UW–Madison research project aims to ensure bright future for teen parenting program

By Laurel White

On a beautiful, sunny day in May, Hannia Carmona scrunches her small frame, shields one side of her face with a manicured hand, and matches her pace beside a friendly bodyguard of sorts. It’s a pose familiar in gossip magazines: the celebrity hiding from the paparazzi or overly enthusiastic fans.

But Hannia isn’t a celebrity, and she’s not cleverly avoiding the flash of camera lenses. She’s attempting to sneak away from a brief lunchtime playdate with her 18-month-old son, Daniel, who has been momentarily distracted by some friends and a playground toy. Daniel, like most toddlers, isn’t a big fan of being separated from his mom. 

Toddler hugs mother
Daniel, 1, hugs his mother, Hannia, as the two enjoy time together on the playground. Photo by Sarah Maughan

Hannia’s eyes well with concern as Daniel keys in to her departure and starts to cry. 

“Oh no,” she says, shoulders pinching toward her ears.

One of Hannia’s teachers in the Capital High Parenting program places a caring hand on her shoulder. They walk through the school doors together, away from the playground. A daycare worker distracts Daniel with the promise of lunch and the vow that his mom will be just down the hall, in her class, and will see him again as soon as the school bell rings. 

Hannia, 18, enrolled in the Capital High Parenting program in the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) when she was nine months pregnant with Daniel. She credits the program, which provides pregnant and parenting teens specialized curriculum along with traditional coursework, with making it possible for her to graduate from high school. 

Daniel shares a look with Hannia. Photo by Sarah Maughan

“I would have dropped out,” she says, reflecting on life before entering the program. “For sure.”

The Capital High Parenting program, formerly known as the School Aged Parenting Program (SAPAR), has been offered by MMSD for several decades. Its creation stemmed from inclusion requirements set for pregnant and parenting teens in Title IX, the federal civil rights law enacted in 1972. 

For nearly that long, the UW–Madison School of Education’s occupational therapy program, housed in its Department of Kinesiology, has supported Capital High Parenting. UW–Madison occupational therapy students, many of whom are pursuing clinical doctorate degrees or PhDs, provide on-site interactive lessons for students in the program on subjects including developmental milestones, age-appropriate activities for early childhood development, maternal health, and safety at home. 

“We’ve had this beautiful relationship over the years,” says Karla Ausderau, an associate professor of occupational therapy in the School of Education’s Department of Kinesiology. Ausderau has overseen the partnership between the program and UW–Madison since 2012.

Libby Hladik, a PhD candidate in kinesiology, has worked for several years with the Capital High Parenting program. Photo by Sarah Maughan

Ausderau’s latest endeavor, in collaboration with Capital High Parenting staff and students, is an expansive research project that aims to identify the best practices for in-school programs that aim to support teen parents. The project was funded by a community-based research grant from the UW–Madison Morgridge Center for Public Service.

Ausderau says the project epitomizes the goal of the grant program: supporting inquiries that aren’t initiated solely by researchers, but instead by community partners’ needs.

“To me, it feels like a real, true community collaboration because they’ve directed us,” she says. 

In this case, Capital High Parenting is seeking evidence-based guidance from Ausderau and her team of researchers as the program faces a high-stakes transition. Capital High Parenting is scheduled to consolidate with two other, larger school district programs under the Capital High umbrella in the fall. The three programs will join together and relocate to a new building. A number of crucial details about the transition, including building space and resources, are still in flux.

Jessie Loeb, the lead educator at Capital High Parenting, says the report from Ausderau and her team, which was just completed, has provided highly valuable insight and information as the program faces the change. She says she’s already used some of the report’s findings, including insights about the value of on-site childcare and transportation support for Capital High Parenting students, in conversations with district leadership.  

Leila, 3, with her mother, Mia, on the playground. Photo by Sarah Maughan

“I hope the research will continue to help us fight our battle to keep the success of this parenting program going strong into the future,” Loeb says. 

Loeb says she hopes the district is open to utilizing the research to ensure the program continues to provide a safe, effective, and nurturing environment for young parents. 

“We all want the best, most successful environments for moms and babies,” she says. 

The report from Ausderau and her fellow researchers includes an extensive literature review of existing research about parenting programs, interviews with current Capital High Parenting students, alumni, and staff, and an analysis of several similar teen parenting programs across Wisconsin. It highlights a number of areas for the program to continue to focus on — or commit to developing.

For example, researchers’ interviews showed social connections with peers and program staff are essential for student success. 

Vanity, another student in the program, says talking with her Capital High Parenting teachers and classmates about the joys and challenges of being a mom provides important support and motivation. 

Recently, Vanity’s 1-year-old daughter, Ke’aylah, has taken to systematically unloading items from Vanity’s purse, then loading them back up again. Vanity laughs and says getting “Ayla” a purse of her own is in the works soon, in order to avoid future messes. 

Ke’aylah, 1, on the playground outside the Capital High Parenting program. Photo by Sarah Maughan

Vanity says sharing notes about developmental milestones like this one with her classmates is a big part of what makes the program so special. 

“Ten out of ten, I would recommend this program,” she says. “Absolutely. It’s the best.”

In their report, Ausderau and her co-researchers pointed to several previous studies that reinforce the value of those interpersonal connections, as well as the value of the on-site lessons provided by the UW–Madison occupational therapy students. Those studies found a higher level of social support leads to more confidence in parenting skills for teen parents, and that alternative education programs like Capital High Parenting lead to better health and well-being outcomes for both parent and child, as well as improved health equity for minority students.  

The report also underlined the importance of continuing another existing element of the Capital High Parenting program: on-site child care. 

“A safe environment that allows access to infants during the day reduces anxiety and can improve attendance,” the researchers wrote. 

Evonnie, a junior in the Capital High Parenting program, says the program brings more positivity and “less drama” than her previous school. Photo by Sarah Maughan

The researchers also noted student attendance is often linked with access to child-friendly transportation.

“Attendance is a big challenge — usually due to child care or transportation,” they wrote.

Other findings pointed to the value of mentoring for students’ postsecondary enrollment and how the integration of wrap-around services like financial support, health care, and links to community services in the program increase student engagement in school. 

The researchers also noted areas for the program to grow, including in case management, home visitation, and father involvement or education.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about half of teenage mothers graduate high school by the age of 22, compared to 90 percent of their peers without children.

But this week, Hannia, Vanity, and several of their classmates in the Capital High Parenting program will put on graduation robes and walk across the stage to receive their high school diplomas. They have weathered sleepless nights and all of the challenges of early parenthood — colic, rashes, RSV, diaper blowouts — alongside their homework and exams and come out on the other side.

They begin the next phase of their lives as the program that supported them also moves toward big changes and a new era. Luckily for all, they’ve learned there’s no change a strong, well-informed community can’t face – together. 

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