another teen answers.

As class wound down, more and more toddlers filtered into the room, chubby arms reaching for their mothers. Down a hall lined with high chairs, the babies take first steps, utter first words, sing songs and romp. In Miller’s classroom, their teen mothers scribble down notes, dissect texts, and work toward graduation day.

“Okay, I’ll give you a bonus question,” Miller said, walking into the glare of her projector. “Which group was backed by the U.S.?”

“The Sandinistas?” the girl said.

“And by that you mean?” Miller goaded, smiling.

“The Contras,” she concluded, grinning sheepishly.

Tucked into a nondescript downtown building, Lindsay Community Day School consists of only two classrooms packed with teen girls, a nursery and a mile-long waiting list. It faces a Herculean task: Pushing 150 teen mothers and mothers-to-be to college. The girls juggle schoolwork, jobs and parenthood; many are also battling pasts in prostitution, gangs and juvenile hall. Their ages and grades are all over the map.

“Pregnant teens who have a lot of support stay in the school district,” said Tracy Thompson, who supervises Lindsay and other county-run programs in San Diego’s metro region. “We have young ladies whose boyfriend shot someone, and now the gang is out to get her. Women whose pimps are hounding them to get back to work.”

Some are homeless; some fend off drug addiction. Others are in the country illegally. Most were referred to Lindsay by social workers or probation officers, and many hadn’t set foot in a classroom for years.

Other schools look at them “like coal,” Thompson said. “They get your hands dirty. But with the right pressure, it produces a beautiful diamond.”

Lindsay isn’t structured like a typical high school. Girls of different ages and grade levels share four core classes — English, social sciences, math and science. There are no electives, no advanced classes, and no homework. A few rooms away, teens’ children burble and play in the nursery. Between classes, the teens stop in to breastfeed.

Nor does it feel like a typical high school. Miller’s classroom is spangled with posters of Che Guevara and Cesar Chavez, with slogans denouncing domestic violence and sexism. “MY STUDENTS DESERVE EQUITY AND JUSTICE,” reads a handwritten sign. On her bookshelves, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” vies for space with radical tracts by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.

Culturally relevant classes are key to San Diego County Juvenile Court and Community Schools’ effort to close the achievement gaps between blacks, whites and Latinos. At-risk youth aren’t patient with rote lessons about “dead white men,” and few textbooks deal nimbly with the issues of white privilege or social class, Thompson said

“A lot of people take issue with what I teach,” Miller said. To her, content is less significant than what teens are learning: to analyze texts, write thoughtfully, and tackle issues. “We just say, look at the numbers.”

Nearly every student in Lindsay passes the California High School Exit Exam, some after four or five tries. Their names and photos are posted in the hallway, along with tearful photos of the girls in graduation gowns, babies restless on their laps. School runs year-round, and girls graduate whenever they earn enough credits and polish off a senior project. Some stay for years; others, just a few months.

Thompson pulled a file folder chronicling the five-year career of one recent graduate, a girl who bounced between school and juvenile hall. Five other schools ousted her. In 2002, she enrolled in Lindsay at a second-grade reading level, her record splotched with suspensions and a vandalism charge. Her entrance essay begins, “The best thing that ever happened to me was getting enrolled in Lindsay.”

“If you can survive the streets,” Thompson tells girls like her, “you can survive the [exit exam].”

‘You’re Not the Only One’

Elisa Guerrero, 19, is trying. Her days begin at 5 a.m. in a cramped apartment in Barrio Logan, where she hustles to prepare for work and school, packs her six-month-old son Damian off to the babysitter, and rushes to catch the bus downtown, to Lindsay.

“I don’t think I would have come to school, otherwise,” she said. “Here, you can relate to the other girls. You’re not the only one.”

Like other Lindsay students, she dreams of helping other teens through drug rehabilitation, or maybe a job in the criminal justice system. When they dream, at-risk teens dream like this, said Thompson. They hanker after careers they’ve seen firsthand: Probation officers, drug and alcohol counselors, childcare workers.

Guerrero works at Lindsay’s Early Childhood Education program, which cares for 40 youngsters. Because she works at Lindsay’s nursery, her son can’t go there, she explained. The nursery started years ago. Back then, it was packed into a single, windowless room. One teacher’s aide babysat the children, Thompson recalled.

“It troubled me,” he said. “You saw babies just lying on the ground, missing out on the opportunity to start learning. I wanted to stop the cycle.”

So Thompson prodded his staff to shrink their offices, and expanded the childcare to four breezy rooms, outfitted with a kitchen, playroom and napping space. Like Lindsay itself, it has a lengthy waiting list.

“There’s nothing like Lindsay,” said Michelle Houle, an early childhood teacher about to start her fourth year with the program. “It’s a beautiful jigsaw puzzle of agencies who come together to help these girls.”

In the same downtown building where Lindsay students answer Miller’s questions, pamphlets for social service agencies, foundations, and free programs crowd the shelves. A handful of groups such as Even Start, a literacy program, are headquartered at the same building. A mobile health clinic often parks outside. Thompson calls it “one stop shopping.”

“I don’t want the excuse that my girls aren’t getting there,” he said.

Those referrals are integral to Lindsay, he said. Teen mothers struggle to learn if they lack housing, or can’t access healthcare, or if they’re battling drug addiction. When girls enroll at Lindsay, they fill out a true-false checklist about their lives. The page is lined with statements: “I feel safe at home, at school, and in my neighborhood” or “I believe that young people are given useful roles in the community.”

When students stumble, Thompson said, he pulls out the checklist, and eyes the Fs circled on the sheet. Those Fs are as important to him as Fs on their school transcripts, he said. Without meeting those needs, the school can’t expect students to succeed.

“As soon as somebody sees (a teen) with a kid, they make a lot of assumptions,” Miller said. “They think of them as girls who made bad choices.”

But for many, she said, the choice wasn’t theirs. Some were raped; others, coerced into sex by much older men. And for others, Miller added, it was a very different choice, between selling sex, or life on the streets.

‘I Felt Cheated’

Watching the teens rack their brains in Miller’s history class, teacher’s aide DeAnna Hernandez wished she had gone to Lindsay.

“I didn’t know this program existed,” she said. “No one told me.”

Twelve years ago, her belly swelled with an unexpected pregnancy as she plugged through 11th grade at Morse High School. She was a bright teen used to analyzing papers in Advanced Placement classes, she said, a girl who teachers tapped for special programs in creative writing. As her belly grew, her friends vanished. Teachers stopped asking her about her future.

Months before she was due, she walked into the school nurse’s office, and the alarmed nurse urged her to leave school immediately, to turn in her books, collect her grades, and get out.

“That was it,” Hernandez said. “Have a nice life.”

After giving birth, she finished high school via independent study. Trite book reports bored her, she said. It was too easy.

“They handed me a diploma, and that was it,” she said. “I felt cheated.”

Lindsay also offers independent study. If pregnant teens sicken and can’t come to school, they can keep earning credits at home. But Thompson stresses the graduation ceremony, where every student speaks. His programs also field an advisor, available to check in with students finishing their degrees solo.

Today, Hernandez is on the cusp of starting a Grossmont College nursing program. She frequently leads Lindsay students to San Diego City College, her alma mater, to enroll in night classes and financial aid. Thompson and Miller prod students to take college classes as soon as possible. With a small child — or two — in tow, a high school diploma isn’t enough, Miller said.

Hernandez is one of several Lindsay aides who share the students’ experience: A handful of Lindsay graduates now work at the school, a flesh-and-blood reminder that success is possible.

For students like Guerrero, who joined Lindsay only a month ago, it’s a vital reminder. Juggling work, school and parenthood, Guerrero is often exhausted. Nights are spent cleaning bottles and packing diaper bags; mornings are a rush before the bus downtown departs. Thank goodness Lindsay doesn’t assign homework, she said. Seventy credits stand between her and graduation.

“I know how it feels,” Hernandez tells her students. “But you guys can do it. Don’t give up.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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